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Hokkaido in Edo Japan: Defining Its Boundaries and Creating Prosperity

From detailed recordkeeping to map making, the early history of Hokkaido and the Northern Territories documents the region as an integral part of Japan.



Restoration of the Tokugawa-era Hakodate magistrate's office was completed in 2010. (©Keiko Nakamura)

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.

Second of three parts

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

Last part: Hokkaido: Embracing and Defending the Jomon Heart of Japan

As Japan entered the Kamakura period, the administration of Ezochi, or northeastern Japan encompassing Hokkaido, also entered a new phase. Governorship of the region thereafter was passed to the Ando clan, contributing to greater security. 

Later, the Matsumae clan was charged with the region's defense. This contributed significantly not only to Ezochi's security but also to its economic development through trade. 

The clan's contribution to the creation of Japan's early maps would also prove to be of inestimable value with the later encroachment of Russia into Asia.

The Northern Territories stretching off Cape Nosappu (lower left) on Hokkaido's Nemuro Peninsula. (© Kyodo)

Administering Japan's Northeastern Lands

The history of Ezochi unfolds in overlapping parallel with that of Japan. For instance, Nakamura points out that "the Oshu Fujiwara family of Hiraizumi, who ruled the present-day Tohoku (northeast Honshu) region in the late Heian Period, were also deeply involved with Ezochi. 

"The glory of the Oshu Fujiwara clan is still preserved in Hiraizumi. Indeed, it is now a World Heritage site in Iwate Prefecture, located in the Tohoku region of Japan."

In the middle ages, too, Ezochi and the rest of Japan were intertwined. Nakamura tells me that in 1219, during the early days of the Kamakura period (1185-1333), the Kamakura Shogunate appointed the Tsugaru Ando clan "Ezo Kanrei" (governor of Ezochi) to administer the region.

"In this sense," Nakamura says, "the Kamakura period marked a turning point in the administration of Ezochi. The Ando clan was responsible for the exile of criminals sent by the shogunate to Ezochi and for the management of Ezochi residents. 

"Those included the Ainu who frequented Tsugaru Sotogahama and Tosaminato. Subsequently, during the Kenmu-no-Shinsei and Muromachi period (1336-1573)," the Ando clan retained the Governorship of Ezochi. 

The political history of Japan is thus one with the political history of Ezochi, later to be called Hokkaido.

Matsumae Clan in a Central Role

Of course, the above history of Ezochi is vital to countering the propaganda of book-burners and Marxist. Still, Nakamura points out that the Matsumae clan played a central role in the development of Ezochi. She posits that the Mastumae clan was arguably the most pivotal force in protecting and enriching the Northern Territories.

Nakamura describes the circumstances by which the Matsumae clan came to rule Ezochi.

"In 1590," Nakamura tells me, "Hideyoshi Toyotomi (1537-1598) issued a red-seal letter charging Kakizaki Yoshihiro with the defense of the Ezochi region and granting him the right to collect taxes. After the inauguration of the Edo shogunate, Kakizaki received a black-seal letter from Ieyasu Tokugawa in 1604. That officially granted him control over Ezochi. 

Thereafter, Kakizaki changed his name to Yoshihiro Matsumae. He established the Matsumae domain and set up a government office in Ezochi to administer the region and its finances. 

(Red-seal letters were official documents issued by shoguns and warlords to grant relief of their territories and permission to travel abroad. They became quite prominent in the wake of the Warring States period (1467-1568). Black seal letters were documents issued by shoguns and feudal lords from the Warring States period.)

"These are clear historical facts. I would like the world to know that both Hideyoshi and Ieyasu, in their letters approving the rule of Ezochi, clearly stipulated that 'no harm must be done upon the Ainu.'"

Adapting Governance to Local Conditions

The Matsumae clan established trading areas with the Ainu. These trading areas also designated areas where Japanese people had settled and where fishing was prosperous. For example, placing them under the jurisdiction of the clan in Ezochi Karafuto and the Chishima Islands. Income from trading was used by the Matsumae to maintain the domain and support the livelihood of its samurai.

Part of the rich history of Ezochi is that the Matsumae were very different from daimyo further south. Nakamura explains. Four hundred years earlier during the Edo era, management of shogunate and each clan was based on rice production. However, Ezochi's climate was very cold. And the Matsumae could not produce enough rice to cover its operating costs with the technology of the time. 

So, as with the previous administration of Toyotomi Hideyoshi, the Edo shogunate approved a monopoly over trade in the Ezochi region. Armed with this monopoly, the Matsumae could administer their domain based on the profits from trade.

A lacquered comb is shown with other items from the late Jomon period in an exhibit at the Eniwa City History Museum. (©Keiko Nakamura)

A Brisk Trade in a Variety of Goods

Trade had many other benefits, too, Nakamura says.

"By making trade a source of income for the Matsumae," Nakamura explains, "Omi merchants and Kitamae-bune merchants, who were sensitive to commercial opportunities, were also able to distribute local products across clan borders throughout Japan."

This brought a wealth of goods to, and from, the northern region. Nakamura points out that the Matsumae clan made repeated bulk purchases of local products. These included rice, sake, salt, sugar, iron products, cotton, silk fabrics, used clothing, Japanese paper, tableware, and lacquerware.

According to Nakamura, the Matsumae sold Steller's sea eagle feathers, salmon, and bear and sea otter pelts. They obtained these through trade with the Ainu. 

The Matsumae also sold fertilizer from herring systemized by the Japanese. This contributed to increased agricultural productivity in the Edo period. In addition, they sold kombu (dashi, the basis of Japanese food culture) and lumber.

"The promotion of local industries across Japan and the country's development into a modern economy was vital in fostering the current recognition of Japan as a single, united nation," Nakamura says.

Drawing Maps and Shoring Up National Defenses

"Another notable achievement of the Matsumae was its contribution to the demarcation of Japan's northern borders," Nakamura explains. "The Shogunate requested that each clan submit a map of its territory in order to create the 'Shoho Nihon ezu.'" That became a map that clarified the territory governed by Japan.

"The 'Shoho kuni ezu' submitted by the Matsumae clan is based on an expedition conducted by Matsumae retainers in 1635. It shows Ezochi, Karafuto, and the Chishima Islands as being Matsumae territory. 

In 1644, the Edo shogunate created the 'Shoho Nihon ezu.' It incorporated this map submitted by the Matsumae clan as Japanese territory."

"In the map created by Jyuzo Kondo (1771-1829) in 1802, it was not possible to determine whether Karafuto was an island or a peninsula. So two types of maps were created, one showing the Karafuto portion as an island and the other as a peninsula. 

"To determine its status, in 1808, the Edo shogunate sent Denjuro Matsuda (1769-1842) and Rinzo Mamiya (1775-1844) on an expedition to Karafuto. Denjuro Matsuda erected a wooden post on the Great Japanese Border at Cape Rakka in Karafuto. 

"In 1809, Rinzo Mamiya continued his exploration of Sakhalin and determined that Karafuto was an island. Nowadays, the area between the continent and Karafuto is marked on world maps as the "Mamiya Strait."

1644 Shoho Nihon Ezu 1, Map of Japan, includes Hokkaido. (Photo by the National Museum of Japanese History)

Mapping the Imperial Vale of Japan

Mamiya also surveyed the interior of Ezochi and the area of Ezochi un-surveyed by Tadataka Ino (1745-1818). This contributed to the completion of the "Great Map of the Imperial Vale of Japan" in 1821. 

Furthermore, Mamiya produced a map of Karafuto, which was used in the 1862 negotiations between Russia and the Edo shogunate to demarcate the Karafuto border.

"Thus," Ms. Nakamura concludes, "the Edo Shogunate was aware that Ezochi, Karafuto, and the Chishima Islands were its own territory. It sent expeditions to map and delineate the territory, a basic policy of any sovereign nation. I want the world to know that it was the Edo Shogunate, not the Ainu, that carried this out." 

Nakamura tells me that even today, the "Shoho Nihon ezu" map is used as the basis for negotiations relating to the Northern Territories of Japan.

"The Russians," Nakamura says, "first explored the Kuril Islands in 1711. A map drawn up by a Russian expedition in 1721 clearly shows the northern islands as 'Ostrova Aponskia' (Japanese Islands)."

Maps imply borders, and borders imply national defense. In her book, Nakamura traces the inception of Japan's national defense against Western powers back to the arrival of Christianity.

Defending Ezochi

Up to this point, foreign defense had meant dealing with crises from the West. However, the Edo shogunate was now forced to turn its attention, for the first time, to the defense of Ezochi and the Northern Territories (Sakhalin and the Kuril Islands).

Heisuke Kudo (1734-1801), a physician from the Sendai clan, wrote Tidings from Kamchatka (Akaezo Fusetsu Ko) in 1783. Nakamura explains that Kudo's book provides information on Russian movements. 

Kudo also voiced fears that Russia would take Japan's Ezochi and Northern Territories. He then proposed concrete measures to prevent such an attack. Kudo's work focused attention on the defense of the Northern Territories.

"In 1785," Nakamura continues, "Tanuma Okitsugu (1719-1788), a senior official of the Edo shogunate, dispatched the Tenmei expedition to Ezochi. They were sent to survey Karafuto and the Chishima Islands. He also formulated a grand plan for the development of Ezochi and new rice fields.

"However, this was not to be. Okitsugu had suffered from the Tenmei famine in the 1780s. He also lived through the eruption of Mt Asama in 1783, and the death of Shogun Ieharu in 1786. However, this time he lost his post. His political rival, Sadanobu Matsudaira (1759-1829) rejected Okitsugu's modern policies. And the survey of Ezochi was also canceled."

The Russians were hardly the only threats facing Ezochi, Nakamura explains. In 1789, the Ainu of Kunashiri in the Chishima Islands and Nemuro in Ezochi initiated the Battle of Kunashiri Menashii. Seventy-one Japanese were killed, including the manager and watchman of the trading post. There was speculation that Russia orchestrated the battle. 

Continues in Last part: Hokkaido: Embracing and Defending the Jomon Heart of Japan


Interview by: Daniel Manning