Hokkaido formally celebrated the 150th anniversary of its name Sunday in Sapporo, with the Emperor and Empress in attendance and Ainu representatives performing traditional dances.

The island prefecture was officially named Hokkaido on Aug. 15, 1869, and formally put under the control of the government. Now a number of events have been organized in Hokkaido to celebrate the anniversary year.

At Sunday’s ceremony, Hokkaido Gov. Harumi Takahashi said a national museum for Ainu culture will open in 2020 in the Shiraoi district, not far from New Chitose Airport.

“One hundred fifty years after the name change offers a chance for a new start, to work toward a diverse society that emphasizes Ainu reverence for nature and desire for co-existence,” Takahashi said.

The Emperor and Empress were greeted warmly when they walked on stage and enjoyed the Ainu dances.

The history of the island once known as Ezo, and how it came to be named Hokkaido, was one of the themes of the two-hour ceremony.

The story involves 19th century explorer Takeshiro Matsuura, who was from Matsusaka, Mie Prefecture, but traveled throughout Hokkaido six times, learning about the land, the indigenous Ainu tribes and their customs.

Asked by the Meiji government in 1869 to propose new names for the island, Matsuura made six suggestions, including a two-kanji compound for the kai syllable in Hokkaido. That version of kai, Matsuura wrote, was intended to mean “people born in this place” in the Ainu language.

However, the Meiji government elected to use the kanji for ocean, which is also pronounced kai. This version of the island’s name was formally adopted on Aug. 15, 1869.

Under the new name, successive Japanese governments would make the colonization of Hokkaido a priority. Settlers from Honshu, Shikoku and Kyushu pushed Ainu off their traditional lands, making forced assimilation Hokkaido’s policy during the late 19th and early 20th centuries even as the government refused to recognize the Ainu people as indigenous.

The Diet passed a resolution in June 2008 urging the government to recognize them as the indigenous people.

At Sunday’s ceremony, Teru Fukui, state minister for Okinawa and the Northern Territories affairs, spoke of another aspect of Hokkaido’s history: Japan’s territorial dispute with Russia over four islands off its northern shoreline.

The four Russian-held islands are called the Northern Territories by Japan and consist of Shikotan, Kunashiri, Etorofu and the Habomai group of islets.

“The Northern Territories problem remains a critical aspect of Hokkaido’s history and we are making efforts to tackle a resolution to the problem and address the desires of former island residents,” Fukui said.

Last month, former Japanese residents of Kunashiri and Etorofu, along with government officials, made only the second visit ever by plane to the islands to visit their family graves. Charter flights had long been desired by the former residents because visits by ship are easily canceled by bad weather. But the first charter flight was only made in September last year.

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