Archeologists theorize that Hokkaidō was settled by Ainu, Gilyak, and Oroke 20000 years ago. The Nihon Shoki is often said to be the first mention of Hokkaidō in recorded history. According to the text, Abe no Hirafu led a large navy and army to northern areas from 658 to 660 and came into contact with the Mishihase and Emishi. One of the places Hirafu went to was called Watarishima (渡島), which is often believed to be present-day Hokkaidō. However, many theories exist in relation to the details of this event, including the location of Watarishima and the common belief that the Emishi in Watarishima were the ancestors of the present-day Ainu people.
During the Nara and Heian periods, people in Hokkaidō conducted trade with Dewa Province, an outpost of the Japanese central government. From the medieval ages, the people in Hokkaidō began to be called Ezo. Around the same time Hokkaidō came to be called Ezochi (蝦夷地) or Ezogashima. The Ezo mainly relied upon hunting and fishing and obtained rice and iron through trade with the Japanese.
During the Muromachi period, the Japanese created a settlement at the south of the Oshima peninsula. As more people moved to the settlement to avoid battles, disputes arose between the Japanese and the Ainu. The disputes eventually developed into a rebellion. Takeda Nobuhiro killed the Ainu leader, Koshamain, and defeated the rebellion. Nobuhiro's descendants became the rulers of the Matsumae-han, which ruled the south of Ezochi until the end of the Edo period.
Matsumae-han's economy relied upon trade with the Ainu. The Matsumae family was granted exclusive trading rights with the Ainu in the Azuchi-Momoyama and Edo periods. During the Meiji Restoration, the Tokugawa Shogunate realized there was a need to prepare northern defenses against possible Russian invasion and took over most control of Ezochi. The Shogunate made the Ainu burden slightly easier, but did not change the overall form of rule.
Hokkaidō was known as Ezochi until the Meiji Restoration. Shortly after the Boshin War in 1868, a group of Tokugawa loyalists led by Enomoto Takeaki proclaimed the island's independence as the Republic of Ezo, but the rebellion was crushed in May 1869. Ezochi was subsequently put under control of Hakodate-fu (箱館府, Hakodate Prefectural Government). When establishing the Development Commission (開拓使), the Meiji Government changed the name of Ezochi to Hokkaidō (北海道).
The primary purpose of the development commission was to secure Hokkaidō before the Russians extended their control of the Far East beyond Vladivostok. Kuroda Kiyotaka was put in charge of the venture. His first step was to journey to the United States and recruit Horace Capron, President Grant's Commissioner of Agriculture. From 1871 to 1873 Capron bent his efforts to expounding Western agriculture and mining with mixed results. Capron, frustrated with obstacles to his efforts returned home in 1875. In 1876 William S. Clark arrived to found an agricultural college in Sapporo. Although he only remained a year, Clark left lasting impression on Hokkaidō, inspiring the Japanese with his teachings on agriculture as well as Christianity. His parting words, "Boys, be ambitious!" can be found on public buildings in Hokkaidō to this day. Whatever the impact these Americans had, the population of Hokkaidō boomed from 58,000 to 240,000 during that decade.
In 1882, the Development Commission was abolished, and Hokkaidō was separated into three prefectures, Hakodate (函館県), Sapporo (札幌県), and Nemuro (根室県). In 1886, the three prefectures were abolished, and Hokkaidō was put under the Hokkaidō Agency (北海道庁). Hokkaidō became equal with other prefectures in 1947, when the revised Local Autonomy Law became effective. The Japanese central government established the Hokkaidō Development Agency (北海道開発庁) as an agency of the Prime Minister's Office in 1949 to maintain its executive power in Hokkaidō. The Agency was absorbed by the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport in 2001. The Hokkaidō Bureau (北海道局) and the Hokkaidō Regional Development Bureau (北海道開発局) of the Ministry still have a strong influence on public construction projects in Hokkaidō.
The island of Hokkaidō is located at the north end of Japan, near Russia, and has coastlines on the Sea of Japan, the Sea of Okhotsk, and the Pacific Ocean. The center of the island has a number of mountains and volcanic plateaus, and there are coastal plains in all directions. Major cities include Sapporo and Asahikawa in the central region and the port of Hakodate facing Honshū.
The governmental jurisdiction of Hokkaidō incorporates several smaller islands, including Rishiri, Okushiri Island, and Rebun. (By Japanese reckoning, Hokkaidō also incorporates several of the Kuril Islands.) Because the prefectural status of Hokkaidō is denoted by the dō in its name, it is rarely referred to as "Hokkaidō Prefecture", except when necessary to distinguish the governmental entity from the island.
The island ranks 21st in the world by area. It is 3.6% smaller than the island of Ireland while Hispaniola is 6.1% smaller than Hokkaidō. By population it ranks 20th, between Ireland and Sicily. Hokkaidō's population is 4.7% less than that of the island of Ireland, and Sicily's is 12% lower than Hokkaidō's.
|Shiretoko National Park*||知床|
|Akan National Park||阿寒|
|Kushiro Shitsugen National Park||釧路湿原|
|Daisetsuzan National Park||大雪山|
|Shikotsu-Toya National Park||支笏洞爺|
|Rishiri-Rebun-Sarobetsu National Park||利尻礼文サロベツ|
|Quasi-national parks (準国立公園)|
|Ōnuma Quasi-National Park||大沼|
|Niseko-Shakotan-Otaru Kaigan Quasi-National Park||ニセコ積丹小樽海岸|
|Abashiri Quasi-National Park||網走|
|Hidaka Sanmyaku-Erimo Quasi-National Park||日高山脈襟裳|
|Shokambetsu-Teuri-Yagishiri Quasi-National Park||暑寒別天売焼尻|
Hokkaidō is one of eight prefectures in Japan that have subprefectures or local offices (the others being Tokyo, Yamagata Prefecture, Nagasaki Prefecture, Okinawa Prefecture, Kagoshima Prefecture, Miyazaki Prefecture and Shimane Prefecture). However, it is the only one of the eight to have such offices covering the whole of its territory outside the main cities (rather than having them just for outlying islands or remote areas). This is mostly due to its great size: many parts of the prefecture are simply too far away to be effectively administered by Sapporo. Subprefectural offices in Hokkaidō carry out many of the duties that prefectural offices fulfill elsewhere in Japan.
Before the current political divisions and after 1869, Hokkaidō was divided into provinces. See Former Provinces of Hokkaidō.
Hokkaidō is known for its cooler summers and icy winters. Most of the island falls in the humid continental climate zone (Köppen Dfa (humid continental) in some inland lowlands, Dfb (hemiboreal) in most other areas). The average August temperature ranges from 17 °C to 22 °C (63 °F to 72 °F), while the average January temperature ranges from −12 °C to −4 °C (10 °F to 25 °F) depending on elevation and latitude. The island tends to see isolated snowstorms that develop long-lasting snowbanks, in contrast to the constant flurries seen in the Hokuriku region.
Unlike the other major islands of Japan, Hokkaidō is normally not affected by the June-July rainy season and the relative lack of humidity and typically warm, rather than hot, summer weather makes its climate an attraction for tourists from other parts of Japan.
In winter, the generally high quality of powder snow and numerous mountains in Hokkaidō make it one of Japan's most popular regions for snow sports. The snowfall usually commences in earnest in November and ski resorts (such as those at Niseko, Furano and Rusutsu) usually operate between December and April. Hokkaidō celebrates its winter weather at the Sapporo Snow Festival.
During the winter, passage through the Sea of Okhotsk is often complicated by large ice floes broken loose from the Kamchatka Peninsula. Combined with high winds that occur during winter, this brings air travel and maritime activity almost to a halt on the northern coast of Hokkaidō.
Hokkaidō's largest city is the capital, Sapporo. Other major cities include Hakodate in the south and Asahikawa in the central region. Other important population centers include Kushiro, Obihiro, Abashiri, Nemuro.
Hokkaidō has the highest rate of depopulation in Japan. In 2000, 152 (71.7%) of Hokkaidō's 212 municipalities were shrinking. Total shrinking municipalities in Japan in the same year number 1,171.
Although there is some light industry (most notably paper milling, brewing (Sapporo beer), and food production), most of the population is employed by the service sector. Tourism is an important industry, especially during the cool summertime that attracts campers and hot spring-goers from across Japan. During the winter, skiing and other winter sports bring tourists, and increasingly international tourists, to Hokkaidō.
Within Hokkaidō, there is a fairly well-developed railway network (see Hokkaidō Railway Company), but many cities can only be accessed by road.
The sports teams listed below are based in Hokkaidō.