There is a map that depicts "a country that doesn't exist." This country stretches from southern Turkey to northwestern Iran, an area home to around 30 million Kurdish people. Though united by a common language, the Kurds have no nation state to call their own, instead living as a minority in several countries.
However, they do have their own regional government in northern Iraq, set up following the collapse of the Saddam Hussein regime during the Iraq War of 2003. I was working in the Middle East and visited the area several times after the war. I witnessed the establishment of a semi-independent state with its own president, parliament and "national flag," one that sold oil-drilling concessions to foreign firms independently of Iraq's central government. It was here that I saw the map of the country that doesn't exist. This was Kurdistan, a country that encompasses areas with Kurdish populations in Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran. The "territory" on this map provided a visual representation of the dreams of the Kurdish people.
At the same time, there are lands that do exist but are not shown on maps. Last year, as part of the Asahi Shimbun Globe "On the Scene" series, I visited the island of Cyprus in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea. The island is divided into two areas--the Republic of Cyprus in the south and the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus in the north. The walled old city of Nicosia is also split in half. City maps in the south leave the northern part of this circular city blank, while southern part cannot be found on maps distributed in the north. It is only when both maps are fitted together, like two halves of a snapped coin, that a full picture of the old city emerges.
Yoshihisa Hoshino, 66, president of the Japan Cartographers Association and ex-director general at the Geospatial Information Authority of Japan, is unhappy with the way maps are used today.
"Maps used to have a variety of functions," he says, "but recently people just print them off the Internet and use them for directions."
If we look back over history, says Hoshino, we can see how maps helped to shape the way we saw the world. In the era when religion colored our world view, for example, India and Jerusalem were placed at the center of the globe. The sight of "uncharted lands" on maps also piqued the curiosity of explorers during the Age of Discovery. Even today, maps have the ability to surprise us and make us think. For Japanese used to seeing Japan at the center of world maps, it may seem strange to see their country depicted as the "Far East" in European atlases.
In the age of nation states, maps form a fundamental part of the infrastructure of any country, demarcating the boundaries of national territory and asserting national sovereignty. Maps act as a record of a country's society and economy, while also serving as the foundation for disaster prevention and urban planning.
Nowadays, global cartographic information can be obtained easily, while smartphones allow anyone to walk around with a map. Yet maps have not lost their social and public roles either. From personal usage to national declarations of intent, the scope and applicability of maps seem to be growing ever wider.
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