Wednesday, January 12, 2011


Some basics about the island now called Hokkaido

Hokkaido—the Japanese Alaska? the Russian Kamchatka?

When I first came to Sapporo for a meeting in 2006, I heard a Japanese earth scientist referring to “Japan and Hokkaido” – this would be like saying “the US and Alaska” or “Russia and Kamchatka” [once, in the U.S., when a young Moscovite asked if I had been to Russia, I reponded yes, I’d been to Kamchatka, and she replied, “Oh, but that is not Russia…”] – indeed the three regions (in the case of Alaska, especially the Aleutian chain eastward to SW Alaska) have some commonalities in their geology, geography and human history. Though many differences, too.

Hokkaido, Kamchatka, and Aleutian Alaska are all frontiers, remote and wild. By now, Hokkaido is the most developed of the three, but still there is much wildness, and a sense of other-ness compared to the rest of Japan. Its climate and vegetation are northern temperate, with four seasons and mixed hardwood-conifer forest. Kind of like New England! No wonder William S. Clark was a success here [see the founding of Hokkaido University].

A bit of Hokkaido history [feel free to let me know of emendations] [dates given are western calendar; historical summary is edited from Wikipedia]

There is archaeological evidence that people were on Hokkaido by around 20,000-30,000 years ago. When people from Japan arrived, the primary residents were the Ainu. [more later about archaeology, as I have colleagues here who study it.]

During the Nara and Heian periods (710–1185), people in “Hokkaido” conducted trade with Dewa Province, an outpost of the Japanese central government. From medieval times, the people in “Hokkaidō” began to be called Ezo, and around the same time this island came to be called Ezochi, its Japanese name until the Meiji Restoration (which began in 1868). Residents of Ezochi mainly relied upon hunting and fishing and obtained rice and iron through trade with the Japanese.

During the Muromachi period (1336–1573), the Japanese created a settlement at the south of the Oshima peninsula (the southern arm of Hokkaido island). As more people moved to the settlement, disputes arose between the Japanese and the Ainu. Takeda Nobuhiro killed the Ainu leader, Koshamain, and defeated the Ainu uprising in 1457. Nobuhiro's descendants became the rulers of the Matsumae-han, which was granted exclusive trading rights with the Ainu in the Azuchi-Momoyama and Edo periods (1568–1868). There were numerous uprisings by the Ainu against feudal rule. The last large-scale resistance was a rebellion led by the Ainu chieftain Shakushain, in 1669-1672. In 1799-1821 and 1855-1858 the Edo Shogunate took direct control over Ezochi in response to a perceived threat from Russia. Leading up to the Meiji Restoration, the Tokugawa Shogunate took over control of most of Ezochi. Shortly after the Boshin War in 1868, a group of Tokugawa loyalists proclaimed the island's independence as the Republic of Ezo, but the rebellion was crushed in May 1869. Ezochi was subsequently put under control of Hakodate Prefectural Government.

The Meiji Development Commission aimed to secure Ezochi for Japan. When establishing the Commission, the Meiji Government changed the name of Ezochi, choosing Hokkaidō from six possibilities. According to Matsuura Takeshirō, the name was thought up because the Ainu called the region Kai. Historically, many peoples who had interactions with ancestors of the Ainu called them and their islands Kuyi, Kuye, Qoy, which may have some connection to the early modern form Kai. The Ainu name for the island of Hokkaido has traditionally been Aynu Mosir, translating as "Ainu Land" or "The Land Where People Live."

On Hokkaido in the Meiji restoration, Kuroda Kiyotaka was put in charge, and he went to the United States and recruited Horace Capron, President Grant's Commissioner of Agriculture, to promote Western agriculture and mining; Capron had mixed results.* In 1876 William S. Clark arrived, having been hired to help found an agricultural college in Sapporo. Although he remained less than a year, Clark left lasting impression on Hokkaido. His parting words, "Boys, be ambitious!" can be found on public buildings in Hokkaido to this day.

In the 1870s, the population boomed from 58,000 to 240,000, and in 1882, Hokkaido was separated into three prefectures, Hakodate, Sapporo, and Nemuro. In 1886, the three prefectures were abolished, and Hokkaido was put under the Hokkaido Agency. Not until 1947 did Hokkaido became equal with other prefectures, when the revised Local Autonomy Law became effective.

*[excerpted and edited from Wikipedia] Horace Capron (August 31, 1804 – February 22, 1885) was an American businessman and agriculturalist.….Capron was asked by Kiyotaka Kuroda, a vice-chairman of the Hokkaidō Development Commission, visiting the United States, to be a special advisor to the commission in Hokkaidō, Japan. Capron agreed and travelled to Hokkaidō 1870-71 as foreign advisor…. Capron spent four years in Hokkaidō, suggesting numerous ways that the frontier island could be developed. He introduced large-scale farming with American methods and farming implements, imported seeds for western fruits, vegetables and crops, and introduced livestock, including his favorite Devon and Durham cattle. He established experimental farms, had the land surveyed for mineral deposits and farming opportunities, and recommended water, mill and road improvements. His recommendation that wheat and rye be planted in Hokkaidō due to similarities in climate with parts of the United States also led to the establishment of Sapporo Beer, one of Japan's first breweries. He contributed to the urban planning for Sapporo city with an American-style grid plan with streets at right-angles to form city blocks.

Capron's tenure in Japan was not without controversy. Articles appeared in both Japan and the United States by former associates attacking his work and his personal competency. He was often frustrated with delays in the implementation of his suggestions (or on occasion, the rejection of his suggestions by more conservative members of the government). However, Kuroda Kiyotaka, future Prime Minister of Japan, was a close and trusted friend. Capron admired the Ainu of Hokkaidō, whom he compared favorably to his experiences with Native Americans. From his journals, it appears that he also admired the Japanese, although he regarded them as semi-barbaric, and firmly believed that rapid adoption of Western culture would be in Japan's best interest.

During his stay in Japan, Capron was honored with three audiences with Emperor Meiji, who took a close personal interest in his work in the development of Hokkaidō. In 1884, nine years after he departed Japan, Horace Capron was awarded the Order of the Rising Sun (2nd class) for his services in transforming Hokkaidō.…. After his time in Japan, Capron continued his contacts with the country, including acting as a purchasing agent for livestock and military equipment, and selling his house on N Street in Washington, D.C., to be the site of Japan's first Embassy. During his period in Japan, Capron amassed a large collection of Japanese art and antiques, which subsequently formed one of the foundations of the Smithsonian's Asian collection.


  1. That was an interesting piece of Japanese history. I always wanted to travel to Hokkaido and see the old dwellings there. Thanks for sharing this!

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  2. that population thing helps I was looking into the population of the Republic of Ezo and couldn't find any estimate