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  • Writer's pictureManami Okuda Wada

Agency Education in Japan #2: Imaginary Map Workshop

Do you remember fantasizing about imaginary worlds when you were young? Hours were poured into inventing perfect characters, weaving every dream into their lives, and sketching maps of cities that existed only in your imagination. I certainly got lost in that whirlwind during my early childhood. But somehow, as we grow up, those passions often fade into the backdrop of our daily routines.


In the world of education, we often talk about "creativity" as a skill to cultivate, a mindset to explore new facets of ourselves or create something entirely new. But if we take the standpoint that everyone is born original and creative, then "creativity" becomes more about "reviving your inner self." That's precisely what I see in the fantastic map-making artistry of Takayuki Imaizumi, aka Chirijin, meaning "Geography Person" in Japanese.


Takayuki with a detailed map of Nagomuru City behind him, a city that is nonexistent in the real world

Takayuki, a freelance creator of imaginary maps, is renowned for his masterpiece, Nagomuru City—a fictional urban expanse hosting 1.54 million residents sprawled across 143 square kilometers. He embarked on his map-making journey at the tender age of 7. Despite interruptions due to education and employment, in 2011, he set out on a wondrous journey, leaving his corporate job to pursue freelance work focusing on geographical information.


While Takayuki's maps reside in the realm of fantasy, they aren't devoid of logic. His creations are born from astute observations of urban patterns in Japanese and other Asian cities, adding a realistic touch to his imaginative landscapes. There's a clear geographic reasoning behind Nagomuru City's evolution into an urbanized hub, crafted with thoughtful detail about its historical development.


Is the art of crafting imaginary maps common in Japan? Initially, it was an underground pursuit, dispersed into individual endeavors. However, Takayuki's map of Nagomuru City became the first imaginary map to be recognized through publication and media platforms, catalyzing the emergence of numerous aspiring creators. Today, this community has grown significantly, allowing for collaborative group projects. In 2022, a fantasy map café even opened up in Komazawa, Tokyo, becoming a hub for unearthing more people who may be fascinated by this craft. Recently, a cartographer even presented imaginary maps at the International Cartography Association, receiving feedback on the uniqueness of designing these maps without a tied fictional story. Takayuki's imaginary maps have also gained acclaim as fine art, prominently displayed at esteemed venues such as the Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo. More recently, these maps were showcased at an art festival hosted by the Zhengbin Harbour Museum of Art in Taiwan during the summer of 2023.


***


Takayuki, a true creator at heart, had rarely been accessible beyond one-shot workshops in educational settings. However, an exceptional opportunity arose for designing imaginary maps within an educational institution, thanks to the Liberal Arts Musashino (LAM) program launched in 2022 at Musashino University High School.


Nestled between an educational district's vibrancy and the serenity of Musashino Park, Musashino University High School offered 10th graders the chance to choose two out of ten liberal arts courses yearly, taught by ten groups of external instructors. Among these courses were voice training, philosophical dialogues, and, of course, the rare chance to create imaginary maps led by Takayuki.


"Takayuki's quite extraordinary, isn't he?" remarked Kaito Uchida, Assistant Director of the Admissions Information Office. "Meeting someone like him is a rare opportunity for students, as he embodies traits not commonly encountered on school grounds."


The class commenced with Takayuki arranging the imaginary map kits meticulously, by each student's class and number. He introduced today's supporters - myself and another university student who is also a creator of imaginary maps - by teasing quiz-like tidbits. Lectures were intentionally kept to a minimum as students delved into cutting and pasting map pieces. Takayuki traversed the room, handing out extra components to early finishers, and reacting to each student's comments. His custom-made imaginary map kit empowered anyone to craft their own map, highlighting its exceptional quality. Beyond cutting and pasting, students were tasked with naming the places they created. Surprisingly challenging, this naming process opened a gateway for students to ponder deeply about their imaginary towns' essence.


Takayuki's self-made imaginary map kit enables anyone to create their individual imaginary map

A three-dimensional map created by a student; the roads not connecting between the high land and the lowland representing the "Unwavering Disparity Between the Wealthy and the Impoverished"

***


Certainly, Takayuki's content is uniquely captivating, yet what shines in this course is learning about his way of life interwoven throughout its moments. School wasn't his forte, and even in the corporate world, he realized that large corporations didn't suit him either. In Japan, where endurance ("gaman") is highly valued, acting on genuine emotions can be quite challenging, especially as this culture is embedded in school life.


Embarking on his freelance journey, Takayuki wasn't brimming with confidence; instead, he approached his craft with humility. "I had no pride whatsoever," he admits, "I was genuinely interested in how people reacted to my maps, be it positive or negative." His astute observation and analysis led him to an "ability to find vacant seats," discovering that crafting imaginary maps best merged his skills and external demands.


To push his freelancing boundaries, he willingly embraced "no-income training," acclimatizing himself to a dwindling bank balance. "Feeling assured that I could navigate a decreasing bank account," he reflects, "allowed more time for much-needed creative activities." He stands as a living testament to "someone who is exercising their agency for living", which is a contrast to what conventional education teaches students in schools - attain a high degree and get a stable job - making him "extraordinary" in school settings.


Yet, what truly sets Takayuki apart is his genuine curiosity and fascination with people, a trait evident in his interactions with students. Having once felt like an outsider in school, he displays an exceptional sensitivity to his students' feelings during the course. At the semester's start, his survey delves into what each student already knows about imaginary maps, mapmaking, design, human observation, and even interest in Takayuki himself. Additionally, it asks about students' expectations for the class. Takayuki thoroughly analyzed these responses, which revealed that students preferred group projects over individual projects and lectures, prompting him to revamp his course structure in the subsequent year based on this feedback.


Takayuki spends his time wondering around the room, handing out additional supplies, and chatting freely

One of the final questions of his end-of-semester course survey asks, "Did you think this course was helpful to you in any way?" It also offers unique answer options such as:


- I think I can make use of what I learned in my study or career after graduating from high school.

- I don't know what it will be useful for, but I think it will be useful for something.

- I don't know if it will be useful in the future, but it was fun.

- I enjoyed it more as a time to talk with my friends than for the content of the class.

- It was fun, but it was also difficult.

- It felt more difficult than fun.


Seeing many students select second, third, and fifth options, Takayuki remarks, "I don't expect them to become map creators, but I hope this course sparks their creativity, guides their interests, or simply broadens their horizons to unconventional careers."


Beginning-of-semester survey (right) asks about student interest while end-of-semester (left) survey asks whether mapmaking was useful, fun, or challenging



More information on Takayuki Imaizumi (Chirijin) available on the homepage

More information on Musashino University High School available on the homepage

(both pages accessible in Japanese)



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