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After the glaciers receded, the Ainu were the first to settle here. They called it Ainu Moshiri, Ainu meaning ‘human’, and Moshiri meaning ‘world’. Until the Edo period (1600–1868), the Ainu and Japanese had relatively little contact with each other. The Matsumae clan were the first to establish a major foothold in southwestern Hokkaidō, and they successfully bargained with the Ainu, creating a trade monopoly. While lucrative for the Matsumae clan, it would prove disastrous to the Ainu people.

By the end of the Edo period, trade and colonisation had begun in earnest and by the time the Meiji Restoration began in 1868 the Ainu culture was under attack. Many Ainu customs were banned, women were forbidden to get tattoos, men were prohibited from wearing earrings and the Kaitakushi (Colonial Office) was created to encourage mainland Japanese people to migrate northward. By the time the Meiji period ended the Ainu were de facto 2nd-class citizens. By 1900 the mainland Japanese population topped one million.

One look at the rolling farmlands and fields will convince anyone familiar with New England or Europe that Western farming styles were adopted. Indeed, in some areas Hokkaidō resembles the pastoral West more than it does Japan.

With world attention focused on the island when Sapporo hosted the 1972 Winter Olympics, Japan felt the need to ease restrictions on the Ainu; however, it would take another 26 years before significant protections were written into law. Today, the Ainu are proudly continuing their traditions while still fighting for further recognition of their unique culture.

Hokkaidō’s main industries are tourism, forestry and agriculture. It remains a top supplier of some of Japan’s most revered delicacies, such as snow crab, salmon roe and sea urchin, and scenic kelp production is a major part of many small towns’ economies. It remains a tourist destination year-round.