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Hokkaido (Hokkai-dō, 北海道) is the second largest island in Japan, accounting for almost 22% of the country's total landmass, with a land area of 83,000 square kilometers.[1] It is also the northernmost island and the least developed, as well as the largest single prefecture. The only major designated city on the island is Sapporo, the 5th largest city in Japan.

Shiretoko, in northeastern Hokkaido, was newly inscribed to the World Natural Heritage List.

Due to its location in the high latitudes, Hokkaido suffers from harsh winters, with sub-zero temperatures, snow-fall and frozen seas. Summer temperatures are lower that the rest of the country, with significantly lower humidity levels.

This, combined with the large tracts of unspoilt nature, makes it a popular holiday destination, offering hot springs, skiing and hiking and camping for enthusiasts.[2]

In 1972, the Olympic Winter Games were held in Sapporo.


Knowledge of Ainu society is not well developed. Many ethnologists still believe that the Ainu were an indigenous people of northern Japan and nearby islands, self-sufficient hunter-gatherers who had freely hunted, fished, and gathered food for thousands of years. The evidence for this hypothesis is lacking. Mongol records from the 13th century describe the Ainu as active traders. The nawatojibune, or large sailboat which had its origins in the medieval shipping around the Sea of Japan, played an important role in their trade activities. It enabled them to create and maintain extensive trade networks, and it appears that the Ainu depended more upon such economic activities than was realized in the past. The long-distance trade activities of the Ainu were stopped by the Matsumae clan who took control in the 17th and 18th centuries; they forced the Ainu to engage in large-scale fishing and fur trapping.[3] The Ainu population was 26,300 in 1803, falling gradually to 16,000 in 1931.[4]


Although many Japanese think Hokkaido island has long been an integral part of the country, Ezochi (present-day Hokkaido) became a part of Japan in the last 150–200 years.

Tokugawa period

Japan had traded with the Ainu of Ezo (Hokkaido) as early as the Kamakura period (1192-1333). Through a ritualistic system of gift exchanges and unfair trading practices, Japan was able to strengthen its cultural and economic hold on, and subsequently colonize, Hokkaido. From 1600 to 1799, the Matsumae domain in northern Japan administered all contact with the island of Ezo (Hokkaido) and its Ainu population. The Matsumae family benefited from trade with the Ainu and the employment of Ainu in Matsumae-owned fisheries. Japanese interpreters trained in the Ainu language facilitated all communication because Ainu were not allowed to learn Japanese.

The Hokkaido herring fishery during the late Tokugawa period demonstrates that a form of protoindustrialization had taken place in this region from the late 18th century. Proto-industrialism, a concept borrowed from European economic history, means rural manufacturing for long-distance trade. Hokkaido's herring fertilizer trade represents a good example of proto-industrialization in 19th -century Japan, where commercial production by a dispersed network of small contract-fishery operators employing some wage labor was transformed into a new capitalist mode in which large entrepreneurs came to dominate through the wage-labor systems and floating factory ships. The standard of living was rising steadily. The fundamental transformation from feudalism to capitalist production had therefore begun before the Meiji official adoption of a western-style economic regime.[5]

In 1799, the Tokugawa shogunate revoked Matsumae control over the area and decreed that all Ainu should learn Japanese and follow Japanese laws and customs. The purpose of this edict was to legitimize Japanese claims to Hokkaido in response to an increase in the number of Russian ships in the area. Thereby, the shogunate had shown an understanding of the role of identity politics in the legitimization of national geopolitical borders. Tokugawa intellectuals said the best way to keep Ezochi under the Japanese sphere of influence was to develop Ezochi and civilize its inhabitants. The bakufu's direct rule of Ezochi was launched in line with this logic. In other words, the direct rule was an effort to delineate a modern boundary with Russia in the northern frontier region.[6]

Some modernization programs were begun, especially in the area of public health. An 1857 project set out to vaccinate the Japanese and original Ainu inhabitants, who suffered high death rates from smallpox. The doctors carried out widespread vaccination, employing Western medical technology. Supporting the Neo-Confucian notion of moral government, the project physically marked the Ainu as subjects of the state, reinforcing its aim to protect the body politic as well as demarcating, at the level of the individual body, the boundaries of the Japanese state in the north.[7]

Meiji policy

The Meiji policy was shaped by the immeduate threat of Russian expansion to the south, and the long-term goal of creating a model transformation of the strange island of Ezochi—so foreign to Japanese ways—into a model of how to be Japanese. In 1869 Japan established the Colonization Commission (Kaitakushi) to develop its sparsely populated northern island, which the commission did at the expense of the indigenous Ainu. After 1872 the new Meiji regime called for rapid modernization of the island, with conscription in to the army and universal education, and opened the first railway. Ainu language and culture was repressed with a policy of rapid assimilation. In 1903 the Ainu population fell to 17,300. It bottomed out and returned to a level of 24,400 in 1984.

The government strongly encouraged organized migration to Hokkaido. Eighteen identifiable groups migrated there 1869 to 1871. Eleven of these groups were comprised of shizoku (ex-samurai). Date Kunishige (1841-1904), a samurai from the Sendai region was the leader of the largest groups. He had been on the losing side in the Boshin War (1868–69). In the postwar settlement his lands and those of his followers were reduced to a point where they faced poverty. Date believed the move to Hokkaido would improve the group's economic and social positions. His settlers led a precarious existence. Government support for the migrants vacillated, and, at one juncture, some of the hard-pressed settlers were forced to surrender their shizoku status in exchange for grain.[8]

Meiji leaders also encouraged the migration of outcaste Buraku to Hokkaido as a means of increasing the population and as a way for this persecuted minority to escape discrimination at home. The state promised those Buraku who migrated a fuller stake in the national citizenry.[9]

By 1903 the island had a population of 843,600, of whom 2% were Ainu.

Hokkaido is often treated as a colonial appendage of Japan. But Mason (2005) goes further and argues that Hokkaido was a testing ground for new Meiji policies and thus played a role in the creation of modern Japanese national institutions and ideology. The Meiji elite attempted to justify and naturalize their new form of government through proclamations that laid claim to and encouraged the settlement of Hokkaido. Japanese military power was extended to the island by resettling bodies of state-sanctioned farming-soldiers, tondenhei. Tondenhei recruitment campaigns used the appropriation of the samurai as a modern masculine icon to define imperial ideology, promote colonial expansion and discipline Japan's unseasoned and unreliable modern military.

Kunikida Doppo's short story, "The Shores of Sorachi River" (Sorachigawa no kishibe, 1902) reveals the ways literary works reinforced the colonization of Hokkaido through depictions of "developing" a "blank slate" and portrayals of the manly "battles" of colonists subjugating Hokkaido's savage wilderness. The oppression of Ainu communities under Meiji colonial law was ignored.

Hara Hôitsuan's The Secret Politician (Anchû seijika, 1890), highlights the practices used in the Meiji state's attempts to discipline and unify the Japanese population. The Secret Politician tells the sad plight of ordinary farmers imprisoned in the harsh shûjikan prison system in Hokkaido for their involvement in a peasant protest,

The strategies for colonization of Hokkaido were adapted and expanded after 1910 to apply to Japanese colonization of Korea.[10]

University of Hokkaido

In 1871-1882 Tokyo hired 48 American experts, as well as 17 European and 13 Chinese experts, to develop Hokkaido. The Americans had the greatest long-term impact especially regarding the introduction of Western agriculture and industry, constructing roads and a railroad, surveying topography and mines, and creating an agricultural college.[11]

Sapporo Agricultural College, which became the University of Hokkaido, was founded in 1876 to facilitate the modernization of Japanese agriculture and demonstrates that the key to Japanese economic growth in the early Meiji period was Japanese enthusiasm for and receptivity to Western ideas and technologies. The education provided by Sapporo College was not limited to technical training alone: the American-inspired curriculum also stressed personal development and presented it in terms with which the Japanese were familiar. The American chemist William Smith Clark (1826-1886), president of Massachusetts Agricultural College (now University of Massachusetts, Amherst) was brought in for one year to design the new school. He was a charismatic figure who emphasized character transformation. Clark's American colleagues David P. Penhallow and William Wheeler became founding professors and later principals of Sapporo. They built a modern university along the lines of the University of Massachusetts.[12]

Recent history

In March 1985 the Seikan tunnel, connecting the islands of Honshu and Hokkaido, was finally blasted through. This 54-kilometer-long tunnel, of which 23 kilometers are 100 meters below the ocean floor, was started in 1971 and was designed to serve as a standard track for the Shinkansen. Initiated before the age of jumbo jets and large car ferries, the project has suffered from enormous cost overruns (more than 10 times the original estimate) and bad timing.[13]

XI Olympic Winter Games in 1972

Sapporo was originally scheduled to host the 1940 winter Olympics, which were cancelled in 1938 because of world crisis. In 1966 it was awarded the 1972 venue after beating out Banff (Canada), Lahti (Finland) and Salt Lake City (U.S.).


  • Fitzhugh. William W.. and Chisato O. Dubreuil. Ainu: Spirit of a Northern People (2001) excerpt and text search
  • Fujita, Fumiko. American Pioneers and the Japanese Frontier: American Experts in Nineteenth-Century Japan. (1994) 189 pp. online edition
  • Horimoto, Fumiko. "Ezochi of Northern Japan: From Outer Land to Inner Land." PhD dissertation U. of Toronto 2004. 356 pp. DAI 2005 65(10): 3948-A. DANQ94307 Fulltext: ProQuest Dissertations & Theses
  • Howell, David L. Capitalism from Within: Economy, Society, and the State in a Japanese Fishery. (1995). 246 pp.
  • Maki, John. William Smith Clark: A Yankee in Hokkaido (1996) online review
  • Mason, Michele Marie. "Manly Narratives: Writing Hokkaido into the Political and Cultural Landscape of Imperial Japan." PhD dissrtation U. of California, Irvine 2005. 195 pp.  : DAI 2005 66(6): 2223-A. DA3181261 Fulltext: ProQuest Dissertations & Theses
  • Mock, John Allan. Culture, Community and Change in a Sapporo Neighborhood, 1925-1988: Hanayama (1999)
  • Morris-Suzuki, Tessa. "Creating the Frontier: Border, Identity and History in Japan's Far North." East Asian History 1994 (7): 1-24. Issn: 1036-6008
  • Siddle, Richard. Race, Resistance, and the Ainu of Japan (1995) online edition
  • Trewartha, Glenn T. Japan: A Geography (1965)
  • Walker, Brett L. The Conquest of Ainu Lands: Ecology and Culture in Japanese Expansion, 1590-1800. (2001). 332 pp. excerpt and text search; online edition
  • Willcock, Hiroko. "Traditional Learning, Western Thought, and the Sapporo Agricultural College: a Case Study of Acculturation in Early Meiji Japan." Modern Asian Studies 2000 34(4): 977-1017. Issn: 0026-749x Fulltext: in Jstor

Primary sources

  • Chamberlain, Basil Hall A Handbook for Travellers in Japan (1907) online edition

External links

See also


  1. The other three principal Japanese islands are Honshu, Kyushu and Shikoku.
  2. Hokkaido Travel Guide
  3. Kaoru Tezuka, "Long-distance Trade Networks and Shipping in the Ezo Region." Arctic Anthropology 1998 35(1): 350-360. Issn: 0066-6939 Fulltext: Ebsco
  4. See Ainu Museum of Japan, "The Ainu People"
  5. David L. Howell, "Proto-industrial Origins of Japanese Capitalism." Journal of Asian Studies 1992 51(2): 269-286. Issn: 0021-9118 in Jstor
  6. Horimoto (2004)
  7. Brett L. Walker, "The Early Modern Japanese State and Ainu Vaccinations: Redefining the Body Politic 1799-1868." Past & Present, 1999 (163): 121-160. Issn: 0031-2746 Fulltext: [ Jstor]
  8. David L. Howell, "Early Shizoku Colonization of Hokkaido." Journal of Asian History 1983 17: 40-67. Issn: 0021-910x
  9. Noah McCormack, "Buraku Emigration in the Meiji Era - Other Ways to Become 'Japanese.'" East Asian History, 2002 (23): 87-108. Issn: 1036-6008
  10. Alexis Dudden, "Japanese Colonial Control in International Terms." Japanese Studies 2005 25(1): 1-20. Issn: 1037-1397 Fulltext: Ebsco
  11. See Fujita (1994)
  12. Maki (1996); Willcock (2000)
  13. Namiki Oka, "The Unhappy Birth of a Tunnel," Japan Quarterly 1985 32(3): 324-329. Issn: 0021-4590