As Horace Capron first travelled through Hokkaido in 1871, he searched for a sign of human life among the vast prairies, wooded glades and threatening black mountains. “The stillness of death reigned over this magnificent scene,” he later wrote. “Not a leaf was stirred, not the chirping of a bird or a living thing.” It was, he thought, a timeless place, straight out of pre-history.
“How amazing it is that this rich and beautiful country, the property of one of the oldest and most densely populated nations of the world… should have remained so long unoccupied and almost as unknown as the African deserts,” he added.
This was Japan’s frontier – its own version of the American ‘Wild West’. The northernmost of Japan’s islands, Hokkaido was remote, with a stormy sea separating it from Honshu. Travellers daring to make the crossing would have then had to endure the notoriously brutal winters, rugged volcanic landscape and savage wildlife. And so the Japanese government had largely left it to the indigenous Ainu people, who survived through hunting and fishing.
All that would change in the mid-19th Century. Fearing Russian invasion, the Japanese government decided to reclaim the country’s northland, recruiting former Samurai to settle Hokkaido. Soon others followed suit, with farms, ports, roads, and railways sprouting up across the island. American agriculturists like Capron had been roped in to advise the new settlers on the best ways to farm the land, and within 70 years the population blossomed from a few thousand to more than two million. By the new millennium, it numbered nearly six million.