The Tragedy of the Ainu

Japanese Imperialism in Hokkaido During the Tokugawa Bakufu

The Tragedy of the Ainu
A Japanese tourist posing with two Ainu people and their bear

The Japanese, through the Matsumae family, traded heavily with the indigenous Ainu people of Hokkaido, the island just north of mainland Japan, during the unification period, a very lucrative time for both sides. However, by the end of the Tokugawa period, this trade had turned into colonization. Over time the Japanese turned trade into political power, undermining the authority of the Ainu chiefs. When the Ainu fought back, the Japanese easily put them down via military action and embargo. By the time the Tokugawa took over Hokkaido, the Japanese were already nearly in control of the Ainu, economically, culturally, and militarily. This slow progression of control is reminiscent of many instances of colonization and imperialism in the West, something that the Japanese were barely experienced with at this point. Developing dependency, unequal treaties, and taking land slowly through minor conflicts make up a style of imperialism that is generally considered a Western approach, and yet the Japan came up with it independently.

Japan began their economic conquest of the Ainu innocently in the 13th century, by simple trading with little to no intentions of conquest. It was a way to get the valuable Ainu goods, called hunting commodities, to mainland Japan and make a fortune, and a way for the Ainu to get luxury items and rice. However, this trade became important for many aspects of Ainu culture. Japanese items were soon being used in religious ceremonies and acted as status symbols that gave legitimacy to the chiefs. Before long the Ainu grew reliant on this trade, and this reliance was easily exploited. The Matsumae family began packing the goods for the Ainu in i-dawara, or barbarian bales, which were much smaller than the normal trading bales, in effect raising the price of Japanese goods, but also proving that the Ainu needed to buy them regardless. This devaluation of the Ainu products led to a drive to produce more and more hunting commodities. The overproduction of these goods led to massive inflation, making it continuously harder for the Ainu to succeed in trade without running into conflict with their neighbors. Realizing that they were in complete control of the trade, the Matsumae family allowed Japanese merchants to take control of the trade and create unequal treaties like the ones Western powers would force on Japan in the late 1800s. These trade agreements put the Ainu further into a subservient position by continuing the devaluation of the hunting commodities, but also by forcing a trading ceremony that symbolically, and literally, placed the Ainu under the Japanese. The Ainu were not ignorant of this fact either, but they had become so reliant on trade that if did not follow these ceremonies, they would suffer severe famines.

As briefly mentioned previously, the Ainu began to rely on Japanese goods for their religious ceremonies. Before the trade with the Japanese, the Ainu had “various ceremonies throughout the year, including ceremonies to send back spirits, a religious ceremony for ancestors, a ceremony for the completion of a new house, and a ceremony to launch the year's first fishing of salmon and shishamo smelt.” These ceremonies involved offerings that were items the Ainu had either made or gathered themselves. As trade continued though, the items up for offer became almost exclusively Japanese-made. Swords, lacquer ware, and silk clothing were all used in ceremonies, contributing to the rise in their value and their becoming status symbols, seeing as only those who could afford them could bring them to the ceremony.

Ainu religion was inseparably tied to the ecology of Hokkaido. The Ainu believe that gods, or kamuy, can be found in every object or phenomena, thus the animals that the Ainu hunted for food and medicine take a very special place in their traditions. Once the trade with the Japanese came, the kamuy were put in peril. One of the important deities, the salmon, or divine fish, were a major source of sustenance for the Ainu, and also a hunting commodity that was aggressively fished. The Ainu fished the salmon in their rivers at a rate that was unsustainable. In addition, Japanese miners used a style of mining called placer mining that required the redirection of rivers, something that would ruin the spawning ground for many salmon, essentially destroying entire salmon populations. These salmon shortages lead to mass famines in the local Ainu groups. Bears are another important deity. The bear festival is a major ceremony of Ainu worship, involving the raising and ritual killing of a bear cub. For the Ainu, the bear has many uses besides religious ceremony. Bears obviously have a large amount of meat, but more importantly, their hides were a valuable material both for its uses within the tribe, and for the Japanese desire for animal hides, which societal norms disallowed most Japanese from producing. The bear also had another item of significant commercial value, the gallbladder, which was considered an important pharmaceutical among the Ainu and the Japanese. Even today several Ezo brown bear varieties are endangered. The most devastating instance of over-hunting, perhaps, was the deer. Like the salmon, many ainu tribes relied on deer for food, but the Japanese valued the pelts of the deer. The hunting of deer for pelts ended in dramatic declines of deer populations that also correlated with Ainu famines. There was speculation from Ainu and Japanese that the deer kamuy had purposely eradicated the deer in anger. This depopulation of hunting commodity animals resulted in the Ainu becoming more and more reliant on Japanese trade, to the point where nearly all of their food came from the Japanese, meaning the Japanese were capable of creating famines amongst the Ainu if they were at all displeased.

The Japanese had several military clashes with the Ainu, each one bringing the Ainu further under their control. Shakushain’s War (1669) was brought about by a feud between two Ainu groups, the Hae and the Shibuchari, who were competing for hunting commodities to trade with the Japanese, which led to the murder of the leader of the Shibuchari. During a short-lived peace deal created by the Matsumae family to protect trade, the Hae began allying with the Japanese miners in eastern Ezo and the Matsumae domain. When hostilities resumed, evidence suggests that the Hae used harquebuses in battle, gifts from the Japanese miners to protect their interests, sowing a stronger distrust of the Japanese amongst the Shibuchari. Despite this disadvantage, the Shibuchari eventually killed the chief of the Hae in battle, leaving Utomasa in charge. Utomasa went to Matsumae domain to ask for their assistance but was declined, although they did promise to bring about another peace settlement to protect the trade. On the return journey, Utomasa died of smallpox, something not uncommon during Japanese-Ainu interactions. When the leader of the Shibuchari, Shakushain, caught word of this, he saw a chance to remove the power the Japanese had over the Ainu. He spread rumors that Utomasa had actually been poisoned by the Matsumae domain. Outraged by this, many Ainu joined up with Shakushain to fight the Matsumae domain.

Shakushain was very similar to the Gallic chief Vercingetorix in that they opposed a foreign force exerting power over their people by attempting to unite many separate tribes with conflicts amongst themselves into a single fighting force. In order to do this, Shakushain, like Vercingetorix, had to be a charismatic leader who could convince the chiefdoms to set aside differences and fight against the people whose trade was so vital to their way of life, and who had a rather impressive military. As such, despite Shakushain’s efforts and charm, there were many groups that chose to side with the Japanese in order to get better trade deals. The conflict quickly divided along ethnic lines as Shakushain targeted Japanese all throughout Hokkaido. The Tokugawa bakufu quickly picked up on this and decided to get involved, fulfilling their title as seii taishogun, or barbarian subduing generalissimo. After a battle that devolved into a stalemate, peace talks were started. Unfortunately this was not a true peace, as the book Conquest of Ainu Lands puts it, “while celebrating their newly forged peace settlement in Biboku with liberal helpings of sake, Shakushain, Chimenha, Uenshirushi, and other Ainu generals were cut down by Matsumae warriors.” This treacherous behavior is atypical of the Japanese dealing amongst themselves, which shows that they had different rules of honor for dealing with “barbarians” than Japanese, further solidifying the ethnic lines this war had been drawn on.

About 100 years later (1789), the Ainu rose again to protect their way of life in the Menashi-Kunashir rebellion. The sons of many powerful Ainu chiefs plotted the attacks on several Japanese living throughout Hokkaido. They succeeded in killing 71 Japanese and raising the ire of the Matsumae domain. The Ainu chiefs quickly attempted to compensate the Japanese for the loss, as at this point they completely subsided on trade, however, the Matsumae family did not accept, and quickly rounded up suspects and killed 37 Ainu, pickled their heads, and displayed them in their castle town, Fukuyama. After this war was reported to the Tokugawa bakufu, they enabled a series of policies that put Hokkaido under Shogunal rule. During this period, a practice developed of the Japanese hiring the Ainu for labor to extract the resources of the newly acquired Hokkaido. This hiring was more akin to chattel slavery than actual jobs, as the Japanese would come to a village and force its chief to deliver men to be sent to work on the threat of death. This slavery was the pinnacle of Japanese imperialism in the Tokugawa bakufu, and would not be topped until the Meiji annexation (~1869).

The Japanese acquisition of Hokkaido was a slow process that played the Ainu against each other and removed their economic independence. The Japanese were able to suppress Ainu groups when they resisted, whether through military, withholding their goods, or bribing other groups to fight them. Even when the Ainu were mostly united against the Japanese, the Japanese maintained their control. This conquest employed tactics that had been used in imperialist empires around the world, despite the relative isolation of the Tokugawa bakufu. The Japanese had discovered imperialism all their own, and used it to subjugate Hokkaido, its resources, and finally its people, the Ainu.

Sources and Further Readings:

Brett Walker, Conquest of Ainu Lands: Ecology and Culture in Japanese Expansion, 1590-1800

The Ainu Museum,

Kayano Shigeru, Our Land Was a Forest: An Ainu Memoir

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