Journal of World History 14.4 (2003) 568-570
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The Conquest of Ainu Lands: Ecology and Culture in Japanese Expansion, 1590-1800. Bybrett L. Walker. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001. xii + 332 pp. $40.00 (cloth).
In the late nineteenth century, North American advisors and visitors to Japan's new northern colony of Hokkaido saw close parallels between the fate of the American Indian and the Ainu, the native people of Hokkaido. Within the racist framework of social evolutionism, both groups were perceived as "dying races" destined to succumb to superior civilizations. For the Japanese, parallels with the status of the North American Indian were so clear that the 1887 Dawes Act in the [End Page 568] United States provided a model for the 1899 Hokkaido Former Aborigines Protection Act.
These similarities between the colonial history of the Ainu and Native Americans are matched, however, by important differences. The Ainu and other native groups in northeast Asia had experienced a much longer history of contact with surrounding state societies; the process of colonial encounter was thus more complex and incremental than in the Americas. Perhaps because of these apparent continuities, the deconstruction of the colonial history of Hokkaido has been slow, and only during the past two decades have Japanese scholars begun to criticize the traditional view that stressed the "apartness" of Ainu history. This new book by historian Brett Walker provides the best critical analysis of the premodern colonial encounter between the Ainu and the Japanese so far published in English. Walker continues to use North America as a point of comparative departure, but his book utilizes an approach derived from the New Western history to center the frontier as a place rather than merely a point of contact. The author focuses not so much on the expansion of the Japanese state into Hokkaido as on the interrelationships between Ainu resistance and Japanese expansion.
Walker concentrates on the two centuries between 1590 and 1800, a period during which, he argues, "the Ainu degenerated from a relatively autonomous people . . . to a miserably dependent people plagued by dislocation and epidemic disease" (p. 11). The book discusses a broad range of topics including the economic and symbolic role of trade, epidemic disease, the Shakushain War of 1669, and trade with Sakhalin and the Kuril Islands. The Conquest of Ainu Lands is based on an impressive array of primary sources, and in many cases the book is the first detailed discussion of these sources in English. Walker emphasizes that both socially and ecologically, Tokugawa Japan cannot be seen as a closed system. Japanese expansion into Hokkaido and Sakhalin in this period leads him to propose that the Tokugawa state was stronger than several other recent analyses have suggested. Moreover, on a political level, Walker argues that "the link between the state, merchants, and foreign conquest in Ezo [Hokkaido] resembles the later Japanese colonial experience in Korea . . ." (p. 13).
Walker devotes a whole chapter to the role of the Shakushain War in establishing the early modern pattern of ethnic relations between the Ainu and the Japanese. This pattern was based, above all, on economic dependence characterized by the commodification of subsistence items. Later chapters go on to discuss this process of commodification in considerable detail, showing, for example, how items such [End Page 569] as bear gallbladder and dried fur seal penis became important not just as medicines, but also as prestige goods in central Japan.
For this reviewer, one of the most interesting aspects of the book is the discussion of the sources relating to Ainu political organization. Walker argues that early modern Ainu society was organized around "chiefdoms," (p. 240) and he discusses the use of ikor ("treasures" obtained through trade) in supporting political power. This analysis is important because most anthropologists have traditionally played down the complexity of Ainu society in this period. The historical record suggests a rather more complex level of social organization than is obvious from the archaeology. Future work needs to attempt to reconcile these two approaches, and Walker's...