In IIAS Newsletter 39, Pia Vogler profiles prison and settler society in early modern Hokkaido. Here’s how it starts.
Hokkaido did not exist as a political entity before the Meiji period (1868-1912). Only the southernmost part of Ezo, as the Japanese called these northern territories, was politically incorporated into the Tokugawa state. Against the backdrop of modern nation-building and fear of a Russian invasion, the incorporation of Ezo into the Japanese state became a priority for the early Meiji authorities. In 1869 Ezo was renamed Hokkaido and the colonization of the island formally began. Recruitment of a labour force from mainland Japan was an indispensable precondition for the agricultural development of these vast and largely unsettled lands. Yet the initial recruitment of impoverished peasants and former samurai failed to meet politicians’ expectations; a larger work force was needed to accelerate colonization.
While peasantry and former aristocracy engaged in modest settlement activities in northern Japan, southern Japan experienced political unrest owing to local elites’ resistance to the new Meiji-government’s political authority. The 1877 Satsuma rebellion alone produced 43,000 political arrests that resulted in the sentencing of 27,000 individuals to imprisonment and forced labour. The existing system of town gaols was unprepared for such a large number of convicts. Inspired by Western reformist ideas on prisons and punishment, Meiji authorities ordered the establishment of Japan’s first modern prison in the northern prefecture of Miyagi. In 1879, a cluster of central prisons on Hokkaido was also suggested.
Hokkaido was seen as the perfect place for prisons, as prison labour could accelerate colonization. In addition, Hokkaido was far away from the political hot spot of Kyushu and therefore perceived as an ideal place for isolating ‘politically dangerous elements’ from mainland Japan. A third incentive was the hope that, once released, former inmates would stay in Hokkaido and contribute to an increase in the population. Five prisons were thus established on Hokkaido between 1881 and 1894. Kabato, Sorachi and Kushiro were the central prisons; Abashiri and Tokachi served as branch institutions. Each central prison held a particular inmate population: political convicts were mainly held in Kabato, felons were sent to Sorachi, and prisoners originating from the military and police went to Kushiro.