The Ainu are an indigenous people of northeast Asia, and their lands encompassed what are now known as the north of Honshu, Hokkaido, the Kuril archipelago, southern Sakhalin, the southernmost tip of Kamchatka, and the Amur River estuary region. As such, Ainu space was a maritime one, linking the Pacific, the Sea of Okhotsk, and the Sea of Japan, and the Ainu settlements were dynamic actors in various maritime trade networks. Hence, they actively traded with other peoples, including the Japanese, from an early stage. Spreading over thousands of years, relations between Japan and the Ainu evolved in an ever-tightening way. These relations can be read in diplomatic or political terms, but also, and maybe even more so, in economic, spatial, and environmental terms, as Japan’s relationship with the Ainu people is deeply rooted in its relationship to Ainu goods, lands, and resources. Furthermore, Ainu songs reveal the importance of the charismatic trade with Japan in the shaping of Ainu society and worldview. From the 17th century, the initial, relative reciprocity of Ainu-Japanese relations became increasingly unbalanced, as the Tokugawa shoguns’ domestic productivity and foreign trade came to hinge upon Ainu labor, central to the transformation of northern marine products. During the 18th century, overlapping authorities and conflicting interests on both sides of the ethnic divide led to the advent of an inextricable web of mutual interdependencies, which all but snapped as the northeastern region of the Ainu lands became the convergence point of Japanese, Russian, and European interests. The need to establish clear regional sovereignty, to directly reap regional economic benefits and prevent Ainu unrest, led the shogunate to progressively establish direct control on the Ainu lands from the dawn of the 19th century. Although shogunate control did not lead to a full-fledged colonial enterprise per se, from the advent of the Meiji era, Ainu lands were annexed and their inhabitants subjected to colonial measures of assimilation, cultural suppression, and forced agricultural redeployment on the one hand, and dichotomization and exhibition on the other hand, before they all but disappeared from public discourse from the end of the 1930s. From the 1990s, within a global context of emerging indigenous and minority voices, Ainu individuals, groups, and movements have strived to achieve discursive reappropriation and political representation, and the past years have seen them be recognized as a minority group in Japan. Given past and ongoing tensions between Russia and Japan over sovereignty in the southern Kuril, and the future opening of the Arctic route between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, the Ainu could play an international role in both diplomatic and environmental terms.
The modern history of Sakhalin Island, a border island between Russia and Japan, has been one of demarcation, colonization, re-demarcation, and refugee resettlement, with a total of four demarcations and re-demarcations since the late 19th century, the first through diplomatic negotiations and the remaining three through war. One of the most significant features of the modern history of the border island is that each time the sovereignty of the islands changed, the population was completely replaced. Four major events shaped the history of Sakhalin Island: the Treaty of St Petersburg of 1875, which de-bordered the island from the traditional international system of East Asia and incorporated it into the modern international system of the West; the Russo-Japanese War of 1905, which resulted in the Japanese acquisition of the southern half of the island; the end of the five-year military occupation of northern Sakhalin by the Japanese in 1925; and the Soviet occupation of southern Sakhalin in 1945. Through each of these occasions, a holistic picture of the modern history of the Russo-Japanese border island can be discerned by focusing on the mobility of its inhabitants, how the inhabitants became displaced and were forced to leave their homes, and how the island was settled by the new sovereigns who replaced them.
The temporal span of the Japanese Empire is most commonly given as 1895–1945, from the acquisition of Taiwan following Japan’s victory in the First Sino-Japanese War to Japan’s defeat in the Second World War. Within this interpretation, the Japanese Empire was largely a reaction to the advances of the Western colonial powers during the 19th century. This “orthodox” narrative of the empire rests on a key assumption: the current borders of the Japanese state demarcate the inherent territory of Japan. But when viewed from Japan’s northernmost island of Hokkaido, a second story of the Japanese Empire emerges. Before 1869 Hokkaido was known to Wajin (ethnic Japanese) as Ezo. While the Japanese considered Ezo to be within their sphere of influence and there was a Japanese zone (Wajinchi) in the southern tip of Ezo from the 16th century, Ezo was a foreign land inhabited by the Ainu people. Hokkaido was only fully incorporated into the Japanese state in 1869 following the Meiji Restoration (1868), after which Japanese settlers colonized the island beyond Wajinchi. The indigenous Ainu people were dispossessed of their land and forced to assimilate. Rather than Taiwan, therefore, the story of the Japanese Empire begins with the colonization of the peripheries of the modern state: Hokkaido, and also Okinawa. Seeing imperial history from the vantage point of Hokkaido sheds light on some of the assumptions and oversights of much writing on Japan’s 19th- and 20th-century history. It reveals how the legacies of empire affect Japanese people today in those spaces where the colonizers and colonized continue to coexist. And it gives insights into how official and popular narratives of empire and war have been formulated at local and national levels in the postwar era.