GIS Enhances Research on Medieval Japanese History

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USC history Ph.D. candidate Michelle Damian added GIS skills to her research toolbox through SSI’s introductory course.  She then found herself using these tools while on a Fulbright Doctoral Fellowship in Japan and shared these thoughts.

My project focuses on the maritime cultural landscape of Japan’s medieval  (14th – 16th centuries) Seto Inland Sea area, examining how people interacted with the sea. Because a significant aspect of that research involves tracing trade routes as seen in both written and archaeological records, I took GEOG 581, Concepts for Spatial Thinking, to learn more about how to use GIS to help analyze those data.

Excerpt from Medieval Japanese port record. (Hayashiya, Tatsusaburo, ed. Hyōgo Kitaseki Irifune Nōchō. Tokyo: Chuo Koron Bijutsu Shuppan, 1981).

My major documentary source is a series of records from the year 1445 that list over 1,900 ships entering the port at Hyōgo (modern-day Kobe), listing the port of origin, types and amounts of cargoes carried, taxes imposed on the cargoes, and the names of the ship’s captains and the warehouse managers receiving the cargoes. I translated those records and created a database for GIS that allows me to isolate different types of cargoes and examine potential transshipping within the Inland Sea area. While in Japan I examined archaeological reports from the region to determine other remnants of trade goods, including shipwrecks, as well as other indications of human interaction with the sea such as seafaring temples, piers and wharf structures, and fishing implements. Overlaying these data with the port record database results in a much richer picture of the connections between different regions of the Inland Sea.

In June of this year, I presented some of the preliminary findings of this research at the “Reassessing the Shoen System” conference at USC, which gathered scholars from Japan, the USA, and England to examine aspects of the medieval estate (shōen) system in Japan. Several of the Japanese scholars were unfamiliar with GIS and questioned me extensively after the presentation. They were extremely impressed with the flexibility that the software provides for spatial analysis, particularly in aspects such as tracing the movements of people. I demonstrated a selection that tracked the movements of a particular ship’s captain that showed how he likely worked in conjunction with other ships in other locations both near and far, which is an analysis that has not been conducted yet even by Japanese scholars. One professor joked that the maps and database that I was showing were so valuable that if these were his data, he would probably sleep with the computer under his pillow!

I’m excited for the potential uses of GIS in historical research, and am looking forward to continuing to use it in my dissertation work and beyond.

– Michelle Damian

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