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Hokkaido: Embracing and Defending the Jomon Heart of Japan

Hokkaido, with the rest of Japan, shares 14,000 years of deep historical roots from Jomon culture to Edo-era defenses against the foreign challengers of today.



Kitakogane Jomon Site in Hokkaido: A Panoramic view taken from the southeast. (©2020/11/11, by the Council for the World Heritage Jomon Prehistoric Sites)

Hokkaido native Keiko Nakamura stands at the forefront of the fight to protect and communicate the true history of Hokkaido. To that end, she published The Edo Shogunate's Defense of the Northern Territories (Heart Publishing, February 2022, in Japanese). It is an extraordinary work of depth and analytic insight. 

During a two-hour interview telephone for JAPAN Forward, Nakamura spoke candidly about her motivation for writing the book.

Last of three parts

First part: Hokkaido From Edo Samurai to Reiwa Japan: The Challenge of Preserving History

Second part: Hokkaido in Edo Japan: Defining Its Boundaries and Creating Prosperity

With the late 18th century arrival of America and Russia, the shogunate's defense of Ezochi became more vital than ever. In defense, the Edo shogunate conducted surveys of the region to demarcate Japan's territory. Marshaling together the clans of the north, it stood fast against Russia's aggression, giving their lives in defense of Ezochi. 

Today, however, false narratives abound about Ezochi's history. The history of the Jomon and Japan's governance of Ezochi has been replaced by fabrications about the Ainu.

Matsumae Castle in Hokkaido, home of the Matsumae clan who administered the region for the Edo shogunate (ekinavinet via Wikimedia Commons Images)

Consolidating Centralized Control over Ezochi

The closing years of the eighteenth century also marked a turning point in Japan's defense of Ezochi.

In 1792, Imperial Russia's first official envoy to Japan, Adam Laxman (1766-1806), arrived in Nemuro, Ezochi. Two years later in 1794, Russia occupied Urup Island. The British ship Providence arrived in Muroran in Ezochi, in 1797. It, too, threatened the territories of Ezochi, Chishima, and Karafuto in rapid succession.

Unforgiving of the intrusions, a large survey team was dispatched by the Edo shogunate in 1798. Its task was to survey all of Ezochi. On the island of Etorofu, Juzo Kondo erected the Great Japan Etorofu Marker. In 1802, Kondo drew a map of Ezochi, Karafuto, and the Chishima Islands. This map was similar in quality to Takdataka Ino's elaborate"Great Map of the Imperial Vale of Japan."


The surveys served a purpose beyond the production of maps. The Edo Shogunate had determined that the defense of Japanese territory in the north could not be achieved by the Matsumae clan alone. In 1799, Edo placed half of the Ezochi region, East Ezochi, under the direct control of the shogunate.

Samurai in the Tokugawa shogunate. (Image via Wikimedia Commons)

Fighting the Russian Invaders

Russia's Nikolai Petrovich Rezanov (1764-1807) arrived in Nagasaki in 1804 with a pass he had been given by Laxman. He was seeking to trade. However, the Edo Shogunate refused under its Sakoku (closed country) policy. 

Russia retaliated by looting and setting fire to trading posts in Karafuto in 1806 and 1807. In addition, the Russians also pillaged trading posts on Etorofu Island in the Chishima Islands.

The shogunate, along with samurai of the Tsugaru and Nanbu clans, fought bitterly against the Russian invaders. These battles were called the Bunka Invasion.

In 1807, the Edo shogunate, feeling a sense of crisis, placed all of Ezochi, Karafuto, and the Chishima Islands under its direct control. In addition, the shogunate transferred the Matsumae clan to Mutsu Yanagawa in the Tohoku region.

A Russian ship captain, Vasily Golovnin (1776-1831), was captured by the Edo shogunate in 1811. He had landed to survey the coast of the South Chishima Islands. Thereafter, the Russians captured a merchant, Kahei Takataya (1769-1827), in the waters near Kunashiri. They took him to Kamchatka in 1812, resulting in the Golovnin Incident. 

In 1813, using Kahei Takataya, Russia also negotiated for Golovnin's release. Russia subsequently submitted a letter of apology from the Governor of Siberia and returned Takataya and the looted goods. Golvnin was then repatriated.

With the easing of Russia's southward expansion, the shogunate reinstated the Matsumae to rule over Ezochi, Karafuto, and the Chisima Islands in 1821. 

Commodore Matthew Perry (Image via Wikimedia Commons)

A New Foreign Power in East Asia

In 1853, American naval commander Commodore Matthew Perry arrived in Uraga. That same year, the Russian fleet of Yevfimiy Putyatin (1803-1883) sailed into Nagasaki. 

That led to great debate over whether to exclude these outsiders or open the country to the outside world. Eventually, the shogunate signed the Treaty of Friendship with the United States, and the Treaty of Amity with Russia, both in 1854. These agreements therefore broke Japan's long-held policy and opened the ports of Shimoda and Hakodate to foreign trade. 

At the same time, however, the shogunate became increasingly wary of not only Russia but also of other countries. Therefore, it placed Ezochi, Karafuto, and the Chishima Islands under its direct jurisdiction again in 1855. 

Soon after in 1859, the shogunate ordered the Aizu, Sendai, Akita, Shonai, Nanbu, and Tsugaru clans to guard and develop Ezochi and the Chishima Islands outside the Matsumae domain of Fukuyama. Also, in September 1860, the Shonai, Aizu, Sendai, and Akita clans were ordered to guard Karafuto on a biannual rotation basis. This was the second time the Edo shogunate took direct control of Karafuto.

Kakinoshima Jomon Site: Panoramic view taken from the southwest. The site is located in Minamikayabe, Hakodate City on the eastern Pacific coast of the Oshima Peninsula in the southwestern part of Hokkaido. (©2021/5/20 by the Council for the World Heritage Jomon Prehistoric Sites)

The Ancient Jomon Predate the Ainu by Millenia

What of the prevailing understanding that the Ainu are the indigenous people of Japan? Nakamura points to an abundance of uniquely Japanese cultural artifacts that indicate otherwise. "In Hokkaido," Nakamura tells me, "there are many Jomon remains. The Jomon are the origin of the Japanese people." 

Their artifacts in the north include the "Hokkaido and North Tohoku Jomon Ruins, a World Heritage Site. Furthermore, those ruins date back over 10,000 years.

Northern Japan contains an abundance of other evidence of Jomon settlement long predating the Ainu. The world's oldest earthenware is 16,500-year-old Jomon earthenware excavated from the Odai Yamamoto I site in Aomori Prefecture. In Hokkaido, the world's oldest Jomon earthenware with traces of boiling and cooking is 14,000 years old. It was excavated from the Obihiro Taisho 3 site. 

The world's oldest lacquerware product was also discovered in Hokkaido. It is a 9,000-year-old lacquered shoulder strap excavated from the Kakinoshima B site in Hakodate. Furthermore, Japan's largest Jomon hollow clay figure (a 3,500-year-old national treasure) was excavated from the Chobonaino site in the former town of Minami-Kayabe. It was found to have red and black lacquer painted on its surface.

From the Jomon Ofune site in Hokkaido: Pots that attest to changes in pottery over the course of hundreds of years. (©2009/8/24, by the Hakodate City Board of Education)
At the Jomon Irie site in Hokkaido: Irie style pottery. (©Toyako Town Board of Education)

The Ainu Are Relative Latecomers to Japan

One of the three sacred possessions of the emperor, the symbol of Japan, is the magatama. The production of magatama requires advanced techniques for drilling and polishing hard stones. Jade magatama of similar shape have been excavated from Jomon sites throughout the Ezochi region. 

Earthenware, three-dimensional clay figurines, lacquered products, and the art of polishing are all part of the culture of the Japanese people. They also prove that the people of Ezochi have lived and worked based on a foundation of Japanese culture that has continued from ancient times to the present day.

The Ainu ruins of Chashi appeared in Ezochi only in the 13th century. Prior to this, there were no unique Ainu ruins in Ezochi. 

3,000 year old jade sling displayed in the Jomon period at the Pogawa Park of Nature and History Museum . (©Keiko Nakamura)
From the Jomon Takasago buriel site in Hokkaido: clay figurines. (©2013/2/4 by the Toyako Town Board of Education)

Moreover, they did not have the skills required to create what the Jomon people created. Also, because the Ainu believed that evil spirits resided within clay figurines, they had no desire to make such things in the first place.

The Ainu, Nakamura explained, do not possess any of of the Jomon culture. It is Jomon culture, she says, that is linked to the Japanese people today. 

The Ainu, the evidence suggests, are indigenous neither to Hokkaido nor to Japan.

Upopoy National Ainu Museum (©Agnes Tandler)

Unclear Ethnicity

At the end of the Edo period the Ainu numbered only about 15,000 individuals. They were divided into several tribes, each with a different oral language and no written language. A distinguishing feature was their engagement in repeated conflicts. 

It is not clear whether the Ainu can be considered an ethnic group. They have never united as a singular political unit and have never established a country or system of government.

Nakamura explains, "The Ainu were hunter-gatherers who did not farm. They traded rice, salt, sake, lacquered products, ironware, cotton, and old clothes produced by the Japanese for hunting goods to improve their lives. The Edo shogunate and the Matsumae clan never sought to fight the Ainu. The Edo policy towards the Ainu was always one of "comfort and care" and protection, even after the Meiji period."

National Security Strategy
Russian President Vladimir Putin watches the Vostok 2022 (East 2022) military exercise in far eastern Russia, outside Vladivostok, on Tuesday, September 6, 2022. (Mikhail Klimentyev, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)

What Will Become of Hokkaido and the Northern Territories?

In the course of my correspondence with Keiko Nakamura, she was kind enough to send me a photo of the beautiful snow-covered fields surrounding Lake Toya in Hokkaido. But as I admired the glistening sun on the lake, I felt a strong sense of foreboding wash over me. What will become of Hokkaido and the Northern Territories? 

False narratives slowly corrode the Japanese north country's heritage. At the same time, Russian warships loom perpetually on the horizon. On April 14, 2022, A Just Russia - For Truth party leader Sergey Mironov declared, "Russia has all rights to Hokkaido." 


These are fighting words, direct threats to Japan's sovereignty. But what steps is the current administration in Tokyo taking to address these threats? 

After the interview, I reflected on all I had learned about the Edo shogunate from Nakamura. Considering the challenges, I couldn't help but wonder at the Edo government's extraordinary effectiveness at protecting its people and land. Modern Japan has much to learn from its history.


Interview by: Daniel Manning

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