I left Akita at 4:30am, hauled my luggage on and off trains for seventeen hours, and staggered into Hokkaido's prefectural capital long after dusk.
As with most things in Hokkaido, the first word belongs with the Ainu, the indigenous people, whom we shall return to properly in due course. Sapporo's name comes from sat poro pet ("dry, large river") in the Ainu language.
Sapporo is one of Japan's youngest settlements, with dedicated settlement only beginning in the 1860s. A century and a half later, it is Japan's fourth most populated city, prosperous and popular, and renowned for its beer, chocolate biscuits, miso ramen, snow festival, and hosting of the 1972 Winter Olympics.
|Now is that or is that not a planned city?|
But to understand it – and to understand Hokkaido – we have to go back further than the birth of Sapporo. Much further. 40,000 years further, in fact, to the Pleistocene epoch: far enough to make out its geo-ecological umbilical cord, which was totally separate from that of Japan's.
Notice anything major that isn't there now?
Hokkaido was once connected to the Asian continent by a land bridge. As the display suggests, the spread of life to Hokkaido came mainly from the north, while in the rest of Japan it came from the south. Conversely, the Tsugaru Strait between Hokkaido and Honshu – which I crossed by train through the Seikan Tunnel – was prohibitively deep, limiting the movement of animals and influences across it.
A gap in origins, a barrier at sea, whose defining influence sets Hokkaido apart from Japan to this day. About 20,000 years ago Hokkaido was settled by humans, who again, it is believed, cross from the north. Factor in the radically different climates – the sweltering summers we in Tokyo know well at the time of this writing, and Hokkaido's merciless winters at the mercy of the northern winds – and we are left with effectively two different lands: one of the Pacific, the other of the Arctic.
Let's move forward a bit to the neolithic era, around 3000-15,000 years ago, and Japan's Jomon culture with their marvellous pottery and enigmatic dogu. These early Japanese would eventually settle down to cultivate rice, advancing into the Yayoi period; but not in Hokkaido. Hokkaido's people did not commit to agriculture, instead continuing and further developing their established hunter-gathering and fishing practices in what is called the Epi-Jomon era, a chapter unique to Hokkaido.
Further migrations of people and practices were to follow, but it is these northern cultures, it is claimed, that ultimately gave rise to the Ainu. Like those precursors, the Ainu were not a farming people: rather they defined themselves by that ancient, time-forged heritage of living in tune with the wilds and the seas.
Migrations from and trade with people from Honshu steadily grew, as did exchanges with Chinese and Koreans from the mainland. But it was only well into the most recent millennium that Japan truly entered Hokkaido's story. For many of those Japanese migrants were exiles: and they settled along the southern coast of "Ezo", as it was known to them, built forts, consolidated their positions, and came into contact and conflict with the Ainu already living there.
Then came the era of Japan's warring states, and its eventual unification under the Tokugawa Shogunate in the 17th century. With this came the rise of the Matsumae clan: the family which was to dominate southern Hokkaido on the shogunate's behalf.
For the Matsumae, it must have felt at times like all their dreams had come true. They were exempt from rice tributes to the shogunate and sankin kotai, and gained exclusive rights and flexibility to deal with the Ainu – at best meaning trade, at worst meaning destroying them in wars and eating away at their traditional lands. The Matsumae came to live with the arrogance and decadence of trade princes, and in the midst of their holdings, perched on Hokkaido's southern peninsula amidst the numerous little sprouting merchant empires, grew what would become Japan's gateway into the island: the port city, Hakodate.
This was the era when Japan sealed itself away from the outside world. In this closed-country (sakoku, 鎖国) context, the government valued the Matsumae's "service" of "defending" the frontiers from "barbarians": whether that meant grinding away at the Ainu, or fobbing off the Russians, who were also starting to nose their way down in hopes of trade. And trade wasn't allowed: foreign dealings were only permitted at Nagasaki, under painfully restrictive circumstances.
For some two or three centuries this arrangement persisted, much to the Matsumae Clan's satisfaction. But it was not to last. “Ezo” was bursting with natural resources, and its location made it a tempting lure for those, like the Russians, who wished to expand into the north Pacific. Those Russians kept coming, and soon other Europeans like the British began to turning up in alarmingly powerful vessels. Late in its day, the shogunate became convinced that it had to secure Ezo as a Japanese territory to hold back these ominous foreign agendas; and so it began to relax the travel and trade restrictions up there, and opened Hokkaido up to permanent Japanese settlement.
Then came the Black Ships, and everything changed.
In 1853, Commodore Matthew Perry's American fleet came thundering into Edo (Tokyo) Harbour, demanding on threat of force that Japan open up. What followed is well-established: the crushing of the shogunate's legitimacy, amidst anti-foreign sentiment and resentment of the government by the domains and lords it had marginalized; social and economic unrest; and the “end of the curtain”, by which the emperor was restored to the centre of power, the shogunate was overthrown, and Japan's isolation came to an end. Hokkaido was the stage for key moments and processes in these revolutionary times as well, as we shall see when we get to Hakodate.
Hakodate: now for the first time brought under central control. The new Meiji government took direct responsibility for Hokkaido through a colonial Magistrate's Office (below), threw Hakodate wide open to foreign trade and influence, and prepared it as a launchpad for the full-scale colonization of Hokkaido.
Japan now hurtled to modernize its society, its economy its military, to learn from and catch up with the Europeans and United States before they reduced it to similar misery as they were visiting on the rest of Asia; and for this, the consolidation of Hokkaido's vast resources and strategic position was held as essential. The first order of business was to put together a capital, for which the Ishikari Plain was seen as ideal. Down went the criss-crossing grids of roads, the green belt that is now Ōdōri Park, and an ever-burgeoning inflow of Japanese migrants: and up sprung Sapporo, the nerve centre of Japan's new power in Ezo.
The Euro-American feel to Sapporo is no coincidence. Many Western technical experts were brought in to advise on and guide Japan's development, in everything from architecture to industry, urban planning to science and education. The blend of foreign and Japanese influences, adapted to meet Hokkaido's natural challenges, persists to this day; and perhaps because those foreigners were part of Japan's Hokkaido adventure from the start, the mix feels less uneasy and disjointed, more organic, than it does to the south in Tokyo.
Japanese immigration to Hokkaido, formerly permitted, was now actively encouraged. With the abolition of the domain system, people from all echelons of feudal life were left without work or a place in society, and many went north to try their luck, including plenty of former samurai. So too went pioneering farmers, religious groups, prisoners forced into labour, and people fed up with urban poverty, all subsidized and incentivized by the government to till Hokkaido's land, and in the case of former warriors, to defend it from foreign invasion. In all about two million people made the trip in the late Meiji to mid-Taisho period.
Some of these people flourished; we shall find a tremendous example in Furano, in a couple of entries' time. But many others came to grief, arriving with little more than the rags on their backs and not prepared for Hokkaido's alien conditions and unforgiving climate. Imagine struggling through winter months at fifteen degrees below zero in something like this:
|Look closer at the door and the window. Insulation, this is not.|
Those who braved it out could find themselves achieving a steadily better quality of life down the decades, as settlements grew, facilities developed, and the trappings of their traditional homes and identities – new and improved with foreign techniques and equipment – took new roots around them.
Inevitably, not everyone had reason to be happy about this. Who are we forgetting?
The Ainu were to pay the gravest cost for Hokkaido's transformation. Hostility towards them now became systematic and politically ordained, regarding them less as an ethnic minority and more as a backward and inferior race. They were forbidden from hunting and fishing on their own ancestral lands; their clothing and customs were banned; the government seized their property; and many were forcibly relocated to make way for Japanese immigrants. As time went on, the destruction of their heritage and forced assimilation into Japanese culture took hold as absolute imperatives: and the results, which deserve a post to themselves, were dire indeed. And as their ways of life disintegrated, others were eager to press on with reshaping Hokkaido in their own image, and – in an ominous echo of the world's later disgraces – to call it 'development'.
But though the crimes against the Ainu cannot be excused, it is vital to understand why it happened. As with so many of humanity's calamities, so much came down to fear. A fear, in this case, of foreign aggression driven by greed and racist disdain – and this fear had basis. Dreading its own vulnerability, Japan's quest to create a zone of advantage to repel those predators led it to wars with China in 1985 and Russia in 1905, and from there, the story is well-known. Japan's descent into madness was underway; it panicked before the foreign imperialist monsters, and thus became one itself. Its military expansion into Korea and Manchuria accompanied disastrous recession at home, which brought Hokkaido waves of impoverishment, labour disputes and violent unrest.
If there was ever any illusion that the “development” of Hokkaido was happening for its own sake, this was when it dispersed. Mining, cultivation, lumber, roads and railways, the postal service: how convenient, that these were found so well-placed to supply those wars with China and Russia? And now, Japan's militarization spread through its north, and more turmoil and poverty was at hand as once-settlers fled to settle a second time, this time in occupied Manchuria. What was left of the fruits of Hokkaido's colonization was poured into the stomachs and fuel tanks of Japan's military machine, and Hokkaido was dragged by the country that had made it its own into the horrors of World War II.
Hokkaido acquired something of an aura of shelter during the war, as a place to evacuate to: and though the Allied air raids took their toll on its cities, it fared somewhat better than the annihilation unleashed on most of Japan's heartland. A lot of soldiers from Hokkaido fought and died in key battles, especially in the carnage of Okinawa; and like the rest of Japan, Hokkaido emerged from the nightmare adrift in chaos, inflation and crippling food shortages. Nonetheless, its story in many ways parallels Japan's from there: reconstruction, revival, social and economic transformation, and after all of it, the economically near-independent and refreshingly identity-conscious land we find there today.
This self-consciousness, I felt, has meant Hokkaido has not quite been simply absorbed into the Japanese whole. Japan's struggle to come to terms with the bloodier aspects of its history are notorious, but in Sapporo's leading history museum I found a blunt and detailed honesty about what was inflicted upon the Ainu; and in that city's structures, its practices and its people, a more harmonious blend of Hokkaido's many influences, and a more comfortable, confident and reflective sense of their journey than the confusion, and depression, one finds in the centres of Honshu.
On a more personal note, having missed Akita's Kanto-Matsuri, my luck turned around in Sapporo, where I found myself arriving in the midst of the Bon Matsuri: a nationwide festival with Buddhist origins as a paying of respects to ancestors (compare China's “hungry ghosts” tradition), but held later in the year in Hokkaido than the rest of Japan with markedly unique forms of song, dance and celebration.
I will confess to have found it exhilarating beyond description. I felt compelled to join in the dance: a dance which anyone may participate in, no matter their age, sex, clothes, work or actual skill at dancing, and by which it feels that all are rendered equal upon the rhythm of the drums and flow of the festive notes.
So runs the marathon tale of Hokkaido. Joys and sorrows; accomplishments and struggles; and though in its heart the colonization of Hokkaido was founded, as too often elsewhere, on the ruining of its original inhabitants, it also made possible so many of the great experiences, and good people, I was to find on my journey therein. The latter does not excuse the former; the former does not diminish the latter. What results is a very difficult story to evaluate, but one that offers us much to learn, and is clearly far more complex than it first appears.
As I travelled on, I found the important chance to examine this story through the perspectives of different characters. Lavender farmers; the final holdouts of the Tokugawa loyalists; the residents of today; and even chipmunks – all differently placed in what they contributed or were dealt in their relationship with this island. In the next post, we look at perhaps the most fundamental characters of all: the Ainu, who lived there first and were devoured to the last, but whose blood and heritage, I feel, and vehemently hope, is not as finished as it looks.
Previous posts in this series: