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Gaihozu: My Time Working with the Gaihozu Benjamin Narkmon

Resources for researching and using Gaihozu ("maps of outer land").

My Time Working with the Gaihozu

My Time Working with the Gaihozu

Benjamin Narkmon

            Since October 2022, I have had the privilege of working here at Tateuchi EAL as the Japanese Collection Student Specialist. For three of the five months that I have worked here, I worked on the Gaihozu collection (see: Gaihozu are essentially World War II maps created or stolen by the Japanese military. As my time here comes to a close, I wanted to reflect on my experience working with the Gaihozu.

            When my supervisor, Azusa Tanaka, brought up the possibility of onsite work for the Gaihozu project, I was excited. The idea of working with historical documents had always been of interest to me, and I knew that it would be a great experience. At the start of winter quarter 2023, my days in the map room of Suzzallo and Allen thus began. At first, I was nervous about handling the maps. Was there a special protocol for preserving them? How do I make sure I don’t accidentally damage one? Or so I fretted. After I became accustomed to handling them, the next thing was deciphering the maps. A large part of my job involved inventorying the Gaihozu, which meant knowing where to find the relevant information on the map. This included the map title, series title(s), organizations that surveyed, printed, or created the map, the years in which these were done, etc. At the beginning, I was always running into problems, and was constantly asking Azusa questions. With her help, I eventually found my rhythm and was able to inventory a few hundred Gaihozu and Naikokuzu (Japanese domestic maps). After working on the Gaihozu for so long, I can say that this project was one of the most rewarding experiences as a student I have had.

The Gaihozu mapped out places across the world in excruciating detail. They came in a wide range of scales from as small as 1:3,000 to 1:6,000,000, with units including Japanese ri, Chinese li, and American meters. They were also in a variety of different conditions, some mylar-wrapped, some thin but surprisingly sturdy, and some so torn that I was afraid that, if handled poorly, I would accidentally rip them. The sheer scale of the Gaihozu, numbering thousands of maps, was chilling. I found myself struck with something akin to awe mixed with horror. These were maps made for the deadliest war in human history.

Often, I would run a quick search of the place name just to make sure that I got it correct. These searches brought me to places I had never heard of. There were small villages in Mongolia, trading port towns in China, and uninhabited areas in the Kuril Islands, to name a few. It was also common for places to exist with a different status, or no longer exist at all. When looking at places in Japan on the Naikokuzu, many times villages and towns would become incorporated into cities. This is, in my opinion, one of the most interesting things about maps—that they are constantly changing, with borders, statuses, and names always being redefined.

Examining each weathered map helped me understand the idea that history is alive, that it is breathing. I remember reading the handwritten notes, seeing the hastily crossed out corrections, and following the brushstrokes of someone who I assume to be a Japanese soldier or military instructor. One map in particular left an impression on me, as I noticed something resembling a coffee spill across it. Immediately, I could vividly imagine a scene in which a groggy Army Map Service worker, tired from reviewing hundreds of maps, accidentally knocks over his coffee mug and panics to clean it up. To think that more than half a century later these maps would make their way through the hands of so many people to end up being worked on by a student here at the UW.

All this being said, the Gaihozu do not by any means have a commendable origin. They were maps used by Imperial Japan for the purpose of war. However, that does not mean that we cannot learn something from them. They made their way from the hands of the cartographers to the printing press, to the military schools, to the Army Map Service, and to us at the UW’s Tateuchi EAL. Now, I hope that the Gaihozu can find their way into the hands of library users as a tool for knowledge.