The Great North

How Hokkaido, born to be wild, was tamed

by Michael Hoffman

“It is Japan, but yet there is a difference somehow.’
– Isabella Bird, 1878

Japan’s story begins with rice and pottery; Hokkaido’s, with mammoths and obsidian. The element of art and refinement apparent in Japan’s earliest known past is missing from Hokkaido’s. The brute struggle for existence loomed too large in the harsh northern environment. Obsidian, an early civilizing influence, was not a softening one. The mammoth hunters first discovered the black volcanic glass some 20,000 years ago in the broad Tokachi plain. What first drew them to it — the deadly sharp point it could be honed to? Or the beauty of its glint when it caught the sun?

“Hokkaido,” said travel writer J.D. Bisignani, “is the adopted child of modern Japan.” The adoption process was long and slow. For 1,300 years, Hokkaido was an orphan called Ezo (meaning “alien people of the north”). Nobody knew much about it. Few cared. There is a brief reference to it in the “Nihon shoki,” a seventh-century chronicle. A certain Abe-no-Hirafu, it says, drove the Ainu north to Ezo. If Ezo meant anything at all to premodern Japanese, it meant savagery. And savagery, to newly civilized people proud of their escape from it, has no redeeming features.

It’s different with us, of course. Today it’s civilization we escape from, and Hokkaido, its precivilized remnants tamed for mass consumption, is Japan’s prime escape hatch. Come to Hokkaido when you “are ‘templed-out’ and need a break from the crowds of settled Japan,” advised Bisignani in the 1994 “Japan Handbook.”

Isabella Bird, probably Hokkaido’s first tourist, felt the same way 125 years ago. “It is so good,” she wrote in “Unbeaten Tracks in Japan,” “to have got beyond the confines of stereotyped civilization and the trammels of Japanese travelling to the solitude of nature and an atmosphere of freedom.”

In the 16th and 17th centuries, when the world was still divided into “known” and “unknown,” Ezo was unknown. Was it an island? Or part of Siberia? Was it rich? It seemed it might be. In 1582, a Spanish galleon en route from Manila to Mexico was wrecked off Ezo. The sailors received kind treatment from the natives and eventually made it back home, where they told tales of fabulous wealth. Even the pots and pans, they said, even the scythes, were made of gold. Thus does the unknown stimulate men’s fancy. Rumors flew of an Asian El Dorado.

The tales were exaggerated but not baseless. In 1617, 17 years after Japan’s unification under the Tokugawa clan, alluvial gold was discovered in a river valley 18 km north of Matsumae, Ezo’s first and only castle town, stronghold of a Tokugawa ally named Yoshiro Takeda. Prospectors poured in from Honshu. Following in their wake were fishermen, prostitutes, purveyors of various kinds, and also Christians, seeking freedom from a Tokugawa persecution that had become increasingly intense. In 1624 the government got wind of an exodus to Ezo of Christians seeking to lose themselves in the gold rush. For 15 years no action was taken; then, in 1639, 106 Ezo Christians were rounded up and executed. It was a year after the Shimabara Christian uprising in Kyushu. The authorities were taking no chances.

Ezo’s Ainu natives, politically disorganized and peaceably inclined (“They have no tradition of internecine strife, and the art of war seems to have been lost long ago,” wrote Bird), lost patience with the Honshu newcomers at last. In 1669 they revolted.

Mystery surrounds the revolt and its leader, a chieftain named Shakushain. The nearest thing the Ainu had to a political unit was the kotan, or village, each with its own chief. Somehow Shakushain extended his influence. His war cry was heard the length and breadth of Ezo.

Trade between the Ainu and the “Wajin,” as the Ezo Japanese called themselves (the Ainu called them “Shamo,” a corruption of the Ainu word shisamu, meaning “good neighbor”), developed early and was for the most part brisk and friendly. Matsumae merchants made the rounds of the kotan, exchanging knives, rice, sake and cloth for Ainu salmon and animal skins. The merchants, intent on procuring more for less, at first found the Ainu easy marks for their wiles. To the Ainu, with no culture of acquisitiveness, the greed of the newcomers must have seemed monstrous. Gold was another issue. Not that the Ainu wanted it — it was valueless to them — but the Shamo gold-panners polluted the rivers badly enough to endanger the salmon.

In June 1669, Shakushain and 1,000 followers shouldered their bows and poison-tipped arrows and marched from Shizunai, their destination the Matsumae castle 150 km away. They advanced west along the coast, torching Shamo boats and huts as they went, slaughtering gold prospectors, merchants and fishermen unlucky enough to cross their path. Once ignited, the rampage spread. From Kushiro in the east to Rumoi in the northwest, the Ainu were showing that their pacifism had limits.

The Wajin forces massed at Oshamambe, 130 km north of Matsumae. The two opposing armies faced each other across a river. Ainu arrows were no match for Shamo guns. Routed, the Ainu retreated. In October, Shakushain was murdered en route to what he thought was a peace parley.

For three August days and nights in 1889, it rained in Nara Prefecture. When the clouds scattered, the sun shone on ruined paddies and flooded homes. Six villages had been wiped out, 168 people killed. Where were the survivors to go?

It was 21 years into the Meiji Era. After two centuries of near immobility, Japan was on the move again. Emigration was legalized in 1884, and Japanese were settling in Hawaii, California, Brazil, Peru. And they were colonizing Hokkaido. The orphan child had been adopted at last. Its modern name (meaning “North Sea Road”) dates to 1869. In 1870 the Ainu village of Satsu-poro became the capital. Soldier-farmers called tondenhei arrived, under government auspices, to clear the land and secure it against Russian ambitions.

Here was fresh scope for the restless, the energetic, and the dispossessed of mainland Japan. For the first time in Japanese history one could break with the past and start anew without taking the tonsure or becoming an outlaw. One only had to go to Hokkaido.

Among the six destroyed villages of Nara was one called Totsukawa. Meetings were convened, discussions held. Hokkaido it is, the villagers decided. On Oct. 14 some 2,600 of them boarded ship in Kobe. On Oct. 28 they docked at Otaru.

They wintered in huts built by the tondenhei, three families to a hut, in nearly virgin wilderness near today’s Takikawa. The first winter was harsh beyond belief. Pneumonia raged; people died. In spring, lots were drawn and land assigned. The first year the colonists planted potatoes, corn, pumpkins, buckwheat, daikon radish. They caught salmon in the river. They survived, and their survival encouraged newcomers.

In 1894, the settlement’s fifth year, it was incorporated as a village and given the name it bears today: Shin (New) Totsukawa. That same year a venturesome Shin Totsukawa farmer traveled to Sapporo to purchase rice seed. Rice cultivation was impossible in Hokkaido’s climate — so went the conventional wisdom. Successful pioneering is a matter of proving conventional wisdom wrong. Today, rice is a Hokkaido staple along with wheat, barley and potatoes, and the productivity of Hokkaido rice land, measured in terms of tonnes per hectare, is 10 percent above the national average.

Not all Hokkaido’s pioneers came voluntarily, and not all of them filled their lungs with the heady air of freedom, certainly not those who arrived in chains and with numbers stitched on the collars of their red kimono. Such were the convict laborers housed at the Abashiri Prison. While the Shin Totsukawa farmers were chopping down trees and weeding out the stubborn dwarf bamboo, prisoners chained two-by-two and watched over by guards armed with samurai swords toiled from sunup to dark, laying roads through thick primeval forests. The road from Abashiri to Sapporo, roughly 250 km, is said to have taken 1,000 prisoners one year to complete. The 200 of them who died of exhaustion were left where they fell. This is the sort of horror the incongruously majestic Abashiri Prison Museum commemorates today.

Time passed, the economy burgeoned, opportunity knocked. Wars fought elsewhere were good for Hokkaido. In 1890, coal was discovered at Yubari. Miners and their families filled the jerry-built tenements. The railway was extended, a power station built. In 1894, Japan invaded China. The army needed coal. Demand surged. The boom recurred in 1904 when the enemy was Russia, and again during World War I. When the wars ended, coal production sank. In June 1920, while the miners’ union was resisting a wage cut, an explosion at Yubari’s Kitagami Mine temporarily pushed all other issues aside. The Hokkaido Coal and Steamship Company, the mine’s owner, ordered the mine sealed over union protests. That effectively extinguished the fire; it also buried 212 miners alive.

Twelve of the dead were women. Mining was often a family occupation. Wives and children worked alongside the men, the men hammering at the rock face, the women and children hauling away the coal chunks. At dinner time the workers trooped home to their one-room family quarters. Whenever weather permitted, cooking was an outdoor activity, and the odor of herring grilling on portable stoves was a pungent feature of the times.

Before World War II, there were more than 200 coal mines in Hokkaido. Cheaper foreign imports and an abrupt shift in the 1960s to oil as an energy source spelled the industry’s doom. For two months beginning in November 2001, when Nagasaki’s Ikeshima Coal Mine shut down, the Taiheiyo Coal Mine in eastern Hokkaido’s Kushiro stood as the last remaining large-scale coal mine in Japan. In January 2002, it, too, closed.

Pioneer life persisted in the countryside well into the 1960s. Mitsuko Takeuchi, 45, grew up on a farm near Obihiro and recalls the family bath, filled with well water and heated with firewood supplemented by lumps of coal that fell off the Takikawa-Nemuro steam locomotive as it chugged by. Few of her neighbors had electricity. No one had running water. Telephones were for city folk.

Horses, though, all farm families had — long after tractors had replaced them elsewhere. Horses have a special place in the heart of the Ezokko, the Hokkaido-born. They are not native to the island. They came originally on ships with the first Honshu traders, who used them for inland transport and then set them free, the homeward-bound ships being too full of merchandise to accommodate them. When settlement activity began in earnest, the island teemed with hardy wild horses that government agents rounded up and offered as an incentive to pioneers.

The horses were useful in many ways, one in particular setting the Hokkaido scene to perfection. The roving higuma, brown bears weighing 300 to 400 kg, were fearsome beasts, and sneaky, too — you never knew when one would creep up on you. Horses were acutely sensitive to them. They could sense them from 2 km. “When the horses shied,” says Takeuchi, a fourth-generation Ezokko who grew up hearing stories like this, “you knew there was a bear around somewhere. Everyone would get together, light fires, make noise . . . ”

Once upon a time — 15 years or so ago — when Hokkaido was the sad rust belt of an otherwise thriving society, a longterm foreign resident was asked why he lived “up there,” why he didn’t join “the real Japan.” His reply was that he saw nothing unreal about the former, nor, for that matter, anything particularly real about the latter. He didn’t know, of course, that “the real Japan” was soon to follow Hokkaido into economic stagnation. Now that it has, it will have to learn a few things. Does the futuristic present call for new virtues, or for new forms of old ones, like the pioneer vigor perhaps outgrown too quickly?

Japanese history was shaped by great men and women — warriors, poets, statesmen. Not so Hokkaido’s history. Hokkaido has no towering figures among its founders. Hokkaido was built by people who wouldn’t have come if they had been content where they were, if they hadn’t been victims of disaster or misfortune, or prey to a restlessness that an earlier age might have branded criminal. They cleared primeval forests, survived fierce winters, cultivated virgin land — and learned how to keep the bears at bay.

Misfortune and discontent also dog us today, different forms of familiar ailments. But today there are no virgin forests to thrash, no wild Hokkaidos to tame. So much the worse for us.