Hokkaido Region

Outline of Hokkaido

Hokkaido is the northernmost region of Japan. The main island of Hokkaido is the second largest, next to Honshu, of Japan’s four largest islands. It faces the northern tip of Honshu across the Tsugaru Straits, and the southern tip of Russia’s Sakhalin Island across the Soya Straits. Unlike the other three main islands of Japan, Hokkaido is not comprised of several prefectures, but the entire Hokkaido region makes one big prefecture (although we usually don’t call it “Hokkaido Prefecture” but simply “Hokkaido”).

Location of the Hokkaido Region, Japan (北海道の位置)

The land area of Hokkaido accounts for about one-fourth of Japan’s entire land mass. However, with most of its population concentrated in big cities like Sapporo, the population density of Hokkaido is extremely low. And a large portion of this vast land is used for agriculture or as pasture for dairy cows.

Fields of Biei in central Hokkaido(美瑛の農地)
Fields of Biei in central Hokkaido.

Agriculture in Hokkaido is often characterized by its large-scale operation using machinery, which is not necessarily typical in any other part of Japan. So, many Japanese people today might associate Hokkaido with this dynamic landscape of green fields or meadows that seem to go on forever.

Map of Hokkaido, Japan (北海道の地形)


On the other hand, Hokkaido still has a considerable amount of pristine environment that has not been greatly spoiled by human beings. Among these natural places, Shiretoko in eastern Hokkaido is worth a special mention.

Lake Ichiko, one of the Shiretoko Five Lakes(知床五湖の一湖)
Lake Ichiko, one of the Shiretoko Five Lakes.

The Shiretoko Peninsula extends a long distance into the Sea of Okhotsk. The winter climate of this area is especially harsh, with a lot of snowfall and the cold seasonal wind blowing from the west. At the center of the peninsula runs a series of volcanoes, which includes sulfur-spewing Mount Iou, and the Shiretoko’s highest Mount Rausu at 1,660 metres. Most of the peninsula’s coastline is characterized by precipitous cliffs, some of which reach as high as 100 metres. Largely due to these severe environmental conditions, Shiretoko has long avoided large-scale human exploitation.

Snow trekking in the winter in Shretoko. (知床の冬のエコツアー)
Walking on Lake Ichiko which is completely frozen in February, with Mt. Iou and other Shretoko mountains seen in the background.

In the period roughly spanning from late-January to mid-March, the sea off the coast of the Shiretoko Peninsula is often filled with drift ice. Shiretoko is known as the southernmost place on earth where drift ice can be observed in the Northern Hemisphere.

Ice floes off the coast of Shiretoko (知床の流氷)
Ice floes off the coast of Shiretoko.

These ice floes contain, and also bring about, rich nutrients and micro-organisms, which attract fish like salmon and trout. And these fish, in return, become the feed for many birds and mammals, such as Hokkaido brown bears, white-tailed eagles, Blakiston’s fish owls, and killer whales. With this dynamic food chain, as well as the existence of a wide variety of living creatures, a large portion of the Shiretoko Peninsula and its surrounding sea zone was designated UNESCO’s natural World Heritage Site in 2005.

The Ainu

Hokkaido’s indigenous people are the Ainu. Hunter-gatherers, they lived in straw-thatched houses called cise (pronounced “chee-se”), which were built in hamlets called kotan, whose locations were carefully chosen by considering the likelihood of natural disasters and food acquisition. Living in harmony with the land, they believed that kamuy (god) dwelled in all natural objects.

 Traditional Ainu house (cise) (アイヌのチセ)
Traditional Ainu house (cise) reconstructed in Nibutani, Biratori.

So, they often named places after the natural environment, and some of these names are still used even by us Japanese today. For example, the name of Niseko, which is located in western Hokkaido and has become very popular internationally as a ski resort town, originated from an Ainu word meaning “the river gently meandering through a steep cliff.”

The Ainu in the 19th century (19世紀のアイヌ)
The Ainu in the 1870s. (Photo: Courtesy of the Hokkaido University Library.)

In fact, until 1869 when the name Hokkaido was officially introduced, the island was called Ezochi among Japanese people, which means “the land where the Ainu live,” whereas the Ainu themselves called the land Ainu Mosir, meaning “the earth where the people live peacefully.”

An Ainu woman in 1800 (アイヌの女性の描いた江戸時代の彩色画)
The chromatic picture originally drawn around 1800, depicting a female Ainu. (Courtesy of the Hokkaido University Library.)

They say it was in the Kamakura Period (1192-1333) that the first wajin, Japanese from the main island of Honshu, came to settle in Ezochi and started trading with the Ainu. Under the Tokugawa shogunate in the Edo Period (1603-1867), the Matsumae-han (Matsumae Domain), based in the southwest part of Ezochi, was given exclusive trading rights with the Ainu. However, partly because of the partial trade conditions imposed on them, Ainu people became increasingly frustrated with the Matsumae clan and the mainland Japanese.

An Ainu warrior in 1800 (アイヌの男性を描いた江戸時代の彩色画)
The chromatic picture originally drawn around 1800, depicting an Ainu warrior. (Courtesy of the Hokkaido University Library.)

In June 1669, the biggest rebellion in Ainu-Japanese history took place, which is called Shakushain’s War (or Shakushain’s Revolt) after the name of the Ainu leader of this rebellion. Reportedly, in a series of battles, some 350 wajin were killed by Ainu rebels throughout Hokkaido. But Matsumae, pleading with the Edo shogunate, managed to get additional soldiers and ammunitions from the main land. In the battle of Kunnui, Matsumae soldiers used two hundred matchlock guns to contain the southward advance of the Ainu. But the Ainu soldiers, on the other hand, chose to fight with their conventional weapons, which were poison arrows (even though they had several matchlock guns).

the town of Shinhidaka and the Shizunai River. (シャクシャインの戦い)
Overlooking the town of Shinhidaka and the Shizunai River. A view from the former site of Shibuchari Casi, Shakushain’s stronghold.

Then, gradually the tide of the war started to turn against the Ainu. Shakushain and other Ainu generals were killed in October and their primary headquarters, Shibuchari Casi, finally fell in November. After the battles, the Matsumae-han started to keep Ainu tribes throughout Ezochi on a tighter leash.

Development of Hokkaido

By the late-19th century, there were still a lot of “wilderness” left in Ezochi. So, in 1869, the new Meiji government, which had just replaced the Edo shogunate two years before, established an government office called Kaitakushi (or Development Commision) in order to embark on a large-scale development project. Coinciding with this, the new name Hokkaido was granted to this northern land.

Hokkaido pioneers at Otaru Port (小樽港に到着した開拓移民達)
A group of immigrants from Honshu has just landed at the port of Otaru. (Photo: Courtesy of the Hokkaido University Library.)

Under the auspices of Kaitakushi, a lot of people moved to Hokkaido and engaged in developing the land and infrastructure. Many farmers came from the main island of Honshu. Some of them had been forced to abandon their native land due to natural disasters or other misfortunes, and they were looking at this frontier land as a beacon of hope.

Early pioneers in Hokkaido, Japan (開墾に着手する移住者達)
A government official explaining about the work and hygiene to the newly-arrived immigrants. (Photo: Courtesy of the Hokkaido University Library.)

Farmers often formed large parties for the purpose of immigrating, and once they established a village, they sometimes named the newly developed land after their native town. For example, present-day Kitahiroshima City (kita means north in Japanese), which is about 20 km (12.5 mi.) southeast of Sapporo, was originally explored and established by farmers who hailed from Hiroshima Prefecture in western Japan.

An early pioneer hut reconstructed in Hokkaido (北海道の開拓小屋)
An early pioneer hut reconstructed in the Hitorical Village of Hokkaido. (Photo: Courtesy of the Historical Village of Hokkaido.)

Also, among immigrants were members of the former bushi class (samurai warriors) who had been deprived of some privileges, including the right to carry swords, as a result of the fall of the Edo samurai government. They were looking for the jobs and new opportunities, and many of them were hired as tondenhei (屯田兵).

tondenhei barracks in Kotoni, Sapporo (琴似村の屯田兵兵舎)
The first tondenhei barracks constructed in Kotoni, Sapporo, taken in November 1874. (Photo: Courtesy of the Hokkaido University Library.)

Tondenhei were soldier-farmers employed by the government to tackle the development work as well as to prepare for a possible threat from Russia to the north. They usually worked as farmers, but every time a war broke out, they were called upon to be soldiers. (While early tondenhei were mostly made up of former samurai, subsequently the government started to hire a lot of commoners.)

Sapporo in 1873 (明治初頭の札幌)
A view of Sapporo in the beginning of winter, 1873. (Photo: Courtesy of the Hokkaido University Library.)

It was in the 1870s that the Meiji government invited to Hokkaido several distinguished people, mainly from the United States, to learn from their advanced technology and culture. Among them, Horace Capron and William S. Clark are especially well-known in Japan today.

After fighting in the American Civil War as a Union officer, Capron was a commissioner in the Department of Agriculture under the Grant administration when he was asked by the Japanese government to take a position as a special foreign adviser for Hokkaido development. During his four-year stay in Japan (1871 – 1875), he made various noteworthy proposals concerning road construction, industry, agriculture, and fishery.

Horace Capron and other government advisors from America (ケプロンとその他の御雇アメリカ人たち)
Horace Capron, the 2nd person on the left, and other government advisors from America, taken in 1871. (Photo: Courtesy of the Hokkaido University Library.)

He is said to have introduced an “American-style agriculture” to Hokkaido. He encouraged the use of farm horses (instead of conventional oxen) and farm machines, and taught cultivation methods for various farm products, such as corns, hops, and new varieties of strawberries and apples, which were not familiar in Japan at that time. He encouraged wheat cultivation instead of rice cultivation, saying that the land of Hokkaido is not suitable for growing rice because of its cold weather, thus laying the foundations for present-day Hokkaido as a “Beer Kingdom.” Since his contributions to Hokkaido were so great, he is sometimes called the “father of Hokkaido development.”

The opening ceremony of Sapporo Brewery in 1876 (最初の札幌麦酒製造所)
The opening ceremony of the Kaitakushi brewery, the predecessor of present-day Sapporo Breweries Ltd., in September 1876. (Photo: Courtesy of the Hokkaido University Library.)

Even more well-known than Capron in Japan is William S. Clark. He taught botany and other natural science subjects to the first students of the newly-established Sapporo Agricultural College (present-day Hokkaido University). Many of his students later grew up to be leading figures in the agricultural and economic fields in Japan.

Sapporo Agricultural College in the late 1870s (19世紀の札幌農学校)
The entire view of Sapporo Agricultural College in the late 1870s. (Photo: Courtesy of the Hokkaido University Library.)

It is also known that he distributed copies of the Bible to students to introduce them to Christianity. However, probably most Japanese today associate the name of Clark not so much with his accomplishments in Hokkaido but with his parting words: “Boys, be ambitious!” which is a phrase everyone in Japan knows.

William S. Clark (クラーク博士)
Left: Young Clark in the early 1860s when he served in the Civil War. Right: Former students of Clark gathered at the unveiling ceremony of Clark’s bust in May 1926. (Photos: Courtesy of the Hokkaido University Library.)

The story goes that on April 16 in 1877, his last day in Hokkaido, his students and the faculty held a sort of informal outdoor send-off for Clark, where he made some farewell remarks and shook hands with each student. Then―one of the attendees wrote― “he jumped on his horse and shouted ‘Boys, be ambitious!’ and whipping the horse on its side, started dashing down the snow-slush road until he vanished far into the grove.”

William S. Clark uttered the famous parting words here (クラーク先生見送りの場所)
The place where Clark Sensei uttered his famous parting words, in Shimamatsu, Kitahiroshima.

Thanks to these combined efforts from the people inside and outside the country, Hokkaido developed rapidly. The population of Hokkaido, which was a mere 100,000 around the 1870s, reached well over two million in the 1920s. And the capital city of Sapporo, whose foundation was made largely by adopting the suggestions of Horace Capron, started on the road to becoming one of the biggest metropolises of Japan.

Former Hokkaido Government Office building
The Former Hokkaido Government Office building in Sapporo.

After the abolishment of Kaitakushi in 1882, the Meiji government established the Hokkaido-cho (literally, the Hokkaido Agency) in Sapporo in 1886 to assume overall administrative responsibilities over Hokkaido. And they began to construct its main office building, which was completed in 1888. That very same building is now called the Former Hokkaido Government Office Building (also known as the “red brick building”), and it is a symbol of Hokkaido as well as a popular tourist landmark. The building now includes a tourist information center and several rooms where we can learn the history of Hokkaido’s development through a number of valuable exhibitions.

Photographs: properties of Unfamiliar Japan Tours.com,
unless otherwise noted.