A Very Short History of the Ainu of Hokkaido

Posted on Jul 20, 2019
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Posted on Jul 20, 2019

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Reading time: 5 min
The Ainu indigenous people of Hokkaido have a strong historical and contemporary legacy. This is evidenced in Hokkaido place names, tangible culture, language, increasing (if not belated) recognition by the Japanese government and, of course, the run-away success of the manga Golden Kamuy. Here at the Hokkaido Wilds, we’re adding Ainu place names to ski routes, hiking routes, and canoe routes, but this hardly scratches the surface of the Ainu story. Here, we offer a long-read primer on a somewhat hidden-in-plain-sight foundation of Hokkaido contemporary culture.

Last updated Jul 29, 2019

Ainu with a Japanese researcher (Sarashina Genzo) and film crew, 1960s.
Ainu, including activist and poet Moritake Takeichi (front right) with a Japanese researcher (Sarashina Genzo) and film crew, 1960s
Perhaps the very first Westerner to set foot in Hokkaido, then known as Ezo or Yezo, was a Jesuit, Geronimo de Angelis, who visited the small domain of Matsumae on the very southern tip of the island in 1618. This territory represented the farthest reaches of the early modern Japanese state; beyond its borders lay Ezo-chi, Ainu land, occupied by people regarded as wild barbarians. Even though the great shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu had confirmed Matsumae as a vassal domain in 1604, de Angelis was informed by the lord of the domain that ‘Matsumae is not Japan’.
Mt. Rishiri Southeast Ski Tour Route | HokkaidoWilds.org
Skiing Rishiri-zan (Ri-sir)
Mt. Asahidake and Nakadake Onsen Loop Hike (Hokkaido, Japan)
Asahi-dake in the Daisetsuzan Range (Nutap-ka-us-pe)

Hokkaido is different. It has different landscapes, climate, plants and animals. It also has a different history. Hokkaido never enjoyed the classical courtly culture portrayed in the Tale of Genji, and remained untouched by the titanic struggles for supremacy waged in the sixteenth century by the great warrior barons like Oda Nobunaga. During the great flourishing of urban and high culture in the Tokugawa period (1600-1868) it remained a wild frontier region between Japan, and from the mid-eighteenth century, an expanding Russian Empire. Only at the downfall of the Tokugawa shogunate, precipitated by the intrusion of the western powers in the mid-nineteenth century, did the island become unequivocally Japan, recognized internationally by a treaty in 1855.

Of course, for the native people of the island, the Ainu, it was not a frontier but their homeland, Ainu Mosir, where they hunted, fished and traded with their neighbours to north and south. Even today, the vast majority of Hokkaido place names are derived from the Ainu language, including that of the capital Sapporo. Ainu Mosir, though, was rich in natural resources that the Japanese coveted.

Benikara ekashi (elder) of Kussharo Kotan, tourist postcard, 1930s
Benikara ekashi (elder) of Kussharo Kotan, tourist postcard, 1930s

At first these natural resources were obtained through trade with the Ainu, and Japanese trading settlements had been established in the very south by the 12th century. Over the next few centuries these settlements consolidated into the Matsumae domain which began to expand its power over the rest of the island, and eventually into southern Sakhalin and the Kuriles. By the eighteenth century there were Japanese trading posts and fishing stations all around the coasts, and the Ainu had been reduced to labourers extracting the rich marine resources, especially herring. This was not necessarily a peaceful transformation. There were three major armed conflicts with the Ainu: Koshamain’s War of 1456 in the area of what would become Matsumae; Shakushain’s War of 1669 over control of central Hokkaido; and a final uprising against cruel treatment in the far east and Kunashiri Island in 1789.

Sunrise over Kunashiri Islands (Hokkaido, Japan)
Sunrise over the Kunashiri Islands (Kunasir)

This all changed with the inauguration of modern Japan in 1868. The new modernizing regime was determined to secure the resources of Hokkaido and settle the border issue. This was achieved through an ambitious colonial project to develop the land and settle it through mass immigration. Western, mainly American, advisers were brought in to teach western agricultural practices and introduce livestock, and prospect for coal and mineral resources. The land was surveyed and granted to settlers on the characteristic grid pattern we see in Hokkaido’s agricultural belts today. The Japanese population rose from around 100,000 in 1870 to over 3 million by 1936.

This dramatic transformation is rightly celebrated in the historical narrative of Hokkaido’s hardy pioneers, but the Ainu were condemned to the fate of indigenous peoples everywhere; dispossessed of their land, unable to freely hunt and fish, rounded up into reservation-like settlements, and decimated by introduced diseases, they were finally ‘protected’ by the state in 1899. Reduced to chronic destitution and ravaged by alcoholism, they seemed to fit the oft-quoted stereotype of the ‘dying race’ (滅び行く民族, horobiyuku minzoku), to be poked, prodded and measured by scientists obsessed by ‘primitive races’ . Even after death they were not safe as eager anthropologists raided Ainu cemeteries for specimens. Assimilation was promoted but prejudice often made this difficult. Despite this low point, though, Ainu activists had not given up and attempted to improve the lives of their people.

Cycling across the Tokachi Plains (Hokkaido, Japan)
Cycling across the Tokachi (Tokap-chi) Plains
Lake Shikaribetsu Overnight Canoeing (Hokkaido, Japan)
Canoeing Lake Shikaribetsu (Si-kari-pet)

Japanese imperial expansion had added the Kurile Islands and southern Sakhalin (Karafuto) to Japanese territory, but these were lost at defeat in 1945. The remaining Sakhalin Ainu were relocated to Hokkaido. With the postwar recovery, Hokkaido’s prosperity rested on agriculture, fishing, raw material extraction such as coal mining, forestry to feed the paper mills, and the steel city of Muroran. These latter industries are now all in decline or have gone for good, and tourism has taken their place as one of the main engines of the local economy.

The Ainu, on the other hand, have most definitely reversed their decline. A series of struggles since the 1970s have resulted in their official recognition as Japan’s indigenous people. Ainu are active within Japan and as part of the international movement of indigenous peoples, reversing decades of assimilation. Traditional and contemporary cultural practices are being maintained and transmitted, and Ainu are increasingly visible as part of the Hokkaido brand. This is not without its dangers, of course, and not all are happy with the commodification and cooptation of Ainu culture by the tourist agenda as it glosses over a very real history of oppression. But this visibility continues to underscore that Hokkaido is, indeed, different.

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