About the Culture of Hokkaido

About the Culture of Hokkaido

A world away from mainland Japan

hokkaido

Although Hokkaido is part of Japan, it is highly distinct from the rest of the country. Anybody expecting Hokkaido to be like typical Japan is in for a surprise – a pleasant one, of course.

Hokkaido is located at the northernmost part of the Japanese archipelago. Despite its latitude at 41 to 45 degrees north (similar to that of southern France), the prefecture has a much cooler climate. This is one of the things that set it apart from the rest of Japan. While mainland Japan exhibits the hot, humid conditions associated with its temperate-zone location, Hokkaido (excluding its southernmost part) has the relatively low temperatures and humidity of the sub-frigid zone. Naturally, vegetation and lifestyles in Hokkaido differ from those of mainland Japan.

Another thing that sets Hokkaido apart is its history. The region has been home to the indigenous Ainu people and their culture for a long time. In southern Hokkaido, the Matsumae clan prospered and was incorporated as a feudal domain into Japan’s shogunate system from medieval to modern times. However, Ainu people maintained their distinct ways of life and did not assimilate into Japanese culture. Hokkaido underwent a huge transformation when Japan embarked on its path toward becoming a modern state following the fall of the Tokugawa shogunate in the 19th century. The Japanese Government’s promotion of colonization and land reclamation resulted in the clearance of forestland and other areas, thereby paving the way for settlers from elsewhere and subsequent urbanization. Consequently, the population of Hokkaido increased from 60,000 in 1870 to 2.3 million in 1920.

sapporo

The Japanese Government brought experts from the US and Europe to set up Western systems during Hokkaido’s pioneering period. Efforts were made to develop a variety of institutions as living laboratories in agriculture, stock raising, mining, manufacturing and other industries in Hokkaido. As a related educational institution, Hokkaido University (originally Sapporo Agricultural College) was established.

The land reclaimed in Hokkaido was used mainly for crop farming and stock raising, thereby creating unique farm landscapes that differ from those of mainland Japan. Houses suitable for the area’s northern climate were also built in Hokkaido’s capital city of Sapporo along with roads in a grid pattern – a result of modern city planning. These have created distinct landscapes that are in stark contrast to those of traditional Japanese towns.

Hokkaido’s culture also developed differently from that of traditional Japan because many newly formed communities were melting pots of people from different parts of the country. As a result, Hokkaido did not have a strong restraining influence of tradition and allowed the spread of a practical culture with individualistic tendencies.

This newly developed northern frontier constitutes Hokkaido – a place whose unique culture differs significantly from that represented by traditional Japanese customs.

Hokkaido Access Guide

The appeal of Hokkaido’s unique history and culture

Hokkaido has a characteristic history separate from that of mainland Japan.

Hollow Clay Figure (a national treasure) (collection of the Hakodate Jomon Culture Center)

Hollow Clay Figure (a national treasure) (collection of the Hakodate Jomon Culture Center)

Clay tablets with impression of feet (collection of the Hakodate Jomon Culture Center)

Clay tablets with impression of feet (collection of the Hakodate Jomon Culture Center)

The rice cultivation that began in mainland Japan well over 2,000 years ago resulted in a move from the hunter-gatherer Jomon culture to the agricultural Yayoi culture. However, rice cultivation did not spread in Hokkaido; Jomon culture continued to thrive, followed by the indigenous Epi-Jomon, Satsumon and Ainu cultures.

The Jomon people of Hokkaido lived in permanent settlements with livelihoods supported by hunting and gathering. They protected forests, lived in awe of nature and produced clay figurines as prayer symbols. The wisdom with which they maintained their culture for around 10,000 years based on harmonious coexistence with nature also has contemporary value. As such, the Jomon archaeological sites in Hokkaido and northern Tohoku are on the tentative UNESCO World Heritage list.

During the Satsumon culture period, which ran from the 8th century to the 13th century, Okhotsk people moved from the north to settle in an area stretching from the Sea of Okhotsk to the Sea of Japan. They had their own culture, which included a bear cult. Recent DNA analysis has revealed that Okhotsk people merged with Satsumon people, resulting in the establishment of Ainu people and Ainu culture.

Hokkaido was formerly known as Ezo. In the 16th century, the Kakizaki clan (later the Matsumae clan), which had ties with non-Ainu people in mainland Japan (known as wajin), prospered in southern Hokkaido. Following the establishment of the Tokugawa shogunate, the Matsumae feudal domain became established. In those days, the scale of mainland Japan’s feudal domains was measured in terms of rice production. However, as rice could not be grown in Ezo’s cold climate, the Matsumae domain allowed trading in kelp, abalone shells, nishin kasu (boiled pressed herring used as a fertilizer) and other local products. Accordingly, it became known as a domain without a rice stipend.

Ishuretsuzo (a series of portraits of Ainu chiefs) – Ikotoi/Hakyo Kakizaki (collection of the Hakodate City Central Library)

Ishuretsuzo (a series of portraits of Ainu chiefs) – Ikotoi/Hakyo Kakizaki (collection of the Hakodate City Central Library)
Portraits are archived in the Hakodate City Central Library under a different name (Omikata Ezono no Zu).

The Matsumae domain controlled fishing grounds in Ezo. In the 18th century, it introduced a subcontracted trading post system under which wajin merchants from mainland Japan were allowed to operate in these fishing grounds. Under the system, Ainu people came to be exploited as laborers, leading to a sharp decline in their population. In its closing days, the shogunate took the reins of Ezo out of the hands of the Matsumae domain and placed it under its own direct control in order to counter Russia’s southward expansion. However, this did not fundamentally resolve the problems of the subcontracted trading post system. Due to these developments, Ainu people have a history of great suffering and persecution, but still maintain their traditional culture.

During the late Edo period (1603 – 1868), the Boshin War was fought between former shogunate forces and newly formed imperial government forces composed mainly of individuals from the Choshu and Satsuma domains. The war extended to southern Hokkaido when shogunate navy leader Takeaki Enomoto and others left Edo (now Tokyo) and landed in southern Ezo in order to base themselves in Ezo. They occupied Hakodate, Matsumae and Esashi before placing the whole of Ezo under their control and establishing the Ezo Government. However, the new government forces advanced to Ezo in droves, and after fierce fighting the former shogunate forces surrendered at their last stronghold – Goryokaku fortress. This fighting is known as the Battle of Hakodate.

Matsumae Folding Screen/Teiryo Kodama (collection of the Matsumae Town Historical Museum)

Matsumae Folding Screen/Teiryo Kodama (collection of the Matsumae Town Historical Museum)

With the Meiji Restoration, Ezo was renamed Hokkaido and the Hokkaido Development Commission was established, thus beginning the region’s pioneering period. Large numbers of people from around Japan moved to Hokkaido, cutting down trees and turning wilderness into paddy and upland fields. This created expansive farmland areas and dairy farms as well as towns.

Sapporo Agricultural College, now Hokkaido University, was established in Sapporo and produced individuals who led Japan’s modernization and Hokkaido’s development. These include Inazo Nitobe, the author of the well-known book Bushido: The Soul of Japan and one of the first Under-Secretaries General of the League of Nations (the forerunner to the United Nations), and Kanzo Uchimura, a Christian thinker and educator.

The Hokkaido Development Commission and later the Hokkaido Government focused on the development and promotion of agriculture, stock raising, forestry, fisheries, mining, manufacturing, civil engineering, construction, education and other fields. Hokkaido achieved development with Sakhalin and the Kurile Islands in its sphere of influence.

Coalmines were developed mainly in Ishikari and Sorachi, which thrived as mining areas. Today these mines are mostly closed, and the people have moved to other cities and towns. Northern-sea fisheries thrived on the Kurile Islands before declining after Russia occupied the area in World War II. These industrial heritage sites are part of Hokkaido’s history and are currently being preserved in recognition of this.

In Commemoration of the Completion of the Hokkaido Development Commission Sapporo Head Office/Seiichi Takebayashi (Northern Studies Collection of the Hokkaido University Museum)

In Commemoration of the Completion of the Hokkaido Development Commission Sapporo Head Office/Seiichi Takebayashi (Northern Studies Collection of the Hokkaido University Museum)

Former Hokkaido Development Commission Sapporo Head Office (Historical Village of Hokkaido)

Former Hokkaido Development Commission Sapporo Head Office (Historical Village of Hokkaido)

The Historical Village of Hokkaido provides a reproduction of a streetscape in Hokkaido’s pioneering days.

The Historical Village of Hokkaido provides a reproduction of a streetscape in Hokkaido’s pioneering days.

Shaft winders at the Mitsubishi Bibai Coal Mine site

Shaft winders at the Mitsubishi Bibai Coal Mine site (photo courtesy: PiPa Furi Bibai)
The area is preserved as the Coal Mine Memorial Forest Park.

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