Author: Elisha Kayne
Nestled in the northern most area of the Japanese islands rests a majestic land. It’s home to the ancient indigenous Ainu people, and an abundance of awe inspiring wildlife. The island of Hokkaido has been through many changes since its first inhabitants laid claim to its territory during the end of the last Ice Age. However, despite the many transformations that have taken place, it has somehow retained the beauty of its landscape and the unique heritage of its modern-day population.
Archeological evidence suggests that the lands of Hokkaido have been populated since at least 15,000 BCE. The Jomon culture thrived in the area following the melting of the ice caps. The islands provided for their sustenance so well in fact, that they survived by a semi-sedentary lifestyle until approximately 300 BCE. People began to arrive to the islands more frequently as time progressed, and the cooler temperatures and far reaching geographical location of Hokkaido left its people largely isolated from the growing populations of the southern villages and cities. One of the earliest historical references to Hokkaido is found in the Nihon Shoki, which was published in 720 CE. Its author mentions a conflict between Abe no Hirafu and the Emishi people of Watarishima. After suffering a string of military defeats, some Emishi became subjects of imperial authorities, and others fled further north and created feudal territories in Honshu. Still, it is believed that the majority migrated to the farthest outpost of the islands, settling in Hokkaido, the Kuril Islands and beyond. The Emishi are thought by many to have contributed to the culture and lineages of the Ainu, where Hokkaido boasts the largest concentration of their population.
The Middle Ages
At the onset of the 12th century, the Japanese people began calling the people dwelling on the massive northern island, Ezo. Shortly thereafter, medieval Japan referenced the land as Ezochi, meaning the land of the Ezo. A century later, groups of people started migrating onto the coastal areas of Ezochi. A large population settled on the Oshima Peninsula, and friction arose between the newly arriving people and the indigenous Ainu. Eventually, the fighting intensified, culminating in the defeat of the Ainu leader Koshamain, by Takeda Nobuhiro in 1457. From that moment forward, Ainu peoples were kept from the southern areas of the island, as the Matsumae clan, descendants of Nobuhiro, strongly defended their new border.
The border between Matsumae and Ainu territory remained consistent for hundreds of years. It wasn’t until the Meiji Restoration of the late 1800s that swift changes began to take place. As tensions rose between the Japanese Empire and Russia, the security of Hokkaido became very important. During Emperor Meiji’s reign, the entire lands of the Ezo was renamed Hokkaido, and the region was divided into multiple provinces. At the turn of the 20th Century, people living in other Japanese territories were encouraged to move into Hokkaido, and traditions which existed before the transition took place were changed through assimilation and governmental policies. In 2019, the Japanese government passed a bill to officially recognize the Ainu of Hokkaido as an indigenous group. In the past few years, there has already been a massive resurgence of language and culture, and these new developments are sure to help strengthen the heritage and legacy of local communities. Today’s Hokkaido is an enticing blend of ancient heritage, modern city life and incredibly preserved wildlife. Whether enjoying the excitement of Sapporo, or taking in the pristine beauty of the Shiretoko Peninsula, there’s always an adventure waiting for residents and tourists alike.