Farmer-soldiers on the Hokkaido Frontier

From Hokkaido, A History of Ethnic Transition and Development on Japan’s Northern Island, by Ann B. Irish (McFarland, 2009), pp. 115-117:

Traditional Japanese practices of government and administration were not suited to an enterprise such as pioneer settlement. Allowing freedom and adaptability rather than following set regulations—which might not fit the conditions—was not the Japanese way. Japan had no tradition of democracy. Moreover, with some Kaitakushi officials in Tokyo and others in Sapporo and the slowness of communication at the time, administration was bound to be difficult.

In 1874, the Kaitakushi [Development Commission] gained official permission to recruit ex-samurai to go to the northern island as tondenhei [屯田兵 ‘camp-field-soldier’], or farmer-soldiers. These former samurai whose feudal lords had not supported the Meiji Restoration now had no means of making a living; their lords encouraged emigration to Hokkaido. As early as 1854, several shogunate inspectors in Hokkaido had recommended a tondenhei system; perhaps the Russian policy of setting up Cossack outposts in Siberia inspired the scheme. The first such Hokkaido settlement appeared in 1875, when 198 farmer-soldiers and their families came to Sapporo and established homes in the Kotoni district, northwest of today’s city center. The government furnished each former samurai with eight acres of land and a house complete with a Russian stove to cope with the winter cold. The men even received cold weather uniforms. In return, the eighteen to thirty-five year old male settlers were placed in regiments and participated in military exercises (mostly in the winter, when farming tasks did not claim their immediate attention). They would turn out for military duty if needed. Thus they could help protect Hokkaido from the Russians. They carried guns and, as former samurai, swords. By the end of 1876, more than two thousand tondenhei soldier-farmers had gone to Hokkaido in the program, many simply because the Meiji Restoration had deprived them of their livelihood. Though at first only former samurai were included, later the scheme was opened to others. After the 1875 treaty settled the border with Russia, the military justification no longer seemed so important, and few more tondenhei were recruited. In 1903 they were incorporated into the nation’s army. During the years of recruitment, over seven thousand tondenhei families participated in establishing about forty villages in Hokkaido.

One very small tondenhei settlement near Sapporo only had thirty-two households, but almost all the others held between 150 and 220 families. Most of these villages were placed in the Ishikari Valley, around Sapporo and Takikawa and upstream in the Kamikawa basin, in which Asahikawa sits. A few tondenhei villages were along the coast, at Muroran and near Akkeshi and Nemuro far to the east. The eastern settlements, established from 1886 to about 1890, were planned as defense posts because Russian encroachment via the Kuril Islands seemed a possibility despite the border treaty adopted in 1875 by Japan and Russia. Three tondenhei villages were placed upstream on the Tokoro River and two on the Yubetsu, both streams emptying into the Sea of Okhotsk on Hokkaido’s northeast coast. The most prosperous area of tondenhei settlement, though, was in the Kamikawa basin [incl. Biei and Furano above Asahikawa]. Here the settlers found fertile soild and a climate suitable for farming, with hot summer weather. The tondenhei settlers cultivated northern crops, but as hardy strains of rice later became available, farmers shifted more and more of the land to rice cultivation, which dominated the area by the early twentieth century.

The tondenhei lived a regulated life, for example working a twelve hour day in the fields from April to September. During the colder part of the year, the workday would last for only eleven hours, men either clearing land or participating in military drill. Many of the tondenhei had a hard time, as they were not used to farming. But families did work together—each family recruited had to include two able-bodied members who could work in addition to the farmer-soldier—and lend a hand to each other. Some of the tondenhei served in the Russo-Japanese War.

Tondenhei settlements were more successful than other new communities in Hokkaido. The Kaitakushi set aside good land for the tondenhei villages, which also received other special benefits. Moreover, as former samurai, the farmer-soldiers were often people who could exert leadership or influence farmers who did not have such advantages. Some years later, tondenhei military units became the famed and respected Seventh Division in the Army of Japan.

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Filed under industry, Japan, labor, migration, military

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