Introducing Bodies and Structures 1.0: Deep-Mapping Modern East Asian History

Figure 1. The first page of David Fedman’s module on the photographer Ishikawa Kôyô and the fire bombings of Tokyo. Note the translated primary source (in this case Ishikawa’s diary) embedded on the right.

Update: November 10, 2021

The article below introduces Bodies and Structures 1.0, released in January 2019. Bodies and Structures 2.0 is now available and can be visited here.

By David R. Ambaras and Kate McDonald

What Bodies and Structures Is

Bodies and Structures is a platform for researching and teaching spatial histories of East Asia and the larger worlds of which they were a part. The site combines individually-authored, media-rich content modules with conceptual maps and visualizations. The modules analyze primary sources with significant spatial historical themes. The conceptual maps and visualizations reveal thematic, historical, and geographic connections between the modules. Each module also includes a translated primary source or sources. We built it using the open-source platform Scalar.

Bodies and Structures 1.0 focuses on early to mid-twentieth century Japan and East Asia shaped by Japanese imperialism. The modules tell spatial stories about:

  • colonial political activists;
  • interethnic intimacies and regional migration;
  • department stores and empire;
  • the multi-layered spaces of the modern drugstore;
  • Chinese settlement on the Mongolian frontier;
  • the firebombing of Tokyo; and
  • the photographic eye of an American army dentist in occupied Okinawa.

Scholars and students can use these modules and their interconnections to analyze how boundary-making and mobility inform each other; how spatially-constituted ideas of progress or difference have taken shape in different locales; and how events and actors construct and reconstruct places and their meanings within shifting imperial contexts.

What The Project Contributes to the Field

Bodies and Structures speaks to two different fields. One is the growing and heterogeneous field of “spatial history.” The other is the field of modern East Asian history. For the former, we wanted to create a model of collaborative, spatial historical scholarship that embraced all of the ways that scholars are incorporating spatial analyses into their research. We also—and this was important—wanted to make that variety central to our vision of spatial history. We know from previous works on spatial history and humanistic geography that space is multi-vocal. By multi-vocal we mean:

  • Places are made up of layers of meaning and history;
  • Places are articulated through complex flows and circulations;
  • Layers of place produce distinct geographic footprints and sets of spatial relationships;
  • One’s social-historical positionality or “body” shapes how one encounters particular spatial “structures”; and
  • the cartographic map visualizes only a small fraction of these complex historical relationships and experiences.

In traditional scholarly formats, it is difficult to create research environments that allow users to analyze spatial structures from multiple positionalities; to see the same site, event, or process from multiple analytical perspectives; and to draw useful analytical conclusions from these data. The edited volume, for example, allows for multiple scholarly perspectives on a single event or place. But once published, the work is static. You can’t rearrange the content to incorporate new perspectives or the perspective of the reader. On the other end of the spectrum, digital spatial historical databases contain incredible data. But analytically, by indexing these data via a cartographic map, GIS-based databases reify the absolute space of modern cartography. They take the modern mode of spatial thinking out of history and out of history’s politics. By contrast, Bodies and Structures models a spatial historical research environment and publication format that incorporates the principle of “multi-vocality” in its very foundation.

For the field of East Asian history, we wanted to highlight the exciting new approaches to spatial history that are happening in the field. We wanted to start a conversation about how spatial history could (should?) fundamentally change how we approach scholarship on and teaching about East Asia. For some time now, the field has been taking a “spatial turn.” Yet aside from a few significant edited volumes (for example, the tremendous Asia Inside Out series edited by Eric Tagliacozzo, Helen F. Siu, and Peter C. Perdue), the scholarship has remained largely individual. We also have a number of significant and widely-used works of digital scholarship, such as MIT Visualizing Cultures and Virtual Shanghai (which we both use in our classrooms regularly!). Here, too, however, the different content units remain isolated, and space remains tied to a cartographic map. We wanted to put our contributors in direct conversation with each other to see how the encounter with the wide variety of spatial historical scholarship would change their own thinking on the topic and create new conceptual and geographic maps of the field. We also wanted to make these encounters public in the sense that it would be possible for people not involved in the making of the project to see how particular juxtapositions changed the significance or meaning of a given study and to juxtapose the materials in their own ways. (You can read our overview essay here.)

The Scalar platform works well for our purposes. It enables multiple visualizations, including the use of conceptual tags for mapping the interactions among modules. We are working with the Scalar developers on new tools that will make possible even more precise and user-directed visualizations and itineraries.

Figure 2. The Tag Map. The tag map represents the site conceptually.

How It Came Together

Bodies and Structures began in 2016 with a chance conversation after a panel at the AAS meeting in Seattle (yes, conferences matter!). We then hosted three workshops on the East and West coasts, involving some two dozen scholars from the U.S. and Japan. We used these workshops to refine our ideas, explore digital tools, and build a cohort of contributors. We began building Bodies and Structures 1.0 in September 2017. In March 2018, we revealed the site at AAS 2018 in Washington, D.C.

How People Use It

Right now, people are primarily using the site in two ways: one, as a source of materials for teaching; and two, as a model for how to construct open-ended, collaborative, and multi-perspectival digital spatial history projects. We’re excited to hear about how the site is being used. If you’ve put it on your syllabus in any way, please let us know. If you haven’t considered it, take a look at our How to Use this Site page for ideas about how to incorporate Bodies and Structures 1.0 into your classroom.

Figure 3. The Complete Grid Visualization. The Grid illuminates the relationships between each of the site’s pages.

Going Forward

We are now working on Bodies and Structures 2.0. This version will expand the geo-historical scope to introduce materials from late-Qing and Republican-era China, Vietnam, and Korea, as well as additional materials on Japan and its maritime frontiers, and incorporate new tools for analyzing the site’s materials. Look for more information in Summer 2019!

Follow Bodies and Structures


Twitter: @bodiesandstruct


We Want to Hear from You

Please share your feedback with us at

Propose a Module?

Get in touch with us!

David R. Ambaras is Associate Professor of History at North Carolina State University. Kate McDonald is Associate Professor of History at the University of California Santa Barbara.