Resource: Japanese Maps of the Tokugawa Era

The University of British Columbia (UBC) Library’s Rare Books and Special Collections department recently announced the digitization of maps and guidebooks of the Japanese Tokugawa period, ca. 1600-1867. If you enjoy researching this era of Japanese history or
simply enjoy looking at rare, historical cartographic resources, this is certainly a site worth checking out.


The majority of the collection was acquired from the Beans Collection of Japanese maps in 1965 from the original collector, George H. Beans of the Philadelphia Seed Company. A notable addition to the collection occurred in 1986 with the purchase of the George
Bonn collection of 59 maps (15 of which are manuscript maps).


The focus of this collection is mostly privately published and travel related maps and guides published in Japan during the Tokugawa, or Edo, period.  Aside from maps, the digital collection offers some rare and unique items including travelogues, atlases, geographic observations, and the Amerika Shinwa. Cartographic resources will vary in size and format (including a ceramic plate, woodblocks, scrolls, accordion-style maps, or bound-book format). A number of woodblocks represented in this collection are from artists such as Miyagawa Choshun, Shiba Kokan, and Hashimoto Sadahide.

Search and Navigation

Browsers new to Japan and Japanese history may enjoy the basic search options available on the site. Aside from selecting Browse to look at the entire collection, users can use a drop down box and select resources based on geographic area including world maps, Asia, China, Korea, the Americas, and Japan.  Users can select maps of Japan related to the country as a whole, castles, palaces and shrines, Edo (Tokyo), Kyoto, or prefectures, districts and islands.

Knowledgeable users may prefer using the Advanced Search option to pinpoint and target the best resources. Options for users include searching “across all fields”, “selected fields”, or “proximity searching”. Fields available for searching include by title, variant
title, Japanese title, variant Japanese title, ascension number, creator, other creators, date, Japanese date, publisher, subject, description, call number, or forms.

General Observations

The My Favourites option is incredibly helpful. As you’re browsing the digital collection, users are able to mark an item as a favorite for later use. If you’re scanning items quickly or need to refer to them later for a project, you can easily go to the My Favorites tab to locate the item. Additionally, you can save your favorites to create a website for later use and develop a slide show for presentations later on.

The Preferences option allows the user to change the format of the results are presented: Bibliographic, Grid, Thumbnails, Hierarchical, or Titles. Additionally you can choose how the results will be sorted once displayed, the number of results per page, and if creating the content as a slide show, the background color, and the number of columns presented.

Search Observations

The Help option provides a useful guide to aid the user with their search strategy. I recommend looking it over before beginning an Advanced Search. You’ll be able to see how the library has set up each of the fields and terms to improve your search strategy. Seriously, it only takes 5 minutes.

Browsing is clearly one of the easiest methods to explore this digital collection. Users may find it easier to toggle to the Japanese language version of the site to search for resources. While typing in a Romanized format, I have found some general discrepancies in spelling that may make retrieval difficult for a novice user. If the user is able to use Boolean operators when searching, it may be of great help if the user could search in both English and Japanese at the same time. Unfortunately, that’s not an option at the moment most likely due to technological limitations.

Depending on a user’s search skills, the Advanced Search options may be too advanced based on the type of Advanced Search. If the user is searching Across All Fields this could be likened to a general search that many users may be used to (think basic Google Search).  Users will have a high recall, but poor precision of results and will need to sift through a large number of results to find the best resources. However, if the user is searching under a specific field, they may have a higher precision, but poor recall because the search is too defined for the user.

Again, I recommend initially browsing the collection before beginning any advanced search strategy. Once you become more familiar with the content and understand UBC Library’s methodology, terminology, reasoning and common metadata for each of the fields would you get the best results for a specific project.

Overall, this is a great digital resource unlike any found outside of Japan. You can browse in your PJs sipping coffee as opposed to spending the time and money to go to the UBC to complete your research too! (Not that I did that while typing up this post.) Personally, I love historical maps. If I had the space to do so, I’d have a wall of one giant framed historical map of Kyoto. (I’m that kind of person.) I highly recommend checking it out. You may surprise yourself and spend hours perusing the items and learning more
about the Japanese history in the process.

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