Hokkaido's Jomon Culture

The Natural Environment in which Jomon Culture was born.

Hokkaido is situated at the northern end of the Japanese Archipelago, and is surrounded by three major bodies of water.

The combined effect of these oceans' currents and other factors is that the climate in Hokkaido varies from region to region. In Summer, sea fog is formed by the cold current of the Pacific Ocean. Come winter, the warm, northbound currents of the Sea of Japan bring heavy snowfalls to western areas of Hokkaido. The Sea of Okhotsk off the northern coast of Hokkaido is the southernmost point in the northern hemisphere where the sea freezes and ice-floes arrive off Hokkaido over the winter.

More than twenty thousand years ago, at the coldest point of the final ice age, the relatively shallow waters of the Soya and Mamiya Straits experienced a drop in water level. For a period, Hokkaido and Sakhalin joined to form a peninsula jutting out of mainland Asia. However, milder temperatures at the end of the ice age caused water levels to rise, Hokkaido became surrounded by water on all sides.

The transformation initiated by the milder temperatures 15, 000 years ago saw the birth of Jomon Culture, which gradually spread to the entire Japanese archipelago. A Jomon pottery in the vicinity of 14,000 years old was discovered on Hokkaido island, an archeological find only slightly more recent than similar pottery found on Honshu. Indeed, quite soon after the Jomon Culture began in the rest of Japan, people began arriving in Hokkaido from the seas to the north and south. The result was a fusion of cultures that stimulated the continuance of the Jomon and the subsequent Epi-Jomon culture for more than 10,000 years.

The beginning of settlements and the formation of villages.

Nakano B Site - The oldest large-scale settlement remains found in the vicinity of the Hakodate Airport by the seaside of the Tsugaru Straits

Jomon Culture prevailed on the Japanese Archipelago for a period of some 10,000 years, from about 15,000 years ago to almost 2, 300 years ago,.

The Jomon people abandoned the nomadic lifestyles that had continued throughout the Palaeolithic Age. They used tools such as earthenware and bows and arrows, and engaged in hunting, fishing, and gathering while simultaneously developing fixed pit dwellings and permanent settlements. In order parts of the world, the Neolithic Age saw permanent settlement develop hand-in-hand with farming, but the Jomon culture remained a farming-free culture. In this respect, the Jomon Culture was quite rare for time.

The oldest large-scale settlement remains found in Hokkaido are those at Hakodate's Nakano B Site. Only between 10 and 20 houses are thought to have existed concurrently, and yet from the early Jomon period about 9,000 years ago, more than 500 pit dwellings have been discovered. As such, it is suggested that the Jomon people lived in the area for an extended period of time.

From the early to middle Jomon period, the extent of the Jomon settlements grew considerably. The 4,500-year-old remains at Hakodate's Ofune Site extend over 72,000m² and the settlement is believed to have existed for over 500 years. Actually within these permanent dwellings, large objects have been discovered at depths greater than two meters. Food stuffs - such as traces of chestnut, whale and tuna bones - have been exhumed from the site, and simply by viewing the mountains and sea that surrounded the area, the wealth of nature's blessings bestowed upon the Jomon can be understood.

In the Momiji-yama 49 site found in Ishikari City, traps for catching salmon in the river shallows from the middle Jomon period have been found. Salmon and trout are important parts of Hokkaido's fishing industries today, and were vital for the people of the Jomon era, too. As they developed their fishing methods, the bountiful natural environment provided the Jomon people with diverse species of fish that supported the Jomon way of life.

Trade across the sea

A necklace made of Niigata Prefecture jade and other materials (Chitose City's Bibi 4 Site)
Stone implements made from obsidian produced in Shirataki district (Nemuro City's Honioi dugout dwellings)
Shell bracelets used in burial rituals (Date City's Usu-Moshiri Site)

While relying on nature's gifts to continue their settled lifestyles, the Jomon still engaged in overseas trade with Honshu.

A great deal of the jade used to make pendants 'Magatama' and other materials used for making jewelry and decorations came from Niigata Prefecture. The oh-tsutanoha shells (Pattella optima) used in bracelets can only be found in Japan's southern seas. Furthermore, the 'glue' used while making such ornaments is in fact natural asphalt found in the Akita and Niigata prefectures.

Shirataki district in Engaru Town is home to the country's largest obsidian deposit. Obsidian is a natural glass and a type of volcanic rock. Sharpened fragments that were suitable for use as knives were widely traded. Stone implements made from Hokkaido obsidian have been found on Honshu and near by a mouth of Amur River in Russia. From this one can well imagine the dynamic nature of trade that is said to have occurred at the time.

The natural asphalt block in a Jomon pottery

Symbiosis with Nature

The four seasons of Hokkaido

While living settled lives in an environment of plenty, the Jomon people managed settlements that did not have a negative impact upon the surrounding environment. It is believed that they had the wisdom to maintain a balance with nature and to avoid endangering their own existence.

During the long 10,000-year Jomon period, the climate was milder than today, yet there were also periods of extreme cold and great changes in the climate and environment. Throughout these periods, the Jomon people constantly reinvented their lifestyles, adjusting with the environment and conditions to best meet their needs. People understood the transition of the four seasons, and knew that the intense depths of winter would be followed by the blooming of grassland flowers in spring. It has been surmised that by observing these spectacles of nature the Jomon people believed that people, plants and animals died and crossed over to the next world before, returning to this world in a continuous 'Cycle of Life and Rebirth''. As such, the Jomon pursued a sustainable, symbiotic lifestyle with nature that was passed on from generation to generation.

Hokkaido, A Unique Course of History

About 2, 300 years ago (although some have argued recently it was 3,000 years ago) Northern Kyushu witnessed the beginnings of rice cultivation and the emergence of the Yayoi culture. Before long, the trend had spread as far as northern Honshu.

Even so, in Hokkaido the Jomon maintained their characteristic culture throughout what is known as the" Epi-Jomon" period. Rice paddy cultivation was not adopted in Hokkaido. Towards the 5th century, the Epi-Jomon Culture was influenced by the Ohkotsk Culture that had invaded southward from Sakhalin. By the 8th century, the strong pull of Honshu's culture Epi-Jomon Culture had also caused great changes to Satsumon Culture. In the 14th century, the transition was made to Ainu Culture, completing a truly unique course of history. In Hokkaido, from Jomon period to Ainu period, the path followed was not that of the exploitation of the natural environment and the building of cities. Instead, Hokkaido chose a route that honored symbiosis and the continuance of the"Cycle of Life and Rebirth" philosophy.