Things Japanese/Yezo

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Yezo, often incorrectly spelt Yesso, and officially styled the Hokkaido, or " Northern Sea Circuit," is the northernmost of the large islands that form the Japanese archipelago. It lies, roughly speaking, between parallels 41½° and 45½° of north latitude—the latitude of that part of Italy which stretches from Rome to Venice;—but it is under snow and ice for nearly half the year, the native Ainos tracking the bear and deer across its frozen and pathless mountains, like the cave-men of the glacial age of Europe. It is asserted that Yoshitsune, the great Japanese hero, fled into Yezo and died there; but little attempt was made by the Japanese to colonise it until early in the seventeenth century, when the Shōgun Ieyasu granted it as a fief to one Matsumae Yoshihiro, who conquered the south-western corner of the island, establishing his capital at Matsumae, some sixty miles to the south-west of the modern port of Hakodate. His successors retained their sway over Yezo until the recent break-up of the feudal system. They treated the luckless Ainos with great cruelty, and actually rendered it penal to communicate to these poor barbarians the art of writing or any of the arts of civilised life. Frequent rebellions, suppressed by massacres, were the result. In the latter part of the eighteenth century, however, and in the first half of the nineteenth, a few Japanese literati made their way into the island. It is to their efforts—to the efforts of such men as Mogami, Mamiya, and Matsura—that our first scientific information concerning the people, the language, and the productions of Yezo is due. The Imperial government has done all in its power to redress the wrongs of the hitherto down-trodden natives.

At one time, the Russians endeavoured to obtain a footing in Yezo; but the opening of Japan nipped this encroachment in the bud. Japanese statesmen eagerly plunged into the task of developing the resources of the island. With this end in view, they created a special executive department, entitled the Kaitakushi, and engaged the services of a party of American employés headed by General Capron. Large sums were expended on model farms and other public works, and a fictitious prosperity set in. The bubble burst in 1881, when the Kaitakushi was dissolved, since which time the government of the island has undergone repeated reorganisation.

Yezo is interesting from a scientific point of view. The great depth of the Straits of Tsugaru, which separate it from the Main Island, shows that it never—at least in recent geological epochs—formed part of Japan proper. The fauna of the two islands is accordingly marked by notable differences. Japan has monkeys and pheasants, which Yezo has not. Yezo has grouse, which Japan has not. Even the fossils differ on both sides of the straits, though occurring in similar cretaceous formations. Scientific, or rather unscientific, management played a queer trick with the city of Sapporo, if the local gossips are to be credited. The intention—so it is said—was to lay out the city a l'americaine, with streets running due north and south and due east and west. The person entrusted with the orientation of the plan was of course aware of the necessity of allowing for the deviation of the compass; but being under the influence of some misconception, he made the allowance the wrong way, and thus, instead of eliminating the error, doubled it. It is pleasant to be able to add that the result was a practical improvement undreamt of by the mathematicians. The houses, having no rooms either due north or due south, suffer less from the extremes of heat and cold than they would have done had they been built with some rooms on which the sun never shone, and others exposed to the sun all the year round.[1]

Books recommended. Murray's Handbook for Japan.—Japan in Yezo, by T. W. Blakiston.—Vol. II. of Mrs. Bishop's Unbeaten Tracks in Japan.

  1. A specialist in such matters calls our attention to the fact that the story has, as the common phrase is, "not a leg to stand on," for the reason that the deviation of the compass is so slight in this part of the world as to be practically insignificant even when doubled. We leave the story, however, as an instance of modern myth-making.