Photo/IllutrationThe name of “Ryukyu” Kingdom, today’s Okinawa, was written in a style consistent with mid-14 century Japan. (Koichi Ueda)

  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion

FUKUYAMA, Hiroshima Prefecture--A map of the Japanese archipelago on loan from a collector to a museum here was dated by experts to be from the mid-14th century, making it one of the oldest in existence.

Intriguingly, Japan is depicted in a vertical format, with the western portion of the country at the top of the image.

The Hiroshima Prefectural Museum of History will display the map, titled “Nihon Fusokoku no zu,” from July 19 through Sept. 24. Fuso is an old name for Japan.

The oldest known map of Japan is “Nihon zu” that is thought to date from 1305 and owned by Ninnaji temple in Kyoto. However, the western part of the country is missing, and probably irretrievably lost.

The map to be exhibited does not include Hokkaido. The map and notes in the margins measure 122 centimeters by 57 cm.

It is on loan from a private collector, who comes from Hiroshima Prefecture and now resides in Tokyo.

The map illustrates the 68 provinces that existed in those days. The margins list district names, populations, sizes of plots where rice and other crops were grown, and the number of temples in each province.

The Kinki region is placed in the center, and the southern island of Kyushu is drawn at the top. Main roads radiate from the ancient capital now called Kyoto.

Today’s Okinawa, then the Ryukyu Kingdom and a separate nation from Japan, is listed as existing to the left of the Kyushu region. The Ryukyu islands flourished in those days as a transit point for trade between Japan and China.

Experts dated the map to the mid-14th century, based on a number of factors. For example, “Ryukyu” is written in oddball Chinese characters that were a characteristic of maps produced in the Kamakura Period (1192-1333). The listing of numerous port towns is a characteristic of maps made in the Muromachi Period (1338-1573). In addition, the style of writing pointed to that time frame.

“No map that bears both characteristics of the Kamakura and Muromachi periods has been known until now," said Minoru Kuge, the museum's chief curator. "It is significant that this artifact fills in the missing link between (the two different styles).”

The map bears the name of Gyoki (668-749), a Buddhist monk and civil engineering expert who traveled around Japan to propagate Buddhism and contribute to the construction of bridges and riverbanks.

He is also known for his journeys seeking donations for the construction of the Great Buddha at Nara's Todaiji temple.

Legend has it that some of the oldest maps of Japan owned by Ninnaji temple in Kyoto and Shomyoji temple in Yokohama are based on ones Gyoki made himself.

But many experts rubbish the claim of “Gyoki maps,” noting that they all depict Kyoto as the origin of main roads, not Nara, which was the capital in Gyoki's time.

“Gyoki’s name was probably used in more of a religious context,” said Hideo Kuroda, professor emeritus of historical iconography at the University of Tokyo. “(The map) is likely a representation of the shape of the nation that was based on the middle-age religious idea.”

The museum is closed on Mondays, except Sept. 17 and 24.

(This article was written by Hiroki Hashimoto and Yoshito Watari.)