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  • Japanese: 北海道 (Hokkaidô)

Hokkaidô is the northernmost of the four main islands of the Japanese archipelago and the northernmost prefecture in the country. It is by far the largest prefecture, covering more than 83,000 sq km (in comparison to the second largest, Iwate prefecture, at around 15,000 sq km), and extends from 45 degrees north latitude at its northernmost point, Wakanai, to 41 degrees north latitude at Matsumae, the southernmost point on the island. Hokkaidô is the only prefecture to not employ the characters ken 県, fu 府, or to 都, meaning "prefecture," in its name.

Long existing on the borders of, or outside of, the Japanese state, the land of Hokkaidô (and surrounding islands) was long home to the Ainu and other indigenous peoples; while the Ainu referred to the territory as Ainu Mosir ("Ainu land") or Yaun Mosir ("the country land"), Japanese long referred to it as Ezo or Ezochi, a barbarian land. Ethnic Japanese first began settling in Ainu Mosir by the 15th century, if not earlier, though fuller settler colonialism and state control of the territory would not take place until the 19th century. When discussed in contrast to the Ainu and other indigenous peoples of Hokkaidô and surrounding areas, ethnic Japanese are known as Wajin 和人.

In the Edo period, the Matsumae clan, based at Matsumae castle near the southern tip of the island, was the sole samurai clan handling relations with the Ainu. At times, they expanded their administrative efforts to organize extraction from Ainu fishing groups, and at times to assimilate the Ainu into Japanese ways. Japanese (Wajin) expansion into greater settlement of Ezochi and stronger administration of it came in large part in reaction to false reports in the 1770s of Russian attack plans against Matsumae,[1] followed by actual Russian incursions and expansion into the northernmost parts of the territory beginning in the 1790s.

Matsumae domain and the Tokugawa shogunate claimed control of the entire territory for brief periods early in the 19th century, but their de facto on-the-ground control was always rather less than total. The Empire of Japan (Meiji government) formally claimed and annexed the territory, however, in 1869, renaming it Hokkaidô ("Northern Sea Route") and establishing formal colonial settlement and land development efforts. Over the ensuing decades, the Ainu people were thoroughly dispossessed of their lands and livelihoods, and subjected to harsh assimilation policies.


The Jômon peoples who were the first inhabitants of the Japanese islands, going back as early as roughly 10,000 years ago, extended across nearly the entirety of what is today considered the Japanese archipelago, from Hokkaidô in the north to Okinawa and its immediately surrounding islands in the south. Some degree of interaction across the Tsugaru Strait - between Hokkaidô and Honshû - and quite possibly across longer distances within the archipelago, took place as early as this time.[2]

Trade between Hokkaidô and the central parts of the Japanese state is documented in some of the earliest Japanese texts, including the Nihon shoki, Shoku Nihongi, and Engishiki. Japanese traded iron tools and other products for bear and sable furs, seal skins, bird feathers, kombu seaweed, and other natural products.[3]

The Yamato state launched expeditions into Emishi ("barbarian") lands in northeastern Japan as early as the 7th century; though these largely took place in what is now considered the Tôhoku region of Honshû, Tôhoku at that time was in significant ways an extension of the same cultural area as Hokkaidô; these expeditions contributed to pushing the indigenous peoples north, out of Tôhoku and into Hokkaidô, as the Yamato state gradually expanded its influence over the region. As the term "Emishi" was used not only for "barbarian" peoples who were ethnically or culturally distinct from the Japanese (Wajin), but also for people who were simply politically distinct - those outside the sway of the Yamato state or those actively rejecting the authority of that state - it is difficult to make blanket statements about whether "the Emishi" as a whole were or were not Ainu. However, scholars such as Tessa Morris-Suzuki have noted that very few, if any, sources prior to the 14th century employ the term "Ainu," and very few after that time employ the term "Emishi." In other words, there is an argument to be made that these are different terms for the same people - to at least some extent - and not for wholly distinct groups.[4]

From the 16th century or so (or perhaps earlier) onwards, Ainu society was organized into small communities called kotan. There was no one chief, king, or council uniting all Ainu, or any sort of government administration or bureaucracy; the kotan was, more or less, the largest social (or political) entity in Ainu society.[5] Kotan were self-organized, usually locating themselves near a river or seashore. They did not "own" land in any manner resembling modern concepts of ownership, with written contracts, legal codes, and/or systems of inheritance. Rather, so long as a plot of land was under cultivation by an individual, family, or kotan, others would respect the claim or "rights" to that land.[6] The men of a given kotan would hunt and fish in their area, chiefly bear and salmon, while the women farmed, mainly millet, beans, barley, wheat, sorghum, and vegetables. They would usually burn the field first, creating ash which served as fertilizer, and would then cultivate a given plot for a year or two before allowing that area to return to nature, and turning to a different plot of land to claim as theirs to cultivate for a period. Bows called ku and made of Japanese yew (Ainu: kuneni) were used along with poisoned arrows for hunting boar, bears, deer, and other animals.[7] The Ainu, especially in Sakhalin, also bred dogs, which they used for a variety of purposes, including as hunting companions, sled dogs, and for their fur/skins and their meat.

Ainu traded extensively with not only Wajin, but also with indigenous northern peoples such as the Nivkh and Uilta and to some extent with Chinese empires; robes and other items from the Qing Empire occasionally made their way into Ainu hands.[8]

It is unclear when the very first Japanese (Wajin) settlements on Hokkaidô may have first taken place, but some small number of settlements certainly existed by the 15th century. Trade and other peaceful interactions took place alongside tensions and conflicts.

One particularly notable Ainu revolt took place in 1457. Led by a chieftain named Koshamain, Ainu attacked a Japanese settlement headed by the samurai Kakizaki (Takeda) Nobuhiro. Though this would be one of the largest Ainu revolts in all of history, it ultimately ended in defeat for the Ainu. Though the Japanese still did not claim or exercise anything approaching total control of the territory, nevertheless, Nobuhiro and his settlement remained, additional settlements were established, including Katsuyama castle in 1462, and some groups of Ainu or other local native populations were obliged to begin paying tribute to samurai settlement heads.

Edo Period

Kakizaki Yoshihiro, a descendant of the Kakizaki Nobuhiro who defeated Koshamain's Revolt in the 15th century, was the predominant power-holder in the southern tip of Hokkaidô at the end of the 16th century. Submitting to the authority of Toyotomi Hideyoshi, he then later submitted to the authority of the Tokugawa shogunate as well, and in 1606 changed his name from Kakizaki to Matsumae.

Yoshihiro built Matsumae castle that same year, and made it the primary seat of governance and administration for his newly-renamed Matsumae clan. The shogunate granted the clan exclusive rights and responsibilities by the shogunate for overseeing relations with the Ainu, management of the vast northern frontier zone, and defense of the realm against threats from the north. However, unlike all other daimyô clans, the Matsumae were not formally enfeoffed in any designated territory, nor associated with a specified kokudaka (numerical ranking of power or wealth based on a presumed rice productivity of their land).

For most of the Edo period, the Japanese continued to directly control very little of the island. The island was essentially divided into two parts in the minds of the Japanese authorities. The area most immediately controlled by the Matsumae clan was known simply as Matsumae chi (松前地, lit. "Matsumae lands"), while the rest of the island was called Ezo-chi (蝦夷地, lit. "Ezo lands"). Guardposts stood at either end of the border between the two, which ran from Kameda in the east to Kumaishi in the west.[9] Initially, trading rights within Ezo-chi were divvied up between major vassals of the Matsumae clan, with each vassal family receiving rights to a given portion of land. Beginning in 1717, however, these rights began to be sold to wealthy merchants, who began to move farther and farther north. The first trading post in the Kurils was established at Kunashir in 1754, and the first on Sakhalin in 1790. The expansion of these merchant operations was mainly along the coasts, and up into the northern islands, and not into the interior of Ezo, which remained largely unexplored (by Japanese). Goods were regularly shipped from Matsumae-chi to other parts of Japan and to Ryûkyû through the kitamaebune shipping network, among others. Goods from Hokkaidô which were brought to ports along the Sea of Japan coast, in the Inland Sea, and Osaka were chiefly marine goods, including herring, konbu (seaweed), and the like. These goods then circulated further throughout the archipelago, making it even as far as Ryûkyû, and via Ryûkyû, to China, as tribute goods. Meanwhile, goods traveling in the other direction, from Osaka and elsewhere to the Inland Sea, the Sea of Japan coastal ports, and Hokkaidô, were myriad, and included rice, salt, textiles, saké, candles, dried fish, soba noodles, sugar, indigo, oil, charcoal, and tea,[10] as well as Chinese medicine ingredients obtained from China via Ryûkyû.

Japanese and Ainu engaged in active and extensive trade with one another, with the Ainu providing items such as furs, fish, hawks for hunting, and items obtained from the Asian continent, as well as a category of marine goods known as Nagasaki tawaramono which included things such as abalone and sea cucumber. In exchange, Ainu received lacquerware, swords, iron tools, and other Japanese craft-goods. Many of these Japanese craft-goods were actually rather out of reach for the average Japanese peasant of the time, so the fact that Ainu had access to them is actually quite significant.[11] Ainu chiefs also met with the Matsumae lords, and with shogunate officials, in two separate audience rituals, known respectively as uimamu (J: omemie, "audience") and omusha; both of these rituals included the exchange of gifts, and thus resembled tributary relations to some extent. However, samurai authorities explicitly did not recognize the Ainu as a sovereign people, i.e. as a country, in the same way that they recognized Korea, China, or Ryûkyû; instead, Japanese rhetoric of the time emphasized the notion of the Ainu as living under the protection (撫育, buiku) of the samurai authorities, and represented these rituals as indicating Ainu gratitude for that protection.[12]

Japanese merchant operations in Ezochi focused not only on trade but also on agriculture. The 18th century in Japan saw a great expansion in the growing of cash crops, including cotton, something which was implemented in Ezochi as well. A kind of fertilizer made from herring and called kinpi (金肥) was found to be quite effective, and herring-related operations expanded dramatically in the mid-1700s. Wajin settlement during this period remained extremely sparse and thin, however, compared to the extent of the Japanese population in Hokkaidô today. Still, as Wajin traders, fishermen, trappers, and the like made further inroads into Ainu lands, and as various sorts of exploitative economic structures were established and developed, tensions grew, occasionally erupting into outright clashes or revolts.

Though continuing to exert direct control over only a very small portion of the island, in the 18th century the Matsumae clan began licensing Japanese merchants to establish commercial operations in Ainu lands, setting up small permanent outposts of Japanese settlement, and cottage industries such as fisheries, where Ainu served as hired labor. Ainu were in fact pressured to work for the fisheries, and discouraged - through intimidation and other forceful methods - from engaging in farming; Ainu agriculture noticeably declined in the 17th-18th centuries.[13] This, combined with severe increases in prices for Japanese goods frustrated the Ainu, who saw this as a betrayal by people who had, up until then, kept to their own territory, traded fairly and amicably, and treated the Ainu with respect. Several Ainu rebellions would occur over the course of the Edo period, two of the largest or most famous being Shakushain's Revolt in 1669-1672 and the Kunashir-Menashi Revolt of 1789, but all were eventually suppressed.

Throughout this period, while Wajin and Ainu remained distinct populations for the most part, that distinction was porous. In the early Edo period, Ainu who had been living among Wajin were encouraged, or even forced, to relocate, deeper into Ezochi. They were forbidden to speak Japanese, or to dress in the Japanese fashion, and were discouraged from farming. As the shogunate's constructions of its ideological legitimacy developed, it became increasingly desirable, even necessary, that the Ainu be a foreign, exotic, people who paid tribute or otherwise formally recognized the superiority, or centrality, of Japanese civilization.[14]

Later in the period, however, Ainu could come to be regarded as Wajin, by adopting Wajin names and lifeways, and Wajin could abandon such lifeways and come to be regarded by Wajin communities as having become Ainu, though it is unclear to what extent such individuals were ever accepted and incorporated into Ainu communities. In response to Russian encroachment in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the shogunate took control to part or all of Ezochi in 1799 and again in 1807, assigning Hirosaki and Sendai domains to contribute to the defense of the territory before returning authority fully to the Matsumae domain in 1821. During this time, the shogunate and/or the domain made explicit efforts at times to promote Ainu assimilation into Wajin lifeways and communities - or even to force this upon Ainu communities - incorporating the Ainu and their land more strongly and more explicitly into Wajin territory. According to some sources, by 1800, only about half the people in Ezochi were regarded as Ainu.[15] When fears of the Russian threat subsided, these assimilation efforts were relaxed or even reversed, however, as suited the political expediencies of the moment.

The 1855 Treaty of Shimoda resolved these tensions between Russia and Japan to a certain extent, as it declared Iturup and all the islands to the south of it, including Hokkaidô, to be Japanese territory, though it left the question of Sakhalin unresolved.

Meiji Period

In the final stages of the Boshin War that accompanied the Meiji Restoration, some pro-Tokugawa loyalists were pushed back farther and farther north by pro-Imperial forces until they reached Ezochi; they regrouped there, nominally declaring a separate government - the Republic of Ezo. The Republic fell quickly, however.

Ainu were sparsely settled across the vast land area of Hokkaidô, which was thus seen by Japanese as, essentially, a "clean slate" or terra nullius. Discussions or debates of prior decades were revived, with some suggesting the government take a relatively hands-off approach, allowing private interests (merchants/firms) and individual settlers to develop the land, and allowing Ainu to assimilate in an organic, gradual manner. Others argued that a more direct, focused effort of colonization be undertaken.[16]

Ezochi was formally incorporated into the Japanese state and renamed Hokkaidô in the 8th month of 1869. The Hokkaido Development Office, or Kaitakushi, was established at the same time, with Horace Capron, a former US Secretary of Agriculture who played a prominent role in suppressing Native American opposition to American expansion, serving as one of the chief advisors. After a series of surveys and investigations, the Western experts who had been brought in by the Japanese government disagreed widely with one another. Capron took the lead, suggesting a directed effort to bring in Japanese settlers to colonize Hokkaidô; deciding that the land was no good for growing rice, he advocated a more American way of life, raising wheat, eating bread, and living in Western-style brick homes with Western-style furniture and a largely Western-style diet. This latter set of suggestions was ultimately not followed, however, and lifestyle in Hokkaidô was instead adapted to conform to more Japanese norms - even if the land were indeed better for raising wheat and other grains rather than rice, a hardier strain of rice plant was instead developed, and other elements of Japanese culture and lifestyle were introduced (or imposed).[17]

The government banned a variety of Ainu practices, including tattooing, in 1871, and obliged all Ainu to speak Standard Japanese. In 1876, efforts began to force Ainu to adopt Japanese-style names, and the following year, the government began to claim Ainu lands as government property.[18] Ainu were dispossessed of their lands, and their traditional systems of land rights & hunting/fishing rights eradicated. Salmon fishing was prohibited, and river fishing remains illegal today, with exceptions made for traditional practices.[19] Under the Former Natives Protection Law of 1899, the seized lands were then reapportioned by the state, divvied up among the Ainu, who were each given up to five hectares of land to farm, along with tools, seed, and other materials. They were forced to assimilate and adopt Japanese customs, and were officially designated in 1878 as kyûdojin (旧土人), or "former aborigines," a term meant to highlight that Ainu identity was a thing of the past, and that they were now "Japanese." However, the "former Ainu" were at the same time acknowledged as a special, different, group worthy of government concern and welfare, their financial assets seized by the state and re-apportioned to programs aimed at ensuring their "welfare."

A Hokkaido Land Regulation Ordinance promulgated by the Meiji government in 1872 incorporated the territory even more fully into the state. Though originally divided into several prefectures, these were combined into a single "Hokkaidô [prefecture]" in 1886. The Meiji Emperor visited the territory for the first time in 1881.

Systems in place throughout much of Japan for the democratic election of prefectural government were implemented in Hokkaidô in 1901, and the democratic election of representatives for the Imperial Diet beginning in 1902 (Okinawa prefecture saw these same changes some years later, in 1909 and 1912 respectively).

Hokkaidô Today

The chief Ainu communities in Hokkaidô today are located at Lake Akan, Shiraoi, and Nibutani.[7]


  1. Robert Hellyer, Defining Engagement, Harvard University Press (2009), 102.
  2. Richard Pearson, Ancient Ryukyu, University of Hawaii Press (2013), 4.
  3. Gallery labels, Hokkaido Museum.
  4. Morris-Suzuki, Tessa. "Creating the Frontier: Border, Identity, and History in Japan's Far North." East Asian History 7 (June 1994). pp4.
  5. Mark Watson, "Tokyo Ainu and the Urban Indigenous Experience," in ann-elise lewallen, Mark Hudson, Mark Watson (eds.), Beyond Ainu Studies, University of Hawaii Press (2015), 72.
  6. Morris-Suzuki, "Creating the Frontier," 15.
  7. 7.0 7.1 Gallery labels, "Master - An Ainu Story," photo exhibit by Adam Isfendiyar, SOAS Brunei Gallery, Fall 2018.
  8. David Howell, "Is Ainu History Japanese History?," in ann-elise lewallen, Mark Hudson, Mark Watson (eds.), Beyond Ainu Studies, University of Hawaii Press (2015), 106.
  9. Morris-Suzuki, "Creating the Frontier," p5.
  10. Mitarai tsûshin 御手洗通信 no. 3, August 1998, p2.
  11. Tessa Morris-Suzuki, "The Frontiers of Japanese Identity," in Stein Tønnesson and Hans Antlöv (eds.), Asian Forms of the Nation, Psychology Press (1996), 45.
  12. Arano Yasunori, "Foreign Relations in Early Modern Japan: Exploding the Myth of National Seclusion," Nippon.com, 18 Jan 2013.
  13. Morris-Suzuki, "Creating the Frontier," 21.
  14. Morris-Suzuki, "The Frontiers of Japanese Identity," 51.
  15. Schirokauer, et al, A Brief History of Japanese Civilization, Wadsworth Cengage (2013), 134.
  16. Morris-Suzuki, "Creating the Frontier," p13.
  17. Morris-Suzuki. "Creating the Frontier." p14.
  18. Gallery labels, National Museum of Japanese History (Rekihaku).[1]
  19. Gallery labels, "Ainu Treasures," East-West Center. Feb 2013.[2]