When one thinks of exploration and what is associated with this word, it is easy to be led into thinking that this was only the field of the Europeans in the 15th and 16th centuries. However, many civilizations have had their explorers, most of whom will remain forever unknown. Some of these pioneered expansion across the Pacific onto far-flung islands near and far, while others, much farther back in time, led the expansion of man itself. But, this time, we are looking much nearer and much closer: early 19th century Japan, a developing early modern nation which understood the needs of the day. Other 19th century exploration were to investigate the depths of South America or Africa, but there were also questions of significance to be solved on the high seas—at least in the early part of the century.
The Tokugawa Shogunate which had governed over the island realm from 1600 was feeling external pressure to re-open, after having been closed off to the outside world since the mid-17th century. While this conflict had not yet outgrown itself to birth a rebellion and to lead the last shogun to resign, it was clear to the government in Edo, modern Tokyo, that Western powers were on the rise. While the specific period of the turn of the 18th century had engulfed the majority of Europe in all-out war for nearly two decades (by the end of the conflict), there was one country whose expansion east continued slowly but relentlessly: Imperial Russia.
Indeed, the story of the relationship of Imperial Russia and Japan deserves its own investigation, but this is not meant to be that time. Suffice to say that seeing Russian expansion reach the relatively close shores of the Sea of Okhotsk meant that Japan was in a bind. In one way, the lands on the continent across the sea were tributaries of the mighty Qing; yet the encroach of the Europeans was unquestionable. The method of the Europeans was to chart a land and then claim it as their own as only they had, at that point, the intimate scientific knowledge of the land such an act of claiming required. These actions were understood by the leading politicians of the Qing and Tokugawa personnel, who sought out to equip their own men to carry out similar work “in defense” of their national interest.
In Japan, an important question was the sovereignty of the island that we now know as Sakhalin or Karafuto. Jean-François La Pérouse had been surveying the island’s vicinity in hopes of determining whether it was indeed connected to mainland Eurasia, as many thought. While he received information to state that it was not—local people on Sakhalin told him as much—he was unable to use this information because of the difficulties of translating indigenous knowledge to scientific knowledge, in this case a grid of latitudes and longitudes. This difficulty was experienced by other explorers, including the famous Lewis & Clark Expedition. To specify, “was unable” really means that the French explorer discarded information which was perfectly accurate because it did not fit into his pattern of thinking: where the locals thought of the time to travel on foot and places to hunt and fish, Le Pérouse saw mere gibberish that did not answer his question. Two of La Pérouse’s successors who perfectly fit into the mould of European 19th century exploration, Broughton and Krusenstern, were to resolve the opposite: that Sakhalin was a peninsula.
This is where Mamiya Rinzō (1775–1844), originally a commoner from Hitachi, enters the picture. His abilities impressed a visiting Shogunate official, Murakami Shimanojō, who took him with when he returned to Edo (early 1790’s). Mamiya was taught the art of cartography, and in 1808 given the task of mapping Sakhalin to determine the status of the land as either an island or a peninsula. Shortly before this exploration, Mamiya had experienced a Russian act of aggression when Nikolai Petrovich Rezanov attacked Japanese on Iturup Island and Rishiri Island amongst other places. This event landed Mamiya the nickname “know-it-all” when, on his advice, a local translator had been sent to the Russians, only for the Russians to shoot him. This event was the inception of the mapping project Mamiya was about to undertake.
The 1808 expedition which set out from Hokkaidō reached as far north as Cape Rakka. The exploration was carried out by two people, Mamiya Rinzō and Matsuda Denjirō who separated to follow the western and eastern coastlines, respectively. At Cape Rakka, Matsuda was not able to proceed further north due to beds of rotten kelp. While not having definite proof of the fact, his hunch at this point was that Sakhalin was an island as it seemed that the sea ran between the mainland and Sakhalin. Mamiya had taken a boat north on the eastern coast. Reaching what today is Terpeniya Bay (then Taraika Bay), he landed and crossed to the other shore, where he rowed a boat into the sea and looked as far as he could northwards to determine that Sakhalin indeed was an island — yet, there was no absolute proof. The team returned to Sōya by mid-1808, and with this the first expedition was over.
Read “Mamiya’s Maps: A Samurai Explores Sakhalin” to see how acclaimed graphic novel writer Sean Michael Wilson along with illustrator Akiko Shimojima approached Mamiya Rinzō’s early 19th century exploration of Sakhalin in its anthropological diversity.