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Japanese Studies Spotlight: Bodies and Structures 2.0: Deep-Mapping Modern East Asian History

by Paula Curtis on 2022-03-16T12:16:00-04:00 | 0 Comments

The NCC is collaborating with institutions and scholars to release a monthly series on our blog entitled Japanese Studies Spotlight. These features showcase exciting online collections available to researchers and students in Japanese Studies, introducing the archive or project, describing their contents, and demonstrating how they can be usefully engaged in research or in the classroom. If you are interested in submitting something to the series, please contact Paula R. Curtis, NCC’s Digital Media Manager, at

David R. Ambaras, Professor, North Carolina State University
Kate McDonald, Associate Professor, University of California, Santa Barbara


Bodies and Structures is a digital platform for researching and teaching spatial histories of modern East Asia. It combines individually-authored, media-rich content modules with collaboratively-produced conceptual maps and visualizations to explore the multiple topologies of historical experience in modern East Asia. We launched Bodies and Structures 1.0 in January 2019 with seven content modules. With generous funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities, we launched an expanded version of the site called Bodies and Structures 2.0 in November 2021. (Watch our trailer here.) Bodies and Structures 2.0 contains seventeen individual modules, which address a wide range of topics in the spatial histories of modern East and Southeast Asia. We built Bodies and Structures using Scalar, a digital publishing platform developed and maintained by the Alliance for Networking Visual Cultures.

Figure 1. Entrance to Bodies and Structures 2.0.


Over the last few decades, scholars have come to see space not as an empty surface or a neutral container of human (and nonhuman) activity, but as something that is historically produced by an activity and that, in turn, informs (enables, constrains, etc.) that activity. We began the Bodies and Structures project because we wanted to think more deeply about how spatial history could change how we think, write, and teach about modern East Asian history. We were each working with primary sources that grappled with questions of spatial sensibilities, spatial structures, and the mobilities and immobilities of individuals. We also knew many colleagues in our fields who were working with similar materials, even if they did not classify themselves as “spatial historians.” We also felt keenly that existing models of digital spatial history tended to rely primarily on GIS tools or unilinear narrative models and were inadequate to the task of writing spatial histories informed by the findings of critical human geography. As Doreen Massey famously wrote, space is the “simultaneity of stories-so-far” (2005, 9). Bodies and Structures is our attempt to make that statement a digital reality.

Multivocality and “Reading Across Places”

Bodies and Structures contains many ways for readers to encounter the spaces of modern East Asian history. We designed it this way because space is multivocal. It is produced through interactions and relationships across multiple scales. It is multiple and heterogeneous. It is always under construction. As we lay out in our guided tour, Bodies and Structures “invites readers to stand certain in the essential situatedness of knowledge and experience about space and place. We ask not ‘what is space and place,’ but ‘whose space’ and ‘on what terms?’”
Key to our approach is what we call “reading across places”:

Reading across places means allowing concepts of space to emerge from different articulations and experiences of place and vice versa. . . . The environment encourages ‘an associative, connecting method of assemblage [best] described as rhizomatic,’ in which unexpected amalgams or connections emerge through ‘forced juxtaposition of dissimilar components designed to produce frictions’ (Pearson and Shanks 2014, 205). In this sense, Bodies and Structures uses digital tools to create spatial histories that are performances (of juxtapositions) as well as processes (of multivocal interpretation).”

Bodies and Structures thus seeks to “liberate the map” from cartographic representation and the ways of thinking about the mastery of space that have informed it (Casey 2007; Certeau 1984; Pickles 2012). We do incorporate various cartographic maps, but we see them as historical and epistemological artifacts and as but one of a number of possible ways of making one’s way through space and across places.

In a nutshell:

“The point of all this is that you don’t have to start with a cartographic map and work down to specific stories tied to a specific locale. We encourage you to start from the spatial concepts that those historical experiences generated and explore their historical manifestations in multiple places. Or, you can start from the map of the site to see how we as authors created relationships between people, places, themes, and events in the digital space of Bodies and Structures. And if you want to work with the cartographic map, you can do that, too.”

Starting Places

So, what are some possible starting places? For one, you can dive right into an individual module. In fact, we recommend that on our “Show Me How” page as one way to get your “sea-legs” with the Scalar interface. Bodies and Structures 2.0 contains seventeen individually-authored modules, each peer-reviewed by our Advisory Board of digital humanists and scholars of East Asian history.

Figure 2. Excerpt from the List of Modules Visual Pathway.

Geographically, the modules address histories from Vietnam to Mongolia, Japan to London. Chronologically, they run from the early nineteenth century to the early twenty-first. Each module contains its own discrete history, replete with translated primary textual sources, images and film clips, and, in the case of Hiroko Matsuda’s module, even audio recordings. Many of these objects are annotated and linked to other parts of the site, generating a thick map of intertwined spatial histories.


Table 1. List of Modules

Module Author and Title
David R. Ambaras, “Border Controls, Migrant Networks, and People out of Place between Japan and China” Nathaniel Isaacson, “Trains in Late Qing Print Culture”
Michitake Aso, “Mapping Invasion: Vietnamese Responses to Biological Warfare during the First Indochina War” Magdalena Kolodziej, “Studying Art in Colonial Libraries”
Noriko Aso, “Mitsukoshi: Consuming Places”


Hiroko Matsuda, “Borders and the Liminality of the Japanese Empire”
Emily Chapman, “One Family’s Photographs (1941-66)” Kate McDonald, “Cai Peihuo’s Inner Territory”
Sakura Christmas, “Imperial Japan up in the Air” Peter D. Thilly, “The Coastal Opium Trade in 1830s Fujian”
Evan Dawley, “Sacred Geographies of Urban Colonial Taiwan: Jilong’s Geography in Transformation” Dustin Wright, “The Okinawa Memories Initiative”
Maren Ehlers, “Bodies, Society, and Smallpox Vaccinations in Echizen Province” Shellen X. Wu, “Xing An: A Contested Borderland”
David Fedman, “Place Annihilation” Timothy Yang, “The Drugstore as Contact Zone”
Weiting Guo, “Constructing a Water Town: The River, the Sea, and the Communities in Wenzhou”  

Figure 3. A Scalar page that combines primary source text and images. Left: A first-person account of travel on the Nihon Yūsen Kaisha ship Nagasaki-maru from Japan to Shanghai is juxtaposed to a postcard of the ship at the Shanghai wharf, and the space referred to in the text is connected to an annotation showing its location on the ship’s deck plan. Right: Users can mouse over the image to see other media-rich annotations. This example is from David Ambaras’s module.

Figure 4. Gallery of images from a Vietnamese pamphlet (c. 1953) on the history of biological warfare with translations, from Michitake Aso’s module.

If you’ve already read a module, or if you’re looking for an adventure, you can dive into the site via one of our three core visualizations. Each visualization locates the modules and their individual pages in a different form of space. The Tag Map links the modules through shared concepts, which the Bodies and Structures editors and module authors developed through an iterative collaborative process. You can open up the “Imaginative Geographies” or “Network Rationalities” tags, for example, to start exploring pages that analyze those concepts in different historical moments. Or, you can dig into the Complete Grid Visualization, which maps each page in the digital space of the site – follow a chain of links and stumble on something you didn’t anticipate! Use the Geotagged Map to explore pages in a particular geographic locale. You can also start off reading linearly, and then veer off into a new direction using the “Notes” or the Context button, which are embedded in each page.

Figure 5. Tag Map


Figure 6. The Complete Grid Visualization. As we followed lines from the “Chinese Patriotic Hygiene Movement,” our mouse stumbled over the page “Lascars and Manilamen,” leading us unexpectedly to “Exploring the Jardine-Matheson Network” and Peter D. Thilly’s module on the opium trade in 1830s Fujian.

New Tools for Multivocality and User Engagement

One of the biggest new editions to Bodies and Structures (and to the Scalar platform) helps us to achieve the goal of teaching, writing, and thinking about the histories of East Asia in multivocal digital space.

Called Lenses, the new tool allows readers to visualize their own slices of Bodies and Structures content. For example, readers can pull together and visualize pages that satisfy two or more search queries, such as pages that have a specific tag and contain a specified text string and/or specific metadata. These search results can then be visualized as lists, word clouds, force-directed graphs, grids, or as Google maps. We developed Lenses with Erik C. Loyer and Craig Dietrich at the ANVC, with generous support from the NEH. In Bodies and Structures 2.0, readers can use Lenses to map the site in a way that we as the designers did not anticipate. Going forward, we hope to introduce more tools for user-directed mapping.

Figure 7a. A Lens that cartographically maps pages tagged by “Sourcebook” (the tag we use for translated primary sources).


Figure 7b. A Lens that visualizes pages that are tagged by “Sourcebook” and contain the phrase “gender.”


Research, Teaching, and Ethical Mapping

We invite you to use Bodies and Structures 2.0 in your classrooms and in your research. We designed this project as an open-access resource for cutting-edge, media-rich, peer-reviewed scholarship in fields of East Asian history and humanities. It is immediately accessible to undergraduate and graduate audiences. In our experiences, students find the digital format and visuals exciting to work with, and a welcome break from other course readings. More advanced students can design their own Scalar books following the Bodies and Structures model, or they can use Lenses to craft their own groupings of Bodies and Structures materials. We've put some other ideas on our "Using Bodies and Structures as a Researcher, Teacher, or Student" page. If you use the site in an undergraduate or graduate classroom, we would love to hear from you.

We designed Bodies and Structures as an open-ended research environment for thinking about the spatial histories of East Asia and the worlds of which it is a part. We invite you to consider how to “own” your own mappings of space and time. As we write in “Reorienting Our Scholarship,” “Bodies and Structures owns its maps by underscoring their incompleteness and their situatedness. Our mappings reflect our own concerns as scholars, as well as the history of knowledge production about East Asia, the uneven coverage and colonial categories of archives, and the limits and affordances of our own bodies, family systems, social positions, and institutional and social support networks. Bodies and Structures invites you to join in this process by examining how our mapping of East Asian history reflects, challenges, and expands your own.”


This post draws from previously published project introductions and interviews, which we include below.

Ambaras, David R. and Kate McDonald. “Get to Know the Site,” in Bodies and Structures 2.0: Deep-Mapping Modern East Asian History. 2021. Accessed March 7, 2022.

Ambaras, David R. and Kate McDonald. “Introducing Bodies and Structures 1.0: Deep-Mapping Modern East Asian History.” #AsiaNow, February 11, 2019. Accessed March 4, 2022.

Ambaras, David R., Curtis Fletcher, Erik C. Loyer, and Kate McDonald. “Building a Multivocal Spatial History: Scalar and the Bodies and Structures Project (3 parts).” PLATFORM__ A digital forum for conversations about buildings, spaces, and landscapes, June-July 2019. Accessed March 7, 2022.

Casey, Edward S. “Boundary, Place, and Event in the Spatiality of History.” Rethinking History 11, no. 4 (2007): 507-512.

Certeau, Michel de. The Practice of Everyday Life. Translated by Steven Rendall. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984.

Hayes, Matthew. “(Re)Mapping Spatial History: An Overview of the Bodies and Structures Platform.” Digital Orientalist, January 14, 2022. Accessed March 7, 2022.

Massey, Doreen. For Space. London, Sage: 2005.

Pickles, John. A History of Spaces: Cartographic Reason, Mapping and the Geo-Coded World. Milton Park, Abingdon, Oxon and New York: Routledge, 2012.

Shipman, Matt [and David Ambaras]. “The Future of History: How New Tools Tap Into Diverse Perspectives on the Past.” NC State University News, January 18, 2022. Accessed March 7, 2022.

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