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Department of the History of Art and Archaeology

Radu Leca

BA, Japanese Literature (Kanazawa University), MA, History of Art (SOAS)


Radu Leca
Radu Leca
Email address:
Thesis title:
The Backward Glance: Concepts of 'outside' and 'other' in the Japanese spatial imaginary of the 17th century
Internal Supervisors


Born in Romania, I started studying Japanese in University of Bucharest. While researching literature in Kanazawa University, I became interested in book illustrations and the imaginary spaces depicted therein.

2012, 2014 - Graduate Teaching Assistant, Department of History of Art and Archaeology, SOAS, University of London.

I taught tutorials for the undergraduate course Introduction to the Arts of East Asia. This meant delivering presentations to groups of 10-15 students to complement lectures. I was centred on Japan but made connections across East Asian culture. Topics ranged from the Tomb of the First Emperor to Modernity in China. I coordinated group discussions and advised on essay and exam topics.

PhD Research

The latter half of 17th century in Japan was characterized by three major developments: the restriction of contact with the outside world, the regulation of social hierarchy countered by a wealthy urban class, and a publishing boom in the urban environment. This provided an unusual situation in which the popularization of information about the outside world through publishing coincided with the drastic reduction of actual contact with the outside world. What effects did this have on the worldview of the time?

My research investigates the construction of the periphery from two points of view : space and identity. I draw on the variety of visual formats of the period – scrolls, folding screens, book illustrations, maps - which reveal elements otherwise ‘invisible’ in written texts. I argue for the vital role of visual materials on changes in thinking about space within the thriving popular culture of the period. Some of the questions framing my research are: what role did spatial imagination play in late 17th century Japanese visual culture? How did spatial imagination and visual production feed off each other? What were the degrees and modalities of integrating spatial fantasy into everyday existence?

One major consequence of the develoopments outlined above is that cultural interest shifted from the exterior to the interior of Japan. Ideas of space outside Japan started to be used reflectively to comment on eccentricities within Japan. We can follow this phenomenon in cheap printed maps of Japan, which reverted to cartographic templates dating from the 13th century. Territories outside Japan, including imaginary spaces such as the Island of Demons, became framing devices for an emerging Japanese geographical identity. References to the geographical imaginary, such as 'the wide world', 'islands' or various fantastic foreign countries, were then featured in literary texts and encyclopaedic works to describe eccentric identities.

As a case study, I analyse the visual representations of the ‘Island of Women’ (jp. Nyogonoshima), a space defined by a model of femininity which blended demonic, paradisiacal and erotic characteristics. I follow the conflation of the ‘Island of Women’ with other imaginary spaces, such as the Daoist paradise of Mount Penglai (jp. Horai), in 17th century versions of the 'companion tale' (jp. otogi zoshi) ‘Yoshitsune’s Voyages Among the Islands’ (jp. Onzoshi shima watari) or Ihara Saikaku’s 'tale of the floating world' (jp. ukiyo zoshi) ’The Life of an Amorous Man’ (jp. Koshoku ichidai otoko). We see how textual and visual tropes of the medieval geographic imaginary originating in 'companion tales' were playfully reemployed in a commercial and erotic context within the genre of 'tales of the floating world'.

I then argue that the characteristics of the periphery at the national level informed the configuration of the periphery at the urban level. Visual tropes of alterity were adapted to new spaces of alterity, the licensed prostitution quarters, which were placed at the periphery of major cities. At the national level, the iconic image of Japan surrounded by marginal territories had meant that these territories were inaccessible and unchanging. At the urban level, some characteristics of this imaginary periphery, such as paradisiacal elements, were inherited. But at the same time, the prostitution quarters were fashionable spaces which had to entertain the illusion of their accessibility. For example, for the Yoshiwara in Edo there develops a coherent iconography of the trip to get there, disseminated through various media: illustrated scrolls, folding screens, picture books, hand-coloured single-sheet prints. This recycled visual markers and spatial structures of alterity from previous depictions of peripheric space. Concomitantly, this visual production aestheticized and tamed the fantastic Other in order to offer an updated version of alterity for a commercial context.

The meaning of peripheric spaces and identities in this period was thus in the process of renegotiation. But this phenomenon was not restricted to places of escape such as prostitution quarters. For a large part of the population, the encounter with another world happened periodically. On New Year's Day, weddings or other auspicious occasions, a miniature reconstruction (jp. tsukurimono) of Mount Penglai would be displayed in the home, functioning as a relay tapping into the auspicious energy of the otherworld. Urban dwellers would also masquerade as foreigners, lucky gods or characters from popular stories. This carnivalesque was a part of a process of constructing the identity of the urban middle class by celebrating their liminal status. The fantastic Other was internalized. I discuss the example of Ihara Saikaku, a successful poet and author of 'tales of the floating world', who adopted the identity of an auspicious crane circling Mount Penglai both in a conjugal and a political context. This illustrates the late 17th century change in the experience of ‘other spaces’: from narratives of going there and encountering the Other, to a temporary transformation of mundane settings into an otherworld in which the participants embody the Other.

The aim of my research, therefore, is to deepen the understanding of the concepts of ‘outside’ and ‘other’ in 17th century Japanese culture, and their relationship to the emerging visual expressions of the Edo period. I analyse a varied corpus of visual materials from a phenomenological point of view, by enquiring how the users of these visual objects related to them, and how this fed into the mental map of peripheric spaces and identities. My research can therefore be classified as a visual culture study. Concomitantly, this study enables a reconsideration of the development of early modern Japanese cultural identity, offering a model of interdisciplinary research for cultural history studies.

I undertook fieldwork in Japan from February to June 2013, as a Visiting Researcher at the Department of Aesthetics and Science of Arts within the Faculty of letters of Doshisha University, Kyoto. I was supervised by Professor Fumikazu Kishi. I participated in his graduate seminar, through presentations of my own research and fieldwork, feedback on other students’ presentations, and museum visits. The main content of the fieldwork was the consultation of original artworks in museum collections (Chiba City Museum of Art, Idemitsu Museum, Tokyo National Museum) and Tenri University Library. I also viewed numerous exhibitions containing artworks related to my research. Concomitantly, I met and interviewed various researchers in Kyoto, Tokyo and Kanazawa on aspects of my research related to art history, literary history and social studies. The fieldwork was made possible by a scholarship from the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science (JSPS), which also allowed me to acquire secondary bibliographic material vital for the completion of my research. A report is available at JSPS London.

Radu Leca - The Backward Glance: Japanese spatial imaginary of the 17th century

PhD Publications

  • 2013 - ‘Akogare no hate e - kinsei zenki ni okeru Yokihi ni kanren suru kukan hyosho no hensen ni tsuite’ [Abodes of Longing - Places Associated with Yang Guifei in 17th century Japan], Kamizono 9
  • 2014 (forthcoming) - 'Brazilian Cannibals in 16th century Europe and 17th century Japan', Comparative Critical Studies 10
  • 2015 (forthcoming) - 'The Backward Glance – Alluring Women and Liminal Spaces in Seventeenth Century Japan', in Women, Gender, and Art in Early Modern Asia, Ashgate Publishing

PhD Conferences

  • 2011 ‘The Framing of Nostalgia: Porcelain Dishes Featuring Maps of Japan in the Late Edo Period’, Japan: Premodern, Modern and Contemporary. A Return Trip from the East to the West - Learning in, about, and from Japan Conference, Dimitrie Cantemir University, Bucharest, Romania
  • 2012 ‘Brazilian cannibals in 16th century Europe and 17th century Japan’, Comparing Centres, Comparing Peripheries Conference organized by British Comparative Literature Association (BCLA) and SOAS Research Students Society, SOAS, University of London, London, UK
  • 2012 ‘The backward glance: beautiful women and liminal spaces in seventeenth century Japan’, Approaching Art and Design from Asia Young Researchers' Workshop, SOAS, University of London, London, UK
  • 2012 ‘The backward glance: beautiful women and liminal spaces in seventeenth century
    Japan’, Myths and Orthodoxies in East Asian Art and Art History Graduate Student Symposium, Tang Center, Princeton University, Princeton MA, USA
  • 2012 ‘The Cartographical Dimension of Nation Building in Momoyama and Early Edo Period’, Art Over Divides: Japanese Art and Evolving Contexts JAHF Graduate Student Panel, AAS Annual Conference, Toronto, Canada
  • 2012 ‘The backward glance - constructing feminine beauty with Chinese tropes in 17th century Japan’, Global/Local Material Cultures Study Day, Royal College of Art, London, UK
  • 2013 Presentations on current doctoral research and fieldwork on the topic of ‘Concepts of “outside” and “the other” in the Japanese spatial imaginary of the 17th century’, Graduate seminar on East Asian History of Art and Aesthetics convened by Professors Fumikazu Kishi and Michifusa Kōno, Department of Aesthetics and Science of Arts, Faculty of Letters, Dōshisha University, Kyoto, Japan
  • 2013 ‘Brazilian Cannibals in 16th century Europe and 17th century Japan’, Graduate Seminar on Aesthetics convened by Professor Morihiro Satow, Faculty of Design, Kyōto Seika University, Kyōto, Japan
  • 2013 ‘Urban Paradise: Prostitute quarters as key factors in the urban development of 17th century Japan’, Patterns of Early Asian Urbanism IIAS Conference, National Museum of Antiquities, Leiden, Holland
  • 2014 (forthcoming) ‘Looking Back at Beauty’, 14th European Association for Japanese Studies Conference, University of Ljubljana, Ljubljana, Slovenia
  • 2014 (forthcoming) ‘Sharing Frames: Cannibals in 17th century Transcultural Interaction’, Transcultural Framing(s): Materials and Metaphors Conference, Karl Jaspers Centre for Advanced Transcultural Studies, Heidelberg University, Heidelberg, Germany


  • European Association of Japanese Studies (EAJS)
  • Association for Asian Studies (AAS)
  • Japan Art History Forum (JAHF)


  • Art History
  • History of Cartography
  • Cultural Studies
  • Spatial Imaginary
  • Heterotopia
  • Iconography
  • Anthropology
  • Identity and Alterity
  • Semiotics