Old Japan was not rich in paths to a new life. Where could you go? Into the forest? Yes, and many desperate peasants did — illegally, for until modern times movement was rigidly restricted. Born to the status you occupied, bound to the land you worked, you fled your lord’s ruthless and insatiable tax hunger at your peril. Checkpoints aside, this is a narrow, mountainous country. Forests to be cleared and made arable were limited.

Far, far to the north, there loomed a shadowy, misty, savage land called Ezo. Was it an island? Part of Siberia? A very few hardy desperados crossed the sea to it, beginning in the 15th century, surviving, sometimes prospering, as fur traders, gold prospectors, merchants and fishermen. Of agriculture in those early days we hear almost nothing. The native Ainu thrived on a hunting-gathering economy that persisted almost unchanged over thousands of years. What need had they of progress? The land was bountiful. The spirits were kindly. Needs were few, wants were simple. To the rapacious settlers, this very equanimity proved the “savagery” of their new neighbors. Still, relations seem to have been friendly. The Ainu called the newcomer “shamo” — “good neighbor.” Trade grew — Japanese knives, rice, sake and cloth in exchange for salmon and animal skins.

War was scarcely known among the Ainu. They were apolitical and non-tribal. Huts clustered into little units called “kotan,” each under its chief, were as far as their social organization went, as far as it needed to go. The chief was leader of the hunt, master of religious ceremonies, judge in disputes requiring arbitration — a powerful, sometimes despotic man, but decidedly not a warrior.

In 1669, war broke out. Pacifism has its limits. The shamo gold panners overstepped them. Gold they were welcome to; the Ainu had no use for it. But panning pollutes rivers, endangering the salmon. It had to stop.

The rebel leader was a chief named Shakushain. He mustered 1,000-odd followers. They marched, torching and slaughtering, from Shizunai to the castle town of Matsumae, 150 kilometers west. The spark, once lit, spread. From June to October it raged. Much was destroyed but little accomplished. Once shamo resistance solidified it was invincible — guns against poisoned hunting arrows. Shakushain’s murder brought the curtain down.

It stays down for 200 years. When it rises again, it’s a whole new drama. In 1869, Ezo became Hokkaido, part of Japan, its northernmost main island, virgin territory ripe for “civilized” exploitation.

Japan was on the move. The checkpoints were gone. Government that for centuries had frozen the nation in time was now in the hands of the reformers of the Meiji Era (1868-1912). A growing population strained resources. Productivity rose but not fast enough. Let the hungry, the restless, the ambitious, the dreamers, idealists and fools, go abroad — to Latin America, North America, Asia, the South Pacific, Hokkaido, wherever, anywhere. There were fortunes to be made out there in the great world. It was a whole new insight.

Pioneering is not for the faint-hearted. “They fought through seas of brush bamboo, hacked their way across fields of shoulder-high grass…, waded through mud up to their chests, squirmed up crags.” Thus novelist Haruki Murakami, in “A Wild Sheep Chase,” describes a party of Tohoku farmers, impoverished and in debt, escaping the past and building, they hope, a future. North they plodded, then farther north, stopping finally at a place Murakami names Junitaki, generally supposed to be Bifuka, 220 km north of Sapporo.

The first fields were cleared, the first crops planted. The settlers held their breath and waited. Their hearts sank. Locusts. Swarms of them. Hundreds of thousands. Year after year. Still — “by the sixth year, the settlement was at last holding its own”; testimony to qualities we settled folk today can only regard with speechless awe.

Murakami’s party made their trek north in 1881. Ten years later there arrived a company of a very different color. They were Christians, come to plant the kingdom of God on Earth. Their leader was a remarkable man named Yukiyoshi Shikata. A novel in which he figures, “Beyond the Blossoming Fields” by Junichi Watanabe, is not about him but about his still more remarkable wife, Ginko Ogino (1851-1913), Japan’s first licensed female doctor. A peripheral character in the novel, Shikata takes center stage as a colonizer in what is now Imakane, 120 km north of Hakodate. The town’s website paints a sparkling little picture: “The beautiful natural surroundings here are like the Garden of Eden, of which the Christians who landed here long ago once dreamed.”

Shikata dreamed the dream and saw beauty no doubt — spiritual beauty, not natural. “Summer arrived,” writes Watanabe. “Along with the heat came hordes of mosquitoes. They were big and black, a kind not seen on the main island. It must have been the first scent of human blood these mosquitoes had ever had, and it seemed to send them into a frenzy of delight.”

No matter. The dream kept him going. “I think this land is a sign of God’s blessing and protection,” he tells his wife in the novel.

Iron will fortified by faith will drive a person to the limits of endurance and beyond, but not infinitely beyond. “Each day followed the same pattern,” writes Watanabe, “with Shikata and (a fellow colonist) doing battle with huge trees, cleaning up the roots and clearing the bamboo grass.” By summer’s end “they had managed to clear less than an acre of land.” Within five years Shikata was dead and the colony disbanded.

Were the spirits the Ainu worshipped rising up in protest, defending their land and their people? Was “civilized” settlement doomed? Would that it had been! So at least thought a young Ainu woman named Yukie Chiri (1903-22) who, shortly before her death due to heart disease, became the first to commit her people’s timeless oral tales to writing. Introducing her anthology, she wrote, “In the past this spacious Hokkaido was our ancestors’ world of freedom. Living with ease and pleasure in the manner of innocent babes in the embrace of beautiful, vast nature, they were truly the beloved children of nature. Oh what happy people they must have been!”

Civilization won in the end. The happiness of “innocent babes,” if it ever existed, is gone for good.

The second installment in a series on migrant Japan. Michael Hoffman’s latest book is “Cipangu, Golden Cipangu: Essays in Japanese History.”

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.