The cartography of Ezo


Ezo: the familiar foreign land

Ezo refers to the northernmost Japanese island currently named Hokkaido that only become part of the country in 1868 with the initiation of the Meiji restoration.

While considered a foreign land for most of Japanese history, it is during the Tokugawa period that the mainland government started to pay closer attention to this territory. The land of Ezo was understood to be a vast natural space inhabited primarily by the non-sinicized (thus considered barbarians), Ainu people. The territory was understood and divided into different sections named: higashi Ezo (east, including the Kuril islands), Nishi Ezo (west), kita Ezo (north) and Oku Ezo (the most northern part of the territory, including the current Russian Sakhalin islands). [1] [4]

The first contact between Japanese mainlanders with the Ezo territory can be recorded back to the 12th century, where various political escapees found refuge on the island, such as Minamoto no Yoshitsune who in 1189 after being defeated by his brother Yoritomo fled to Ezo. The first official relationship between the Japanese and the Ainus began with the intent of establishing a mutual trade network. In order to control trade on the island the local Daimyo household, the Matsumae, requested a paying of a tax to the Island governor. The tax granted the merchants the added privilege of building houses known as unjōya within the Ezo territory that eventually came to be known as local trading stations which housed managers, interpreters and guards. [2]

Proof of these mutual beneficial and peaceful encounters can be observed in the Ezotō kikan no zu manuscripts by Murakami Shimanojō. In these volumes hosted by the UBC rare books and special collections library, we can observe numerous illustrations depicting Ainu people interacting with Japanese merchants (as can be distinguished by their top knot hair cut known as the Chonmage). The illustrations contained in the volumes give a glimpse into the diverse cultural traditions of the Ainu (most apparent in their clothing and physical appearance) whom managed to intermingle with the Japanese visitors without much trouble during the early Tokugawa period.



The Matsumae being an official Japanese daimyo household, were solely based on the most southern tip of the Island, as only two percent of the total population belonged to the Wajin-chi (Japanese land people), whom mostly stayed in the southern region near the mainland. The rest of the Island was mostly  inhabited by the Ainu people and thus considered as foreign land for Japanese visitors. The Matsumae were relatively independent compared to other Daimyo households as the Sankin kōtai (daimyo’s alternate attendance year in Edo) was not required, rather a visit every five years was considered sufficient to keep the ties between the Tokugawa government and the Island’s affairs intact.

The first map that has any mention of Ezo is the Nansembushū Dai Nihon Shōtō Zu from 1557 as a northern-eastern territory, but the first time Ezo appeared as a proper independent Island was on a Korean map made in 1471 in the Kaito shokoku sozu. [1]

While areas such as Ezo and the Ryuukyu islands were traditionally considered as foreign domains in the diplomatic discourse, the inclusion of Ezo in Japanese maps certainly lent itself as an excuse for the gradual integration of this Island into the Japanese nation in more recent times, yet it is clear that most of the land was considered exotic and foreign for much of the Edo period. Slowly with the increased Russian interventions on the area, the Tokugawa government understood that Ezo could be considered a potentially weak defense point for Japan, hence due to the fear of Russian advancement on the country the government came to pay more attention towards Ezo.[5]

In 1802 a magistracy in Hakodate was built, in order to connect bureaucratically the northern area to the capital. With this new office an integration policy for the Ainus was put into place, modern infrastructures were built, and slowly the Island was included into the Japanese country and its affairs. Overall what really striped the Ainus of their political autonomy was not only the new imposed Japanese state model infrastructures but also the state sanctioned vaccinations and health care, where the Japanese saw themselves as the superior race in need to civilise the struggling to survive ‘barbarians’ in the new emerging modern world. [3]


The Mapping of Ezo in Tokugawa maps :

cdm.tokugawa.1-0216038.0000full Click here to view this map on the UBC Open Collections website

This first map hosted at UBC which we will analyse, is the Dai Nihon setsujō sangoku no zenzu (Map of three lands surrounding Japan) that depicts the main Japanese territories such as the Honshu and Kyushu Islands, along with both the Korean peninsula and Ezo. The three foreign lands mentioned in the title are without doubt the Ryūkyūs, Ezo and Korea, especially considering that they are portrayed on a different scale with individual parallels and meridians compared to the rest of Japan. Published in 1816 by Kiyudo Kyokueido it is a case map folded inside a cover book style with a sizing of 25cm by 18cm, probably made for convenient travel and storage. When stretched out the map becomes 46cm by 69 cm, which gives the observer much detail on what region they wish to focus on. It is a Wood block print oriented with the north to the upper right and includes details on distances of the different sea routes.

As can be seen in the above image what is of most interest is the fact that while areas such as Korea seem to be thoroughly detailed with numerous cities and towns listed, Ezo remains a mystery as not only it is covered in dark colors, reminiscing its cold atmosphere, but it is also much more sparse in detailing. The overall shape is geographically smaller and erroneous compared to our contemporary understandings and its overall location.

What is interesting though is that the southern most region of Ezo is colored in yellow which suggests a clear connection with the Japanese peninsula known as Wajinchi (Japanese people land) compared to the rest of the territory which was considered Ezochi, meaning inhabited exclusively by Ainu populations. Only the Ainu’s which originally lived in the newly designated Wajinchi land were allowed to stay in these territories. This difference in portraying the two sides of Ezo are very much intentional as back in those days there was a clear dividing line established between the two areas, with military personnel (bansho) rejecting any Japanese who didn’t have proper travel papers to pass through to the other side. It is thought that this strict division was put into place to reduce the conflicts between the two ethnic groups, but scholars argue that the Matsumae intentionally hid the potential mineral resources of the land to the central bakufu government in order to keep its privileged ruling position on the Island. It is also believed that the Matsumae were in possession of much more detailed maps of the region that they purposely kept hidden from Tokugawa authorities with the precise intention of keeping information about the area hidden.


Click here to view this map on the UBC Open Collections website

 The Ezo zu map by Orihashi Shun made in 1829, depicts a more detailed prospective of the land,which shows us the gradual increase in information that the government was recieving. The map is a large watercolor representation of not only the geographical Ezo territories, but in the corner right also has a depiction of an Ainu hunter and his wife.

While the actual size of Ezo is still incredibly small compared to current knowledge on Hokkaido topography and is very much divided into many small pieces rather than one big island, it still gives us a glimpse of the way the Tokugawa government may have perceived this region. Most importantly it shows the limited awareness they had on the actual territory beyond the Wajinchi area.

index map

The map is equipped with a legend at the bottom that shows what each color on the map is supposed to represent. Dark red; represents Ezo chi, yellow; Dai nihon (Japanese land), grey; Manchuria, beige; Russia, bright red; trading points and green; mountains.

cdm.tokugawa.1-0216570.0000full (1)

Click here to view this map on the UBC Open Collections website

Modern interpretations of Ezo closely resembling today’s view of the land become more apparent as we move closer to the Meiji restoration of 1868, as can be seen by the above map named Ezo kōkyō yochi zenzu created by Fujita Ryo in 1854. The map was made using woodcut prints with an overall size of 91.7 cm to 113.2 cm foldable into 10 sheets, with parallels and meridians clearly portrayed. In this modern interpretation of Ezo we can see that the Island had essentially become part of the Japanese territory, as there was no more distinguishing between Japanese and Ainu land, as the color schemes used in this map clearly integrate Ezo into the rest of the Japanese territories. In addition the shape and size along with the extensive details of the topography of the place clearly suggest that more exploration had been done by the bakufu on this land, as names of each village and trading points are thoroughly included along with more precise locations of important mountains and rivers.

Thus this map portrays for us a glimpse into the incoming Meiji restoration unification plans that sought to create a modern Japanese nation,which purposely included the Ezo territory not only in order to protect itself from the advancing Russian threat, but also to expand its land in a similar manner in which European countries were taking over colonies in an effort to ‘modernise’ new territories and establish itself as leading global nations. In addition compared to the Ezo Zu map, hints to Ainu life are not included, which once again underlines the political unity and stability that the Japanese government was slowly trying to achieve by assimilating the area in order to become a strong nation.


Maps & pictures:

Fujita,Ryō. “Ezo kōkyō yochi zenzu, 1854; Map of all areas of Ezo.蝦夷闔境輿地全図.” University of British Columbia Library- Rare books and Special Collections : Japanese Maps of the Tokugawa Era. DOI

Murakami Shimanojō. “Ezotō kikan no zu. [蝦夷嶋奇観之図].” University of British Columbia Library- Rare books and Special Collections.

Orihashi,Shun. “Ezo zu, 1829; Map of Ezo. 蝦夷図.” University of British Columbia Library- Rare books and Special Collections: Japanese Maps of the Tokugawa Era. DOI

Unknown. “Dai Nihon setsujō sangoku no zenzu,1816; Map of three lands surrounding Japan.大日本接壌三国之全図.” University of British columbia Library- Rare books and Special Collections: Japanese Maps of the Tokugawa Era. DOI

Secondary Sources:

[1] De Palma, Daniela. “Ricerche Sulla Cartografia Di Ezo.”(Research on the Cartography of Ezo), Rivista Degli Studi Orientali 71 (1997): 1-123

[2] Keene, Donald. The Japanese discovery of Europe, 1720-1830. Stanford University Press, 1969.

[3] Walker, Brett L. The conquest of Ainu lands: ecology and culture in japanese expansion, 1590-1800. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001.

[4] Wigen, Kären, Fumiko Sugimoto, and Cary Karacas. Cartographic Japan: a history in maps. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016.

[5] Yonemoto, Marcia. Mapping early modern Japan: space, place, and culture in the Tokugawa period (1603-1868). Berkeley: University of California, 2005.