032. Getting to Know Hokkaido

Friday.  Before the World Cup kicks off in the evening I have to meet up with Mayhem at the airport. A check of the map and the train timetables figures that I can get a couple of hours at the Hokkaido Museum on the way.

It’s set in a lovely forest park on a hill on the outskirts of Sapporo, so it’s a tram-subway-train-bus combo.

I get off the train at Shin-Sapporo: two things happen at the station.

First I get a haircut, which is a Japanese moment all by itself.  It’s a three-chair barber shop, and there’s a machine at the door where you put in your money, take a voucher, and sit quietly while you wait for a spare chair.

My barber is a little – apprehensive, bemused, amused? – at this slightly sweaty, large-ish gaijin with not much hair in the right places and too much in the wrong places.  I point to the buzz cutter and hold up two fingers, and he sucks through his teeth, mimics very short with his fingers, and looks worried.  We settle on Number 3.

And of course he does the business with quick panache, finishing off not with a blow dryer but a vacuum cleaner hose to collect the loose threads. Bows all round.

Second thing happened: walking to get my bus, Bernard Foley walks past. (Note to MrsDavy: Bernard Foley is an Australian rugby player.)

This is not a good sign for Bernard Foley, given that the Aussies are due to play tomorrow.  Even though he is not named in the match-day team, to be told to go off and entertain himself suggests that he’s really really not wanted.

Mr Foley did not look happy.

Anyways, I caught the bus up to the Museum, and it was lovely.  The permament exhibition was focused on telling the story, from pre-history to today, of why Hokkaido is different from the rest of Japan.

The quick version:

The island of Hokkaido (as we now call it), is the northernmost of the four main islands of Japan.  It is separated to the south by a strait to Honshu, and to the north by a strait to Sakhalin (which you’ll know from your high school geography is now part of Russia.)  Back in an Ice Age (you’ll know this from a children’s animated movie), there was a land bridge to Sakhalin, and the mammoths walked in.

Mammoth skeleton, Hokkaido Museum

The earliest settlers of Hokkaido came from somewhere, not quite sure.  Their direct descendants are now known as the Ainu. They were hunter-fisher-gatherers, and they traded northwards and southwards.

Things start getting tense in the Tokugawa period (1603-1868). This was the time of the military aristocratic families controlling government, with the Emporers as figureheads. (Okay, I’m simplifying things alot here.)  As part of that control, they strictly limited contact and trade with the outside world.

And so they appointed the Matsumae clan to control all contact with Hokkaido (which was known as Ezochi back then).  And being a military-aristocratic clan with full control of a trading relationship, they promptly exploited the local population to enrich themselves. Cue fights and rebellions and massacres.

Also around this time the Russian state-backed explorers are beginning to have a close look-see at their Eastern boundaries.

So when the Meiji Restoration puts an end to the Tokugawa period , things get …. (wait for it) … worse for the Ainu.  Of course they do.

The Meiji period is about Japan rapidly opening up to the world, adopting and adapting the technology of Europe and the United States, and acquiring the material and military means to remain independent.

One of the things you need to do in that situation is assert full control of Hokkaido. Sovereignty established in 1869 (the name of the island being changed from Ezochi to Hokkaido), and a formal programme of ‘development’ begun. Large influx of people from Honshu, ports and trains and cities, and suppression of Ainu language, culture and identity.

Two world wars accelerate all of that, because Hokkaido being much less ‘developed’ than the rest of Japan means a whole lot of ‘progress’ to catch up on.

The special exhibition was about recovering Ainu placenames.  Without a written language, much of what we know comes down through the scripts and maps of Japanese officials, transliterating what they heard in the local language to kanji script.  Now there’s an effort to reverse engineer that process to recover the early place names and what they can tell us about the culture of the Ainu.

So all in all a lot of parallels with Aotearoa New Zealand history. Which explains why Te Ururoa Flavell, when he was Minister of Māori Affairs, spent time establishing relationships with the Ainu. All of these things can draw us closer together.

So after that lovely excursion, I returned to my bus stop and was taken up in conversation by a Japanese woman who, it turns out, spent a month in New Zealand 30 years ago.  We had an enthusiastic talk about her memories and my impressions. Lovely.

And then out to Chitose airport to meet and greet young Mayhem.

He’s my godson, a young fulla, and full of energy. He’s going to be my young eyes.

Lordy, full of energy.

Train, subway, tram back to base. Drop bags. Go out to watch the first match.

Here we go then.

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