Review: The Japanese Buddhist World Map

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Book & Geospatial Resources Review of The Japanese Buddhist World Map: Religious Version and the Cartographic Imagination

Reviewed by Martin Chandler

Moerman, D. Max. The Japanese Buddhist World Map: Religious Vision and the Cartographic Imagination. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2022. 368 p. $72.00. ISBN: 978-0-8248-8678-3.

Book cover of The Japanese Buddhist World Map
Book cover of The Japanese Buddhist World Map

The Japanese Buddhist World Map by D. Max Moerman offers a fine balance of an academic text in multiple respects. It is equal parts religious/ethnographic history, philosophical treatise, and cartographic analysis. Taking as a foundation Jukai’s 1364 Map of the Five Regions of Tenjiku (Tenjiku being Buddhist India), the book offers a chronological study of the material culture of Buddhist Japan from the mid-14th century to the end of the 19th century. While in some contexts such a study would appeal primarily to other researchers of the field, this book offers a thoughtful approach to the subject matter, and a beauty of form that draws the discerning reader in.

The book’s description makes it sound wholly niche, relating to the maps created by Japanese Buddhist monks for a 500-year period. The text itself begins with some centering explanation of the general geography these maps look at – primarily Buddhist India, though that later expands to the world – and the deeper concepts needed to understand the text. Indeed, the introduction reads at first as though one has entered a discussion midway through, and the true introduction begins on page 4. Reading further, though, the introductory layout is itself revealed, better revealing the subject matter of the text.

There are some 146 illustrations in both colour and monochrome. These are equal parts full recreations of the maps in question, and close views of portions to illustrate the material. These illustrations have been faithfully recreated, with high resolution and attention to details of the colours of the original maps. The use of the maps to highlight the various social and cultural changes of Japan through the centuries, and the reflection of that in Buddhist thought, are well highlighted, and even exploring just the illustrations gives one an introduction to world views, conceptions of place, and physical and temporal geography. This is less an analysis of how Japanese Buddhists map, and more a discussion of the uses and conceptions of mapping as a practice.

The writing of the book offers a mix of styles, including a more academic “Hotan’s polemic is thus as much about epistemology as it is about cartography,” (p. 181) and the metaphoric “Coursing throughout the vast geography like the arteries of a circulatory system, the lines…infused their cartographic imagination with its lifeblood” (p. 6). These styles are well balanced and largely meshed together, making for a thoroughly readable text, in a nicely-printed and bound book.

Ultimately, The Japanese Buddhist World Map would make a fine addition to any academic library with a cartographic interest, a religious studies or Japanese studies department, or a philosophy or graphic design section. It will appeal to any reader interested in maps, Japan, or ideas of time and place and the ways these can all be represented.

Martin Chandler
Liaison & Data Services Librarian
Cape Breton University
Sydney, Nova Scotia

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