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  • Japanese: 蝦夷 (Emishi / Ezo)

Emishi was a term for the people of northeastern Japan (the Tôhoku region), outside of the control of the Yamato polity. The original kanji (毛人) means 'Hairy Men', and is seen in Chinese accounts as a term to describe those outside of the 'civilized' lands (i.e. beyond Chinese control). The Yamato polity seems to have adopted this same attitude, using similar words to describe the 'barbaric' people who had not submitted. The Emishi appear to be of the same racial stock as the Japanese, and the term appears to have been applied to various Japanese families as well, depending on their relationship with the court. Many famous families of later periods, including the Fujiwara family appear to have originated as local Emishi leaders.

By the Nara period, most of the Emishi people were located in the provinces of Dewa and Michinoku (aka Mutsu); by this time, the kanji 毛人 fell out of use, and were replaced with 蝦夷 as the most common characters to refer to the Emishi.

Satsumon Period

At the beginning of the Nara period (early 8th c.), terms such as "Nihon" were used to refer only to the areas under Imperial control, especially the provinces in the Kinai region. Over the preceding centuries, the Yamato state had battled and subdued numerous "tribes," "chieftains," or rival states within the main islands, all of whom were seen as being outside of "Nihon" or "Yamato," and were thus seen as "Emishi," or simply "I".[1]

The period of Emishi history from roughly 700-800 CE until 1300 CE is referred to as the "Satsumon period" or "Satsumon culture." Over the course of the 8th-9th centuries, the Japanese expanded into the north, establishing centers of power, and either pushing the Emishi further north, or assimilating them into their own Japanese communities. One of the earliest and most famous victories over the Emishi took place in 801, when Sakanoue no Tamuramaro defeated Tamo-no-kimi Aterui and became the first to be dubbed seii-tai-shôgun, claiming Mutsu and Dewa as Japanese territory. Emishi resistance was by no means at an end, however, at this time.[2]

Many early Japanese centers of control in the north were known as tate (館), a term which remains today in many placenames, e.g. Kakunodate (Akita pref.), Hakodate (Hokkaidô). There were several armed rebellions against Yamato rule, but the area was eventually pacified. Some Emishi who assimilated even developed into samurai clans; the Andô clan of samurai, according to some sources descended from Emishi chiefs, claimed sections of southern Ezo (i.e. the island of Hokkaidô) from the 1430s, if not earlier.

Emishi and the Ainu

While there are some theories that the Emishi are ethnically and culturally distinct from the Ainu people of Hokkaidô, most sources refer to "Emishi" only in periods prior to roughly the 14th century, and to Ainu only after that point.[3]


  • Morris-Suzuki, Tessa. "Creating the Frontier: Border, Identity, and History in Japan's Far North." East Asian History 7 (June 1994). pp1-24.
  • Piggott, Joan R. ed. Capital and Countryside in Japan, 300-1180. University of Cornell, NY, 2006.
  1. "Barbarian" 夷. See Sinocentric world order. Evelyn Rawski, Early Modern China and Northeast Asia: Cross-Border Perspectives, Cambridge University Press (2015), 205.
  2. William de Bary, Sources of Japanese Tradition, vol 1, Columbia University Press (2001), 266.
  3. Morris-Suzuki. p4.