The Colonization of Hokkaido: How a “Foreign” Frontier Became Japan

The Colonization of Hokkaido: How a “Foreign” Frontier Became Japan

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How a mysterious frontier island peopled by "barbarians" became one of the four main islands of Japan - and how the original inhabitants suffered as a result.
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Far North of Tokyo, beyond the shattered dome of Mt. Bandai, beyond the scattered islands of Matsushima in Miyagi Prefecture, the rough-hewn bays of Iwate and the ax-handle shaped Shimokita Peninsula in Aomori, and across the freezing straits of Tsugaru, there lies the island of Hokkaido. Fringed with high mountains and blessed with wide-open plains perfect for pasture, with fast-flowing rivers, vast wetlands, dark forests, and deep winter snows, the island – the world’s 21st largest – marks the most northerly extent of modern Japan, its distinctive shape looking for all the world like the horned head of some dragon or seahorse floating atop the long body of Japan’s largest island, Honshu.

Along with that island, as well the two more southern and somewhat smaller islands Kyushu and Shikoku, Hokkaido serves as one of the four main islands of Japan. These four islands create the famous shape of the country, perhaps one of the most easily identifiable geographical silhouettes of any state in the world.

And yet Hokkaido, now considered so indisputably, integrally Japanese, has only truly been part of the Japanese mainland for the past 150 years. Before that, before the Japanese colonization of Hokkaido, the mysterious island was a frontier beyond the frontier, a faraway and indistinct place peopled by those known in Japan by many names – “EzoEmishi” – all of which meant some variation on a similar theme: “Barbarian.” In their own language, they were the Ainu, or the Utari – simply, “Humans,” or “the People.”

Indeed, the name “Hokkaido” itself is a modern creation, first applied to the island as it was incorporated into Japan in the Meiji Era. For far longer, it was known by the same name as the “barbarians” who occupied it: “Ezo (蝦夷),” a word made up of two kanji with the interesting meanings of “shrimp” and “barbarian.”

Ezo, as the land was for so long known, has been inhabited for at least the past 20,000 years. Yet, the people we think of as the modern Japanese – an ethnicity now usually known as the Yamato people (大和民族), and who in past times referred to themselves as Wajin (倭人) – only first arrived to the island 800 years ago, and even then only in small numbers, their population limited to the southern tip of Oshima Peninsula nearest to their native Honshu. The rest of the vast interior of Ezo remained a foreign land.

Who was it who lived on Ezo so long before the arrival of the modern Japanese?

Before the Arrival of the Japanese

Married Ainu woman.
It is customary for Ainu women to tattoo the backs of their hands before marriage, and then after marriage to tattoo the area around their mouths with a distinctive black ink. (Picture: Vintage)

Those who lived in the most distant past of the island are, in many ways, lost to our modern knowledge. How they arrived, and what became of them, remains a hotly contested mystery.


Some were the Jomon people, a Neolithic tribal hunter-gatherer society who lived in scattered settlements throughout the islands of modern Japan for a period of over 15,000 years. While the largest concentration of the Jomon lived in the central and northern areas of Honshu, some from among their tribes migrated slowly northward, eventually settling in far Hokkaido around eight to six thousand years ago. This long Jomon period continued until around 300 BCE in Honshu, where the arrival of another people called the Yayoi, perhaps from the Korean peninsula, and the introduction of rice agriculture eventually saw them and their way of life disappearing into the mists of time. The people who emerged from the Yayoi and Jomon cultures became the Yamato; the modern Japanese ethnic group.

In Ezo, though, far beyond the reaches of incipient Yamato culture, the Jomon lifestyle continued for some hundreds of years more. Meanwhile, another group of people arrived to Ezo from the north, crossing the frozen Sea of Okhotsk from the large island we now call Sakhalin. These Okhotsk people arrived around 600 CE, fishing the northern shores of Ezo and hunting sea mammals. The Jomon people had meanwhile morphed into a culture now called Satsumon, and they and the Okhotsk people lived side by side on the island, the Satsumon hunting the deep interiors of the island while the Okhotsk plied the cold seas.

During the 12th century, the Yamato further south in the imperial Heian Court in modern Kyoto were seeing the end of an age of high art and poetry. The age of the samurai was just beginning, and the far reaches of northern Honshu were, at least momentarily, still inhabited by another seemingly non-Yamato people known as the Emishi. But the Okhotsk people of Ezo seem to have disappeared. Whether they were absorbed into the Satsumon culture or whether they retreated across the sea to Sakhalin or beyond is not known.

Meanwhile, the Satsumon culture seems to have been influenced by yet another arriving people group. The Emishi, the native inhabitants of northern Honshu, whose origins are also shrouded in mystery, had long been in conflict with the northward advancing Yamato people.

Through a series of wars and incursions, the Emishi had slowly seen themselves become surrounded by Yamato. Though some Emishi decided to join their power to the Yamato settlers, intermarrying, trading and living side by side with them, others found themselves pushed farther and farther north, eventually fleeing across the Tsugaru Straits to Ezo. While the Emishi living in Honshu eventually faded into the overall Yamato population, their separate culture and identity extinguished from history, the Emishi in Ezo may have found themselves integrating or perhaps influencing the Satsumon culture that flourished there.

Exactly what became of the Emishi, the Satsumon, and the Okhotsk is unknown. But in their place, perhaps as a continuation of all three peoples, emerged the indigenous people of Hokkaido who still live on today: the Ainu. Speakers of a distinctly non-Japonic language, one perhaps on a continuum with the Jomon or Emishi languages, the Ainu also appear vastly different from their southern neighbors – indeed, early western visitors to Ezo perceived them as a sort of lost Caucasian people. Americans tended to liken them in appearance and custom to Native Americans. Their men wore huge, burly beards, and their women tattooed the area around their mouths in a distinctive black ink. The Ainu of the time lived across Ezo, with separate communities in Sakhalin and the Kuril Islands northeast of the Ezo mainland speaking different dialects. They hunted the interiors of their island homelands, fished the seas, and traded with peoples to the islands even farther north and with others on the nearby Asian mainland.

To the Ainu, Hokkaido was their ancestral homeland – the “Ainu Mosir,” as said in their tongue. To the slowly encroaching Yamato Japanese, it was Ezo – a foreign land of so-called “hairy barbarians.” What exactly Ezo was to the Yamato remained hazy, as the term referred to all the lands of these barbarians, including Sakhalin and the Kurils – it was not until hundreds of years later that accurate maps were made of the area that distinguished between the various land masses.

The Encroaching Yamato

Picture of an Ainu man.
Picture of an Ainu man taken in 1880. (Picture: Wikipedia)

Legends remain of early Japanese Buddhist priests who had gone to Ezo to proselytize to the Ainu, but of what became of them we know not (needless to say their religion did not take root, as the Ainu animist religion remained strong). Though some Yamato trading outposts were probably set up on the island as early as the 700s, the first real Yamato population to settle in Ezo only arrived in the 12th century, as some seeking refuge from wars and famine in northern Honshu crossed the Tsugaru Strait and set up small communities in the southern parts of Oshima peninsula, where the rich fisheries off the coasts supplied them with food and trade. Others came to pan Ezo rivers in search of elusive gold, while the newly established Kamakura Shogunate, which ruled over Japan from 1185, began sending convicts into exile in this distant, foreign land.

These small Yamato enclaves could perhaps be compared to the earliest English settlements in North America, like Roanoke and Jamestown (although the Yamato here had much easier access to their homeland, with Honshu just across the short Tsugaru Strait rather than an entire ocean away). Like those colonies, these new Yamato transplants had to learn to subsist in a new land where their usual crops might not grow and where the local climes were more extreme then they were used to. They found themselves both coming into conflict and simultaneously completely reliant on the local peoples they encountered there – people who vastly outnumbered them, and whom they considered “barbarians,” but who knew the lay of the land and how to survive there much better than these initial interlopers could dream of. Trade with the Ainu was key to these settler’s lives in Ezo, but their relationship with them was tenuous enough to require the building of simple wooden forts and barricades to ward off Ainu attack, complete with surrounding Buddhist cemeteries – Ainu taboos regarding the dead were thought to prevent them from coming too close.

For their part, the Ainu interactions with these southern foreigners was just as complicated. While intrusions into their land and the disruption of important salmon spawning grounds by Yamato hunting for gold in local rivers was irksome, the Ainu also came to depend on goods they could only receive via trade with the Yamato – rice, sake, and advanced metal works brought across the Tsugaru Strait. As trade with the Yamato became more important, Ainu lifestyles shifted, just one example being the abandoning of a tradition of Ainu metalworking in favor of superior wares from Honshu. Another item they came to treasure was Japanese lacquerware, which became a traditional item for the storage of family valuables.

But desire for healthy trade was not enough to prevent real conflict from breaking out between the Ainu and the foreigners in their midst. While trade between the two peoples had started off more or less as that between equals, the Yamato began to see the Ainu more as a lesser people bringing tribute to a more powerful neighbor. Abuses of power by the Yamato and unfair trading became more prevalent, and Ainu resentment grew in turn. As has happened throughout history, these unfair power dynamics between indigenous and foreign interloper made violence almost inevitable.

Violence Erupts

The first major war between Ainu and Yamato on Ezo broke out in 1457, known as Koshamain’s War (コシャマインの戦い). What started as a simple trade dispute regarding a sword was enough to fan the fires of resentment into a full blown blaze of violence. A Yamato blacksmith, enraged by an Ainu customer’s displeasure with the quality and price of the short sword he had ordered, plunged the bespoke dagger into his young customer. Seeking revenge, Koshamain, an Ainu leader, lead groups of infuriated Ainu to attack the twelve fortified Yamato outposts on the Oshima peninsula. They managed to defeat the Yamato defenders at many of the forts, sacking them and razing the outposts to the ground.

These Ainu victories were not enough to drive the Yamato off the island, however. While ten of the twelve forts fell to their attacks, one fort withstood the Ainu barrage under the stout leadership of one Takeda Nobuhiro, a young samurai associated with the locally powerful Kakizaki family. Successfully defending the fort, he led a counterattack again Koshamain’s forces. After various battles with many losses on both sides, Nobuhiro finally managed to ambush Koshamain, felling both the Ainu leader and his sons under a hail of arrows.

The Ainu revolt had ended, and with it their greatest chance to beat back the advancing Yamato. Nobuhiro became one of the great Yamato heroes of the history of Hokkaido, and the Kakizaki officially invited him into their family. Eventually he became the head of their clan, which itself came to supplant the local Abe clan as the leaders of the Yamato on Ezo.

In 1516, the Ashikaga Shogun granted the Kakizaki the right to tax ships coming in and out of Ezo harbors. As the Kakizaki consolidated power in their area of Ezo, more skirmishes and battles with the Ainu came at intermittent periods. A peace was formed in 1551, and the Kakizaki at first worked to implement fairer rules regarding the Ainu to prevent further conflicts disrupting their trade. In 1560, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, fresh off his conquest of the Japanese mainland and the unification of the country, bestowed upon the Kakizaki the right to administer their part of Ezo as a fief. He admonished them to use their borderland holdings to protect Japan from the northern barbarians at their doorstep.

The newly empowered Kakizaki changed their name to Matsumae, constructing a castle in their capital of the same name. Thus began what is now known as the Matsumae Era, a period of over 200 years where the Matsumae Clan held sole power over their part of Ezo. In many ways, the Matsumae holdings were a colony in the true sense of the word – an extension of foreign power on a distant land far from that power’s capital, where a minority group administered land occupied by a majority indigenous group, taking advantage of the resources of the occupied territory to send off to the mainland, all the while privileging themselves over the native inhabitants of the area.

Colonization Begins: The Matsumae Era

Statue of Shakushain
A statue of legendary Ainu leader Shakushain. (Picture: Wikipedia)

But still Ezo as a whole was not truly part of “Japan,” as it were. The Matsumae created an officially delimiting line between the area where Yamato were allowed to settle – the Wajinchi, occupying just part of the southern Oshima Peninsula – and the vast majority of Ezo that was to be considered the frontier lands occupied by the Ainu, called the Ezochi. All trade with the Ainu in the Ezochi was to go through the Matsumae and be taxed by them, giving the clan a monopoly on wealth created via Ainu trade. Any fishing or trade outposts in the Ezochi were also to be made only with Matsumae permission, and no Yamato was allowed to winter in the Ezochi. Nonetheless, fishing outposts from this era eventually developed into many of the major coastal towns and cities of modern Hokkaido.

Despite initial attempts to keep good relations with the Ainu, the Matsumae could be heavy handed in their treatment of their indigenous neighbors. When they opened a fishing outpost in Kushiro in 1635, the Matsumae forcibly moved an inland group of Ainu to the site in order to use them as manpower for their fishing exploits. This sort of wanton use of the Ainu “barbarians,” almost perceived as non-human by the Yamato, resulted in more outbreaks of war between the colonizers and the colonized.

In 1668, a charismatic Ainu leader named Shakushain launched a war against the Yamato for their interference in an ongoing rivalry he had with another Ainu clan. He gathered other clans to his cause, using anger at Yamato unfairness as a rallying cry. His army assaulted Yamato towns and took Yamato ships at sea, killing as many as 400 Yamato people. The war became serious enough that the Tokugawa Shogun in distant Edo (modern Tokyo) commanded his northern lords to send troops across the sea to assist the Matsumae in their battles against the Ainu – showing the importance the central government put on the Matsumae domain as a frontier fief.

Shakushain and his forces were eventually routed and he surrendered. During a celebratory feast following the peace treaty he had signed, Shakushain was murdered in cold blood by the victorious Matsumae soldiers. Yamato domination was once again asserted.

The Shrinking Ainu Population

In 1716, the Matsumae lord was conferred the official title of daimyo, recognizing his suzerainty over the Wajinchi and bringing the area even closer into the mainland Japanese system. The Shogunate’s interest in the Ainu continued, and 1717 saw the creation of an office for Ainu affairs located in Ezo, which was supported by taxes levied on local fisheries. The fisheries themselves were the lifeblood of the Wajinchi, with huge amounts of caught herring being sold farther south as a treasured source of quality fertilizer (Ezo Herring may have fertilized up to 50% of Japanese rice fields by 1740). In order to increase profits, the Matsumae would subcontract their trading posts around the island to interested merchants who would then use or even force nearby Ainu to work as seasonal laborers. This system, called Basho Ukeoi (場所請負制), became the standard feature of the unbalanced Yamato-Ainu relationship for well over a hundred years.

The 1700s saw the Yamato population in their section of Ezo grow, as did their abuses against the Ainu. Conversely to the Wajinchi population boom, the indigenous population continued to fall, their communities ravaged by new diseases and emaciated by the diminishing stock of deer and fish as the Yamato population took more of the island’s resources. In the year 1600, there had been approximately 50,000 Ainu in Hokkaido as opposed to only 12,000 Yamato. A century later, in 1700, the Ainu were only barely holding on to their majority, their population decreased to only 30,000 Ainu against 20,000 Yamato. Yet another hundred years onwards, in 1800, there were only 20,000 Ainu, while the Yamato population on the island had grown to 30,000 – meaning that by the turn of the 19th century, the Yamato now outnumbered the Ainu in their own homeland, even if those Yamato still mostly lived in the geographically smaller area of the Wajinchi.

The final major Ainu uprising occurred in 1789, spurred on by horrific mistreatment of Ainu in the East of Ezo under the Basho Ukeoi system. Bands of Ainu raided eastern trade posts and towns, killing up to 70 Yamato before the revolt was put down. 37 Ainu, captured and held as instigators of the revolt, were executed. This was the end of major armed Ainu resistance to the Yamato.

A New Rival on the Horizon

It was around this time that the Ainu were replaced as the source of major Yamato concern in these northern borderlands. The frontiers of Japan and Russia came into closer and closer contact between the years 1770 to 1813 as Russian exploration of their newly acquired Far East melded into the Japanese northern frontiers of Ezo, including the poorly mapped and still mutually mysterious area of the Kurils and Sakhalin. Russians in the ever-growing population centers Siberia hoped that Japan would prove an apt source of trade, the products of which could more easily be brought to Siberia via northern Japan than from distant St. Petersburg or Moscow.

Russian missions to Ezo in 1778 and 1779 managed to meet with Matsumae officials. But this was during Japan’s long period of official isolation, and the Matsumae, ultimately bound by the strict isolationist rules of the Tokugawa Shogunate, simply directed the Russians to trade with the Ainu in specifically decided locals in the Kurils, or to make the long sea journey south to Nagasaki, where perhaps they could trade via Dejima – the only site of allowed, although limited, trade with western powers).

Following this suggestion, other Russian officers later went to Nagasaki in search of trade. However, they were kept waiting in the harbor for months on end, disallowed by Nagasaki officials to even set foot of their ships. After this long period of waiting, they were finally rebuffed, causing their leader, Rezanov, to send ships to attack Japanese outposts in the Kurils and Sakhalin. They burnt the outposts to the ground and also attacked two Japanese ships at sea.

These attacks touched off a period of great paranoia regarding the Russians and incited panic in Ezo. Troops were sent to outposts throughout the frontier to ward off attacks, and a system of bonfire beacons was installed from Cape Soya to Matsumae to warn the capital in case of Russian incursions (though none more came).

The situation with this new neighbor to the north was of extreme concern to the Shogunate on the mainland, leading them to take new interest in the island of Ezo. They sent expeditions to the island to see the state of Matsumae control there, and came away disappointed. Worried Matsumae mismanagement of the Ainu would lead the resentful among them to side with the Russians in the occasion they decided to make a move on Ezo, the Shogunate made a decisive move. In 1799, they took over direct control of eastern Hokkaido, installing troops in the trading posts there, effectively militarizing the border area. To the south, in the Wajinchi, they set up a magistrate in the town of Hakodate, minimizing Matsumae power in their own domain. Soon after, they forced the Matsumae to relinquish the domain entirely, moving the lordly family away from Ezo and placing all power in the Wajinchi in Shogunate hands. 200 years of Matsumae rule seemed at an end.

The shogunal magistrate in the new Ezo capital of Hakodate tried various schemes to begin developing the island, hoping to populate it more thoroughly with Japanese, thus heading off any Russian ideas of conquest of the island under the guise of it being a sort of unclaimed land. Samurai-farmers were brought in to settle some of the more northerly parts of the island, but the cold Ezo winters defeated them.

As the 19th century moved on, more and more foreigners found their way to Ezo, whether on purpose or not. The age of whaling brought to the seas surrounding Hokkaido American and British ships in search of the numerous cetaceans for whom the waters were home. Whaling ships in search of provisions as well as foreign castaways washing ashore meant that the people of Ezo, both Japanese and Ainu, kept on encountering foreigners despite the sanctions against such meetings imposed by the Shogunate. Despite these worrying developments, the Shogunate eventually withdrew from direct rule of the Wajinchi for lack of funds (the financial situation for the Tokugawa was becoming more dire with each decade of the 19th century), returning the Matsumae to power as defenders of the Ezo frontier.

The Matsumae rule could not last long, however. Unbeknownst to either them or the Shogunate, the age of the samurai and of Japanese isolation was coming to an end.

An End to the Ainu Homeland

American president Millard Fillmore had sent Admiral Matthew C. Perry to Japan under instructions of “opening up” the country to foreign trade. When Perry’s so-called “black ships,” powerful steam-powered ships of war brimming with cannon the likes of which Japan had never seen, steamed into Uraga Harbor in 1853, the age of isolation came tumbling down.

By the time Perry returned to Japan a year later as promised in his ultimatum to the Shogun, the Tokugawa government had decided to capitulate to foreign demands. They opened up two ports for American trade – one in Shimoda, in modern Shizuoka; the other was Hakodate in Ezo, both locations perhaps having been chosen to keep the Americans as far away from central power as possible.

In fact, Perry had requested Matsumae, believed to still be the capital of Ezo, but it was refused him. The Shogunate claimed it was controlled by its own lord and thus was beyond the powers of the central government. Perry sailed to Hakodate to insure the port met his standards, which it did amply – he called it one of the best harbors in the world, likening it to Gibraltar. The townspeople fled as his ships approached. and Hakodate officials, claiming ignorance of the Tokugawa decree to open Hakodate to the Americans, resisted their landing in the harbor. Perry prepared a bombardment but was spared the need to act when officials acquiesced. The townspeople remained hidden during his initial visit; Perry’s sailors saw not a single Japanese woman their entire time in Hakodate.

They did, however, encounter Ainu, who Perry’s men described as “under the absolute will of their Japanese taskmasters.”

Thus began Hakodate history as point of contact between Japan and the outside world, fitting as it was for a major port on land that was only just starting to be considered anything other than a frontier. Russia soon had its own treaty allowing trade there, and they began to make their mark on the city. Ezo officials began investing in farming to help cater to foreign seamen, especially with the raising of cattle for beef (Hokkaido remains a major domestic source of beef and milk for Japan to this day).

Meanwhile, foreign attention towards the Ainu worried Japanese officials, who were concerned about potential Ainu revolts. From 1855, Japanese settlers were officially allowed to move into the Ezochi lands previously reserved for the Ainu and those specially designated military and business enterprises. The full colonization of the Ainu lands had begun, and the more Yamato who moved into the land, the less the Ainu could practice their traditional ways of life, and the less likely they could overcome the Japanese in a revolt. Like so many other settlement enterprises throughout world history, the land of the Ainu was deemed “empty” by the Japanese government, ripe for full-on colonization. The Ainu, long dominated by the Yamato but still generally free to live in their land, would soon be surrounded and pushed out of even that.

Last Bastion of the Samurai

Takeaki Enomoto
Takeaki Enomoto, pictured close to the end of the Shogunate’s rule. (Picture: Wikipedia)

These were tumultuous times. Hardly a decade after Perry forced the Tokugawa Shogunate to open up Japan to him and an ever-growing list of foreign countries, the samurai of Satsuma and Choshu far in the south of Japan rose up in revolt against the 250 year-old Shogunate. Intending to return the Emperor in Kyoto to real power and to restore Japanese honor vis-a-vis the foreign powers they perceived the shogun as practically bowing to, their revolution saw the weakened Tokugawa regime falling far faster and more easily that could have been anticipated. This brought major change in Ezo as fleeing Shogunate loyalist forces lead by Takeaki Enomoto sailed to the island, defeating the Matsumae in battle after battle. Matsumae and Hakodate fell to Enomoto’s army, and for almost a year’s time Ezo became a separate breakaway state from the Japan mainland – referred to by modern scholars as the Ezo Republic.

Enemoto’s entreaties to be allowed to maintain the samurai way of life and to develop Ezo under the leadership of a Tokugawa heir were denied by the new Meiji government now ruling the Japanese mainland. His brief era as president of his samurai republic saw new attempts at organizing the island and outreach to the foreigners and Ainu in his domain, but whatever changes he hoped to carry out were cut short by the invading Meiji army. The major battles that occurred at sea and on land between the rebel samurai forces and the Meiji were deadly, leaving two-thirds of Hakodate in ruins by the time they had finished. Enomoto finally capitulated. The age of samurai on Ezo was over.

Ezo Eclipsed, Hokkaido Ascendant

After the rebels and their short-lived republic had been put down, the Meiji began the final and full incorporation of all of the main island of Ezo into Japan. The residence inside the star-shaped fortress of Goryokaku that had housed the Republic of Ezo government was demolished, and the reconstruction of Hakodate was begun.

To bring the land fully into modern Japan, the Meiji needed a new name for the island that would separate it from the connotations of Ezo – a land of barbarians, a frontier that was beyond the knowledge and scope of most Japanese. Matsuura Takeshiro (an explorer who had covered more ground on Hokkaido than perhaps any other Yamato Japanese, and who had befriended many Ainu and even learned their language) submitted six potential names, including Kaihokudō (海北道, “Ocean Northern Route”) and Hokkaidō (北加伊道, “Northern Kai Road). Matsuura, who held respect for the Ainu, had chosen the “Kai” in his “Hokkaido” to represent their people, as he (somewhat erroneously) believed this was the word they had used for the island in their own tongue. The government liked the sound of Hokkaido but preferred the kanji meanings of Kaihokudo, and rearranged the former to be read like the latter – thus Hokkaido (海北道, “Northern Sea Route”) was born. Ezo, both as the homeland of the Ainu, and as a breakaway Samurai state, was no more.

The Meiji began work on a newly planned capital for their new Hokkaido, to be named Sapporo. Unlike southern Hakodate, so close to Honshu and deeply entrenched in lands that had been part of the Yamato Japanese settlement for centuries, Sapporo was deep in the former Ezochi – and thus traditionally Ainu – territory. An inland capital farther north and more central to the whole island indicated the permanent ownership of the entire land now claimed by Japan. Hakodate was consigned to the Ezo past. Sapporo was the future, one in which this newly-named Hokkaido was simply another part of the homeland of the Japanese empire.

A postal service was established in Hakodate in 1872, and telegraph service came in 1875. A ferry route soon plied the waters between Yokohama and Hakodate, and another ferry departed Aomori on the mainland every four days, crossing the Tsugaru Straits for Hokkaido. Only decades earlier, an explorer from Honshu hoping to see Ezo would have had to wait for months simply to receive approval to venture into the borderland.

As perhaps the final signal of just how much Hokkaido was now to be considered fully “Japan,” the Meiji emperor himself visited the island in 1876. He met not only with his Yamato citizenry on the island but even a group of Ainu, and attended an Ainu dance. He returned again to the island in 1881. Both times the people greeted him with great fanfare.

Hokkaido: Finally Japanese?

Above: A compilation of Ainu photography from 100 years ago.

The story of Hokkaido continues with the tale of its development by the Meiji state, but this is a story worthy of its own detailed examination. By this point, the island once known as Ezo had been completely colonized and annexed, so much so, in fact, that it is now simply taken for granted as part of the Japanese mainland.

The development saw a huge immigration to the island as Meiji officials and hired foreign experts figured out how best to endure the frigid winters and make use of the vast lands of Hokkaido. Thousands of former samurai (including a group who had been part of the Republic of Ezo), destitute and without purpose now that their way of life was outlawed, moved to Hokkaido. These tondenhei (屯田兵), former warriors turned farmers, founded many modern Hokkaido towns that exist in one form or another until this day. Mining, agriculture, and fishing industries flourished. Such agricultural developments nearly drove the Hokkaido Deer to extinction. The Ezo Wolf, one of only two wolf species native to the Japanese archipelago, was not so lucky.

The Ainu were subsumed by their colonizers, their identity as a separate ethnicity and culture actively repressed by the increasingly imperious Meiji state as it began to stress a uniquely homogenous Japan into which the Ainu could not fit. Yet today, they live on in Hokkaido, perhaps 30,000 among a population of almost five and a half million. The Ainu language, like the Ezo wolf, is now thought extinct, having recently lost many of its last native speakers. Serious efforts to revitalize their culture are underway, however.

In 1947, after World War II but still during the American occupation period, Hokkaido was made into a full and equal prefecture, on the same level as the other 46 prefectures of Japan. Ironically, towards the very tail end of the war the island had barely avoided invasion and potential annexation from Russia – a fear strikingly similar to the one that had spurred the central shogunate government to incorporate Ezo more firmly into Japanese suzerainty, over 150 years earlier. The aims of the Tokugawa Shoguns of the time have now been carried out. Hokkaido has become, irrevocably, Japanese.


Irish, Ann B. Hokkaido: A History of Ethnic Transition and Development on Japan’s Northern Island. McFarland, 2009. Print.

Seaton, Philip. Japanese Empire in Hokkaido. Oxford Research Encyclopedias, Nov. 2017. Accessed February 8th, 2019.

Howell, David L. Early “Shizoku” Colonization Of Hokkaidō. Journal of Asian History, Vol. 17, 1983.

Godefroy, Noémi. The Road From Ainu Barbarian To Japanese Primitive: A Brief Summary Of Japanese-Ainu Relations In A Historical Perspective. Centre d’Etudes Japonaises, OFIAS, February 2012.

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Noah Oskow

Serving as current UJ Editor-in-Chief, Noah Oskow is a professional Japanese translator and interpreter who holds a BA in East Asian Languages and Cultures. He has lived, studied, and worked in Japan for nearly seven years, including two years studying at Sophia University in Tokyo and four years teaching English on the JET Program in rural Fukushima Prefecture. His experiences with language learning and historical and cultural studies as well as his extensive experience in world travel have led to appearances at speaking events, popular podcasts, and in the mass media. Noah most recently completed his Master's Degree in Global Studies at the University of Vienna in Austria.

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