Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Secret Japanese Military Maps Could Open a New Window on Asia's Past By Greg Miller



These maps were captured in the waning days of World War II as the U.S. Army took control of Japan. American soldiers confiscated thousands of secret Japanese military maps and the plates used to print them, then shipped them to the United States for safekeeping.

The maps covered much of Asia, and they went far beyond the local topography. They included detailed notes on climate, transportation systems, and the local people. It’s the kind of information that could be used to plan an invasion or an occupation, and some of it was gathered by spies operating behind enemy lines. To the Japanese, these maps are known as gaihōzu—maps of outer lands.

To the Americans, they were a valuable source of intelligence, not just on a recently defeated foe, but also on a newly emerging one—the Soviet Union. The Army Map Service considered it unwise to hold such an important strategic resource at a single location that could be wiped out in a nuclear strike, so it distributed the maps to dozens of libraries and institutions scattered across the country.

And there they remained, virtually forgotten, for decades.

This Japanese map of Shanghai is color-coded to indicate who lived and worked there. Green indicates Japanese residential districts, for example, and light blue indicates areas with American-registered companies.

Now, slowly, they’re starting to be rediscovered by scholars who are interested in using them to study the geopolitical and environmental history of Asia. “They’re a treasure for historical research,” says K√§ren Wigen, an East Asian historian at Stanford University.

About eight years ago, a Stanford graduate student named Meiyu Hsieh started asking around about some rumors she’d heard about mysterious stacks of old Asian maps amid the extensive archives of the Hoover Institution, a think tank that occupies a prominent tower on campus. Hsieh's dissertation explored why the ancient Han dynasty was able to build the first large, enduring empire in China more than 2,000 years ago. But many of the relevant archaeological remains have disappeared from the surface, either eroded away over time or covered up in the process of China’s industrialization, and don't appear on modern maps and satellite imagery, says Hsieh, who’s now a history professor at Ohio State University. Older maps, Hsieh reasoned, might hold some important clues.

This map of a region near the China-Russia border was originally marked “military top secret” (black characters with the red lines through them), then reclassified to “military secret” (red characters at far right).

Eventually her queries led her to a dark room lined with drawers in the basement of Branner Earth Sciences Library. “I spent an afternoon pulling out all the drawers, trying to figure out what was there,” she says. What she’d discovered, or rediscovered, was the university’s cache of Japanese military maps, which had been moved to Branner years earlier from the dusty attic of Hoover tower.

The head librarian at Branner, Julie Sweetkind-Singer, made a deal with Hsieh: She could use the maps for her research if she helped the library get a start on organizing its collection and figuring out what it had. It had, it turns out, roughly 8,000 of these maps.


To learn more about what it had in its collection, the library organized a conference in 2011 and invited the leading Japanese expert on these maps, Shigeru Kobayashi, now an emeritus professor at Osaka University in Japan. Until then, Kobayashi’s research had only appeared in Japanese, but for the conference he wrote a paper that detailed their history for the first time in English.

Beginning around 1870, Kobayashi wrote, the Japanese military began making maps of neighboring countries. At first, they copied maps obtained from those countries or from the West. But army officers soon realized they needed better maps and began sending teams to survey first the coastlines and then inland areas of China and Korea.

The late 19th century was a fraught period in Japanese history, says Stanford’s Wigen. Elsewhere in the world, the imperial powers of Europe were busily carving up Africa. “Japan wanted to be a power; they certainly didn’t want to be carved up,” Wigen says. “It looked like those were the two choices: Either you acquire a colony or you become a colony.”

This Japanese map of Vladivostok was based on a Russian map—evidence of which still exists in Cyrillic text for some of the labels.

Not surprisingly, the Japanese surveyors weren’t always welcomed in other countries. In 1895, angry locals in Korea killed several assistants on a Japanese survey team, Kobayashi writes. (Japan annexed Korea in 1910 and held it until the end of World War II.) Two decades later, Japan sent secret survey teams into China. These men disguised themselves as traveling merchants and made their maps equipped only with a compass and by counting their steps to mark distance.

In the age-old tradition of cartographic copying, the Japanese often built on maps they’d captured from their foes, adding their own notes and details on top of the original. Cyrillic script is visible in the Japanese map above of Vladivostok, Russia, for example. Naturally, their enemies did the same thing. The formerly classified U.S. Army map of Okinawa below, printed in 1945, is based on a captured Japanese map.

This U.S. military map of Okinawa, the site of a major amphibious assault during World War II, was apparently based on a 1944 Japanese map but revised with information from aerial photos, according to Shigeru Kobayashi. The map is marked “secret” at the top.

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