Hokkaido, where the Group of Eight summit is taking place in Toyako, is known for its hot springs, ski resorts, seafood and magnificent scenery.
Only 140 years ago, when Japan jumped on the modernization bandwagon, the prefecture was the new frontier.
Following are some questions and answers about the history of Hokkaido:
When did the development of Hokkaido begin?
The Meiji government started promoting cultivation in Hokkaido in 1868, when it took over power from the Tokugawa shogunate. Cultivation was deemed necessary as part of the government effort to modernize all of Japan and amid awareness that Russia appeared to have designs on the territory, large areas of which had not yet been explored.
The government allocated 4 percent to 5 percent of the national budget for developing Hokkaido over 10 years starting in 1872, according to “Hokkaido no Rekishi” (“The History of Hokkaido”), published in 2000.
What was the situation in Hokkaido before the Meiji Restoration of 1868?
Hokkaido had been inhabited by the Ainu for centuries. They had a separate culture from the Japanese, and lived by fishing, hunting and trading.
The region had been called Ezochi, meaning “the land for people who did not obey the government,” until the name was changed into Hokkaido (“northern sea route”) in 1869.
During the Kamakura shogunate (1185-1333), a penal colony was established at the southern part of the Oshima Peninsula and samurai warriors were stationed there to oversee the prisoners.
During the Edo Period (1603-1868), the Matsumae domain ruled the southern area, and the shogunate officially entitled them to monopolize trade with the Ainu. In the late Edo Period, ordinary Japanese, some from the Tohoku region, started moving to coastal areas outside the Matsumae-regulated area to fish for herring.
When the shogunate ended its 220-year closed-door policy in 1854, under pressure from Britain, France, the Netherlands, the United States and Russia, Hakodate became one of the first two ports to open to the West.
The port was also spotlighted when Tokugawa rule ended in 1868. Some 2,800 people faithful to the shogun, led by naval officer Takeaki Enomoto, arrived at the port with eight ships from Edo, now Tokyo. After occupying Goryokaku fortress in Hakodate, he declared Hokkaido an independent country, but the rebels were defeated by Meiji government forces in 1869.
How did the Meiji government develop Hokkaido in the 19th century?
The government promoted immigration there from Honshu to farm land.
It also created industries, building beer breweries and plants to make miso, soy sauce and silk. Coal mining also started in Horonai, now the city of Mikasa, in 1881. Railways were also built to transport coal to ports, including Otaru.
To promote agriculture and other industries, dozens of Western engineers and researchers were invited to teach advanced technologies and educate young Japanese.
One notable foreigner was William S. Clark, president of Massachusetts Agricultural College, who was invited in 1876 to be vice president of Sapporo Agricultural College, now Hokkaido University.
Many of the foreigners were Americans, probably because Japan tried to learn from the U.S. about developing its frontier, experts say.
Ainu were forced to work as farmers and abandon their culture and lifestyles for assimilation by Japanese society, further increasing the discrimination against them.
How many people moved to Hokkaido?
The first group of 500 settlers arrived there in September 1869 from Tokyo, followed by thousands of people, including farmers, samurai descendants and gentry.
About 1.9 million people moved to Hokkaido between 1890 and 1936, according to the prefectural government. Many were from the Tohoku and Hokuriku regions.
How did the early Japanese settlers fare on the island?
Nearly half engaged in farming vegetables, including potatoes, and buckwheat for “soba” noodles, and soy beans.
But farming in the cold forested north was not easy. People had to clear the land by logging. It sometimes took several years to harvest sufficient crops to make a living.
Rice planting began to spread in the 1880s after strains were improved to grow in the local soil.
There were 7,337 households, or 39,901 people who migrated as “tondenhei,” who worked as farmer-soldiers, or their family members, from 1875 and 1899 under a government system established in 1873.
Housing, food and farm implements were provided. The tondenhei also underwent military training and were deployed to various places to maintain order and prepare for a Russian invasion.
Other immigrants engaged in fishing, trading and other industries.
What major postwar events occurred in Hokkaido?
After Japan’s surrender, some 17,000 Japanese who lived on small islands off Hokkaido — Etorofu, Kunashiri, Shikotan and the Habomai islets — were expelled after the islands were seized by Soviet forces.
Tokyo still claims the Russian-held islands as part of Japan, and the territorial row still tops its diplomatic agenda with Moscow. The dispute has prevented the two nations from concluding a peace treaty to end the war.
After the collapse of the bubble economy in the early 1990s, Hokkaido saw tough times.
The failure of Hokkaido Takushoku Bank in November 1997 hit the local economy hard. The regional bank, which was founded in 1900, went under mainly because it extended loans to ailing companies recklessly during the bubble economy between the late 1980s and early 1990s.
Last year, the Yubari Municipal Government was designated by the government as officially bankrupt. This ended its autonomy and the central government is now managing its rehabilitation efforts.
Yubari has a population of 13,000, which is roughly one-tenth of its peak when it prospered as a coal mining town. The city is also known for its film festival and pricey melons.
It was the first time in 15 years the government declared a municipality bankrupt.
However, with the 1972 Winter Olympics in Sapporo, in which Japan won gold, silver and bronze in the 70-meter jump, Hokkaido became a tourist draw.
In July 2005, a 70,000-plus-hectare area straddling the towns of Shari and Rausu on the Shiretoko Peninsula was designated as a World Heritage site by the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. Asahiyama Zoo drawn many tourists from around the nation, thanks to its unique animal displays.
Ski resorts and hot springs in Hokakido have become popular attractions for foreign tourists from Taiwan, South Korea, Hong Kong and Australia.