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The Asian side of the world

Jean-François Sabouret

Part two. National challenges and their strategies to overcome them

Why did the Japanese not colonise Hokkaido sooner?

Christophe Sabouret

Texte intégral

1March 2010

  • 1 The book was first published under the title, Katô Shûichi, Nihon bunka ni okeru jikan to kûkan, T (...)

2Why did the inhabitants of Honshû, the main island of Japan, colonise Hokkaido (the northern island of the Japanese archipelago) in the middle of the 19th century? It is “because the Japanese were not prepared to emigrate to Hokkaido than to the rest of the world”, Augustin Berque replies (Vivre l’espace au Japon, 1982.) Why were the Japanese not “that way inclined”? Katô Shûichi (1919-2008), quoted by A. Berque, explains it in his latest book1.

3The Isle of Hokkaido, Katô states, “remained almost deserted from the middle of the 9th century to the middle of the 19th century, i. e. sheltered from the entire Honshû, which had been ruled by the central government since its colonisation policy was initiated”. At the end of the 15th century, however, the resistance to the Ainu, the first occupiers, was subdued. Similarly, before the 19th century, the agricultural techniques of cold countries became known.

4Finally, the family clan of the Matsumae, which settled down in the south of Hokkaido and in control of northern commerce, would not have had the military means to hold off people settling in Honshû. According to Katô, the Japanese were not living in “open” spaces, unlike other countries, cultures or civilisations that promoted an “inclination” towards emigration by “planting the idea of becoming rich or gaining more land into people’s minds”.

5Nationally, the Japanese have inhabited a “closed” space since the last embassy was sent to China at the end of the 9th century. Renewed in the 14th, 15th and 16th centuries, contacts with the foreign cultures have never measured up to those established by the Mings with the Annam, Turkistan or the east coast of Africa, and could not be compared either to those set up by Islamic or Christian countries. Furthermore, in the 1630s, decrees officially “closed” the country, to both entry and exit. Locally, the inhabitants of Japan have not occupied a so-called “open” space since the first villages engaged in irrigated rice culture during the 3rd century BC. Relations between village communities did exist, but in most cases did not go beyond the immediate neighbouring settlement. In regard to “housing”, in a similar fashion, the Japanese lived in a “closed” space, which encompassed, as of the end of the 15th century, the “closed” sub-space of the famous tea pavilion.

6With this in mind, one could say that the inhabitants of Japan were “closed” to the inside as well as to the outside world.

7Thus, the Japanese have always considered, on one hand, that any space, regardless of how small it is, ought to be self-sufficient, for example, the single room of a building or the first and last verse of a poem. On the other hand, that which was an item leading to the outside (the entrance of the house, the beginning of the sentence, etc.) was most important or sacred, including the verb in the Japanese sentence, and, in particular, the tense of this verb, the cubicle containing the painted roll of the tokonoma in a room, and possibly the spouse, since one of its designations in Japanese is the “person at the back”: oku-san.

8This idea can be seen in the tea pavilion, which, according to Katô, “has often been turned into the condensed expression of the “Japanese specificity’”: the house, which might have been a single room originally, to which other rooms could be adjoined or “opened up to the garden”, where the tea pavilion was located (with two to four and a half tatami maximum), “but not to the outside”. Katô explains that Western cathedrals, which “made the believers look up towards the ribs and the heavens”, could not have been built in Japan. The archipelago has long borrowed the style of higher buildings from neighbouring China, but has “flattened” them. One only needs to look at the Chinese pagodas, which were once transported to the archipelago and had lost a few floors as well as their sloping canopies. In addition, the world-famous imperial villa of Katsura, whose asymmetry is characteristic of Japanese architecture, does not mar the horizontality of its entirety. Another example is the emaki-mono. These illustrated rolls where the image before our eyes has to be wound so as to to view the next one, consist of a series of illustrations, which can only be seen separately from one another. In regard to the “brush stroke” (hissei), which was every painter’s goal in painting or calligraphy, Katô writes “it reflected the priority granted to the expression of inner feelings or volition rather than the observation, the reproduction and the understanding of a model external to oneself (…).”

9Katô develops analogous remarks concerning the notion of time in Japan. The Japanese, he points out, share three concepts of time, “historical linear time without beginning or end, the cyclic-daily life time over a circumference without beginning or end and universal time of life including a beginning and an end. Each of these three times tends to insist on life “now’”.

10The vast majority of the inhabitants of Japan have thus lived in the “closed” time of the “present”, since the introduction of the rice culture in irrigated soils, which requires almost daily attention. Similarly, the “present” of the “house” or of the family name, it there was one, were more important than the individual and its inevitable death.

11The merchants and craftsmen of Edo (which then became Tokyo), for the same reasons, eventually turned into hedonists and indulged in “here and now” pleasures. They have acclaimed the new kabuki theatre and its “poses” or mie, in particular, true acmes of a play where the actor with the leading part freezes, stares at the audience and thus surrenders to the judgement of educated spectators. They adored the Japanese horseradish, the wasabi, which accompanies raw fish and causes an intense but brief sensation of inflammation in the mouth and the nose.

12The “present”, following the same logic as the “here”, has become a part in its own right of the way of thinking and doing in Japan. The “present” tense, generally speaking, has been both the condition and the central issue of the “thought process” for oneself and others in order to ensure the “present” feeling of a past or future, actual or imaginary fact and for oneself. The condition on which this hinges is that every author, to illustrate his great interest in a topic, be it old or situated in the future, uses the present tense, despite the tense agreement in the Japanese language!

13An example of this is the primacy of the “present”, of the “now” in “self-centred thoughts” has somehow been expressed in the short poetic form of the following seventeen-syllable haiku: “In the old pond. A frog is leaping. Plip plop in the water”. Katô points out this primacy in the exchange between a speaker and his counterpart, as being the most blatant in the dreamt nô, the first of both major categories of this dramatic art born at the end of the 18th century: “The stage of the shows that an instant experience of a confined space may be expanded infinitely, solely delineated by its refined expression. The spectators do not gather there out of pure historical interest, but to see a contemporary play, i. e. a play that belongs to them. To see a play which belongs to them is to define the culture of the self that is “here and now””.

14Since the defeat in Baekgang in 663, inflicted by the Korean kingdom of Silla, Japan has not “sought to grow richer or enlarge its territory”. The colonisation policy of Korea or China, initiated by both ill-fated expeditions of Hideyoshi in 1592 and 1598, was not pursued by his successor Ieyasu and the Tokugawa shoguns. Similarly, the “village” (mura) confined itself to its traditional perimeter. According to Katô, the numerous disputes between neighbouring villages had nothing to do with the competition about new territories, but concerned issues of survival including the usage of water, which is essential for rice culture in irrigated soils, and fuel in the form of logs collected in the forest.

15Similarly, no family, apart from those taking the risk, has ever excluded a family member in the case of fire or a death; those who had been banished previously, were temporarily reintegrated into the village on both of these occasions only.

16The villages were thus the first “closed” units in Japan, after the rice culture was introduced around the 3rd century B. C. Strictly speaking the country became closed, at a later stage, first in the 7th century after the withdrawal of the Korean peninsula and a second time at the end of the 9th century when no more embassies were sent to China. After the second closure, there was still exchange with the outside. Periods of opening, such as that of Muromachi (beginning of the 14th to the end of the 16th century) occurred, but only affected the elite, with very little impact on the “closed” and uncompetitive daily life of the population’s farming majority. This situation lasted until the middle of the 19th century.

17Thus, how can we explain the Japanese colonisation of Hokkaido after this period? Katô, without specifying whether they had been imported abroad or born locally, answers that “violent competition was introduced by capitalism and the market principle, with a truly distinct winner and loser.”

18That of the southern islands of Okinawa followed the colonisation of Hokkaido. Then came the turn of Taiwan, before Korea and finally Manchuria, before losing everything 1945. Since then, Japan has not colonised new territories and time and space have been experienced in the present tense in comparison with other societies.

19Nevertheless, for some ten years, the economic crisis that has hit the archipelago and which resulted in the legitimisation of the “competition” that was mentioned by Katô, has torn the idea of a “united Japan” apart, which underpinned the reconstruction of the country after the war and its formidable rise to the rank of second world power behind the United States. The “normalisation” of Japan, i. e. the fact that the archipelago is becoming a country like any other or rather that it accepts giving up the illusion that all its members are on a par, is underway!


1 The book was first published under the title, Katô Shûichi, Nihon bunka ni okeru jikan to kûkan, Tokyo, Iwanami Shoten, 2007, 264 p., then in France in French, Le temps et l’espace dans la culture japonaise, translated and annotated by C. Sabouret, CNRS Éditions, 2009, 291 p.

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