The Secret of Hokkaido’s Unique Identity, Hokkaido Museum

The large picture to the right depicts Hokkaido from the beginning of the Showa period (1926-89), capturing a moment in history when Hokkaido had undergone major changes from the Meiji period (1868-1912), and was beginning to approach its present state. Hokkaido is characterized by beautiful scenery, special local products made from bounties of the sea and earth, warm indoor winter lifestyles, and more. Modern Hokkaido is rich in such “uniqueness”. How has Hokkaido’s unique identity come to be?

Together with Abundant Nature
Ranking of Products from 1916
In 1916, Hokkaido found itself in the midst of an economic boom brought on by World War I. This table made then, created to look like a sumo wrestling ranking chart, contains a list of products made in Hokkaido in order of production value. At that time, agriculture and food industries were expanding, with soybeans and starch exported to Europe and North America. The steel and paper manufacturing industries were also developing thanks to the wealth of local coal and timber resources. On this nearly 100 year-old ranking chart you will fnd an array of products: some that are still made in Hokkaido today, some now made outside of Hokkaido or overseas, and some no longer used.

Hokkaido’s herring, salmon and other fshing industries began from around the end of the 18th century, while agriculture incorporated new technologies from abroad around the end of the 19th century, becoming one of Hokkaido’s key industries. At the start of the 20th century, industry itself grew on the back of a strong economy. Driven by these changes, Hokkaido began to produce a number of products, such as potato starch, sugar beets, dairy products, canned goods, laminated wood boards, and rubber, among others.

The reason for this growth can be attributed to Hokkaido’s wealth of resources, including the surrounding oceans as well as the expansive forests and farm lands. Over the years people have tried various means to create products from Hokkaido’s land, sea and mountain resources.

Today, Hokkaido is one of Japan’s major agricultural production areas. Expansive felds, rice paddies and pasture lands await just a short distance away from cities. These were made possible by the hard work of the people in the past who developed the forest land and created irrigation canals. Additionally, a great deal of efort was required to cultivate crops in Hokkaido’s extremely cold environment.

Hokkaido also had a wealth of marine resources, including herring, salmon, squid, crab, cod, scallops, abalones, and sea cucumbers, among others. Along the coastline people used tools skillfully to fsh, a short distance of the coast people used large nets, and further away in the northern seas people traveled in feets of vessels to catch fsh. The fsh that they caught were dried, canned or even used as fertilizer for felds.

Hokkaido’s mountains had huge, hidden reserves of coal. Coal mines were developed in earnest from around the end of the 19th century, making Hokkaido a production center for the coal used to power Japan’s industry and its lifestyles. Hokkaido’s mountains also contained forests with countless huge trees. During the winter time people would cut down these trees with giant saws, using horse-drawn sleds and other means to transport this timber.

Once a transportation network of sea lanes, roads, and railways was developed, products made in Hokkaido started to be transported outside the island and even abroad. Behind the scenes, however, we must not forget that many prisoners and people referred to as tako, the name given to laborers who were placed in confnement and exploited to make up for a shortage of workers, lost their lives after being forced to work in dangerous and deplorable conditions

The Era of Herring
In the past, Hokkaido’s spring fshing season began with herring. More than a century ago nearly one million tons of herring were caught in the waters of Hokkaido. The herring is one of Hokkaido’s most well-known fsh species and most of the catch was used in fshmeal for fertilizer. A great deal of labor was required during the herring season, which attracted large numbers of migrant workers from Honshu and within Hokkaido. Large tools were also needed to efciently process the huge amount of herring that was caught.

The Era of Black Diamonds
Hokkaido had a wealth of underground mineral resources, from metals, such as gold, silver, copper and lead, to coal, sulfur and limestone, among others. Around 1887 a detailed study of Hokkaido’s geological deposits was carried out, leading to the development of mines throughout the island. In particular, a number of mines for coal, which was often referred to as black diamonds, were developed from around the start of the Meiji period (1868-1912), and by around 1926 coal had grown into one of Hokkaido’s most important industries.

Together with the Seasons
Inside a Taisho Period Passenger Coach
This shows the interior of a passenger coach heading from Kutchan to Otaru one winter’s day during the Taisho Period. Passengers include migrant workers heading to the herring fshing grounds, farmers, craftsmen, tradesmen, ofce workers, parents, children, and students. The car was heated with a coal stove. The passengers wore traditional garments from rural villages, including wataire, sashiko and tsumago, as well as Japanese-style hoods, large square winter shawls, and overcoats to ward of the cold. You can also see that people had begun wearing Western style clothing such as jackets, school uniforms, overcoats and even leather shoes.

Around the latter half of the 19th century many people emigrated to Hokkaido. Most of these people crossed the Tsugaru Strait in search of a better life. However, with the seasonal environment diferent from their hometown, not everyone was able to fulfll this dream. In particular, preparing for winter was a serious endeavor that often determined whether you lived or died. People needed to keep their families warm and prepare for ways to clear the heavy snowfall. Yet, even after the start of the 20th century there were still families who depended on hearths or braziers for heat and simply compacted snow instead of removing it. However, during the Taisho period (1912-1926) gradually stoves were introduced and various tools were put into use for clearing and removing snow.

Even in Hokkaido, between New Year’s and New Year’s Eve, events were held in tune with the work and lifestyle of each season. Nevertheless, there are also many events refecting Hokkaido’s unique culture and tradition. For example, the shimenawa used to decorate the front entrance of a home for New Year’s typically uses rice straw in Honshu, but in Hokkaido alternatives such as sedge were used. This is because rice could not be grown successfully in Hokkaido until the Meiji Period (1868-1912) due to its cold climate. In addition, there are communities that celebrate the famous and popular summer star festival called Tanabata on July 7, the traditional date for the festival in Honshu, but others that hold it on August 7. One reason for this diversity is that many emigrants came to live in Hokkaido from other parts of Japan.

As Hokkaido was settled and developed, larger communities created drinking water systems, hospitals, schools, shrines and temples, as well as transportation infrastructure such as railways. This development would eventually spread to more remote farming and fshing villages. The end of the Meiji Period (1868-1912) to the beginning of the Taisho Period (1912-1926) would bring major changes in peoples’ way of life. For example, people gradually began to shift from Japanese-style to Western-style clothing, such as heavyweight hand-knit gloves and other cold weather gear. Western-style foods such as tomatoes, cabbage, onions, potatoes, milk, butter and cheese were also produced. Tin roofs and glass windows began to be used in more buildings, while street lights became more prevalent.

Related Post

Heating Rooms
At the end of the Edo period the kahheru, the frst stove ever made in Japan, was made in Hakodate. The stove did not become commonly available to ordinary people until the latter half of the Meiji Period (1868-1912) when a lower priced tin plate wood stove was released. Later the coal stove would also appear. From the end of the Taisho Period (1912-1926) to the beginning of the Showa Period (1926-1989) the magazine stove ofering more convenient warmth was mass produced and became widely used across Hokkaido. These stoves formed the beginnings of a warmer life in the frigid cold of winter in Hokkaido.

Snow Removal
Wood and bamboo tools, such as the kaesuki, kosuki and jonba, as well as steel shovels, were used in Hokkaido for snow removal between front doors and streets. On farms and more expansive areas, snow was often compacted using a horse-drawn sankaku-sori sled. Later in the 1950s, a tool called yukioshi became prevalent for clearing away snow at railway stations. These tools were later commercialized with the names mama-san dump or snow dump and became popular in snowy areas all around Hokkaido and beyond.

Hokkaido’s Unique Identity, A La Carte
Portrait of Hokkaido around the End of the Edo Period (Sugoroku)
The large graphic art on the wall here depicts the game board for sugoroku, or Japanese backgammon. In this version of the game, players start from Hakodate and, while rolling the dice, work their way along the Sea of Japan to the Okhotsk Sea and down the Pacifc Coast aiming for the goal. This version is believed to have been created in 1864 by Matsuura Takeshiro, a person deeply involved in the naming of Hokkaido. Each individual piece contains place-names within Hokkaido at the time, portrays marine products or the Ainu way of life or folklore. During that period, people who saw this version of sugoroku undoubtedly created various images of Hokkaido in their minds.

What comes to mind when you hear the word “Hokkaido”? People typically think about straight roads as far as the eye can see, all-you-can-eat crab, hot springs with rustic charm, ramen, jingisukan, swimming at the beach with tents, weddings where the guests chip in to cover the cost instead of ofering monetary gifts, and regional dialects. Hokkaido is unlike any other part of Japan and there are many other reasons to be found. Hokkaido’s uniqueness can also be found in the souvenirs and festivals unique to each community, home cooking, and place-names, to mention but a few.

For example, let’s take a look at place-names. Many communities and regions in Hokkaido are named after words from the Ainu language. The reason why there are so many places that were given the kanji (Chinese characters or ideographs) “betsu,” “nai,” and “shiri” is because these characters were applied to the Ainu words “pet,” “nay,” and “sir.” You might have also noticed that many of the place-names here are the same as those on Honshu. Communities formed by groups of people who emigrated to settle and develop Hokkaido often chose the names of their hometowns, such as Kagawa, for example. In addition, the names of people with close roots in the community have become place-names, while completely new names were given to other places.

Here, we have set up a corner that explores the uniqueness of Hokkaido. Various selected pieces are brought together here that provide a sense of Hokkaido’s uniqueness. For example, ceramic ware made in Hokkaido typically features Ainu patterns, the Ainu way of life, or Hokkaido’s scenery and events, each of which is unique to Hokkaido. Postal workers in Hokkaido used bugles to ward of bears from the Meiji Period (1868-1912) up to the 1960s. Another unique tool created for Hokkaido’s cold climate was a rod used to break down the pile of frozen excrement in outhouses in the winter time.

Hokkaido’s unique natural environment, historical diferences from Honshu, and the collective interaction of various people have all played important roles in creating and shaping a number of unique aspects of Hokkaido as well.

A Bear as a Souvenir?
Around the start of the Showa Period (1926-1989), development of transportation and accommodation infrastructure began at famous locations and hot springs resorts across Japan. Hokkaido, too, began to receive attention as a tourism destination after national parks were created at Daisetsuzan and Akan in 1934. Around this time many souvenirs were already being sold, such as wood carvings of bears as well as Ainu folk crafts and textiles, furs, processed marine products, dairy products and soybean snacks, to name but a few. After the end of World War II, new festivals began to pop up across the island, including the Sapporo Snow Festival and Yosakoi Soran Festival.

Are You Hungry?
Around the start of Hokkaido’s settlement and development the people ate very simple foods such as rice mixed with grains. More extravagant foods were reserved for weddings or special events. Hokkaido has also faced a number of food shortages during its history. This is why shibareimo, potatoes that were buried under the snow in winter and frozen, were essential during food emergencies and why preserved foods, such as pickled herring and Okhotsk atka mackerel, have become important local specialty dishes. On the other hand, there are also foods that have disappeared from local menus, such as grilled and dried big-scaled redfn which once was used to make soup stock.

Hokkaido Museum
Hokkaido Museum, aka Mori no Charenga, is a museum introducing the nature, history and culture of Hokkaido.Hokkaido Museum opened in Sapporo, Hokkaidō, Japan in 2015. Located within Nopporo Shinrin Kōen Prefectural Natural Park.

Most of the permanent exhibitions are history-related, including archeology, and folklore-related. Educational activities are being conducted in both the humanities and natural history fields.

The museum integrates and replaces the Historical Museum of Hokkaido, which opened in 1971, and the Hokkaido Ainu Culture Research Centre.

It also collects and preserves materials that represent a precious treasure of the people of Hokkaido, and conducts exhibitions, educational activities and events.