Matsumae han

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Matsumae han was the northernmost domain in Tokugawa Japan, and the only one located on the island of Ezo (today called Hokkaidô). Matsumae was unique within the bakuhan taisei (shogunate-domains system), in that the clan did not technically hold land in fief from the shogunate,[1] did not possess a designated kokudaka, nor was its territory restricted to well-defined geographical borders.[2] The Matsumae clan also performed sankin kôtai only once every five or six years, rather than the typical once every other year pattern.[3]

Matsumae was the domain charged with the defense of the north, and with interactions & trade with the indigenous Ainu. It was thus one of three domains which dominated foreign relations in the Edo period, the other two being Satsuma han, which held the Kingdom of Ryûkyû as its vassal, and Tsushima han, which managed relations with Korea. Along with the shogunate-controlled port of Nagasaki, these three domains are today sometimes referred to as the Four Gates.


The island of Ezo was essentially divided into two parts in the minds of the Japanese authorities. The area most immediately controlled by the Matsumae clan was known, simply, as Matsumae chi (松前地, lit. "Matsumae lands"), while the rest of the island was called, as we might expect, Ezo-chi (蝦夷地, lit. "Ezo lands"). Guardposts stood at either end of the border between the two, which ran from Kameda in the east to Kumaishi in the west.[4]

Over the course of the Edo period, there were times when Matsumae extended its authority into Ezochi, and times when it shrank back; likewise, there were times when Ainu assimilation was encouraged, and times when Ainu were even de-assimilated and expelled from Japanese (Matsumae) society. For long periods, Ainu and Japanese identity were relatively fluid; Ainu could adopt Japanese customs and become essentially Japanese, and Japanese could join Ainu communities as well, while at the same time people of each identity could live in the other community and travel between them, albeit not entirely freely. However, there were ebbs and flows in this, too. At the peak of one such "ebb," in 1788, there are estimated to have been as few as three Ainu living within Matsumae-chi.[2]

Initially, trading rights within Ezo-chi were divvied up between major vassals of the Matsumae clan, with each vassal family receiving rights to a given portion of land. Beginning in 1717, however, these rights began to be sold to wealthy merchants, who began to move farther and farther north. The first trading post in the Kurils was established at Kunashir in 1754, and the first on Sakhalin in 1790. The expansion of these merchant operations was mainly along the coasts, and up into the northern islands, and not into the interior of Ezo, which remained largely unexplored (by Japanese).

Japanese traded with the Ainu mainly for fish, furs, hawks for hunting with, and the like, in exchange for Japanese goods including lacquerware, rice, saké, and swords and other metal tools. Some of the goods obtained from the Ainu, including dried abalone and sea cucumber, came to be regularly shipped down to Nagasaki as "Nagasaki tawaramono", where they would be traded for Chinese goods. The Ainu traded not only with the Japanese, but also with the Russians and various indigenous groups of northeast Asia (e.g. the Uilta and Nivkh tribes), trading goods obtained from these mainland groups to the Japanese as well, though the volume of this trade is unknown.

Japanese merchant operations in Ezochi also focused on agriculture. The 18th century in Japan saw a great expansion in the growing of cash crops, including cotton, something which was implemented in Ezochi as well. A kind of fertilizer made from herring and called kinpi (金肥) was found to be quite effective, and herring-related operations expanded dramatically in the mid-1700s.

The expansion of Japanese activities in Ezochi created frictions, and the period saw a number of Ainu revolts, the two largest being Shakushain's Revolt in 1669-1672, and the Kunashir-Menashi Rebellion of 1789. All were eventually suppressed, however.

Because of its location, and their charge to defend the north, Matsumae was also the chief domain which had interactions with Russian explorers, traders, and military. Fears of Russian encroachment in the late 18th century led to the shogunate declaring direct shogunate control over eastern Ezo in 1799, and western Ezo in 1807, though their authority in the region was restored to the Matsumae clan in 1821.

Lords of Matsumae


  • Morris-Suzuki, Tessa. "Creating the Frontier: Border, Identity, and History in Japan's Far North." East Asian History 7 (June 1994). pp1-24.
  1. Howell, David. "Ainu Ethnicity and the Boundaries of the Early Modern Japanese State." Past & Present, No. 142 (Feb., 1994), pp69-93.
  2. 2.0 2.1 Morris-Suzuki. p4.
  3. Ina Toshisada 伊奈利定, "Tôkaidô Futagawa juku honjin ni okeru daimyô-ke no riyô" 東海道二川宿本陣における大名家の利用, Honjin ni tomatta daimyô tachi 本陣に泊まった大名たち, Toyohashi, Aichi: Futagawa-juku honjin shiryôkan (1996), 55.
  4. Morris-Suzuki. p5.
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