Hokkaido: Japan's last frontier

"We Hokkaidoans don't treat a person like a foreigner, no matter where he may be from," Naofumi Ishiguro said. "After all, a couple of generations back, we were all foreigners here, except for the Ainu."

Maine-sized Hokkaido is Japan's last frontier both in geography and in spirit. Sapporo, its bustling metropolis, is closer to Vladivostok (462 miles) than it is to Tokyo (498 miles).

In the north, the Soya Strait separating Hokkaido from Soviet-held Sakhalin is only 26 miles wide. And in the east, from Cape Noshappu to the nearest of the Soviet-held Habomai Islands is just 2.2 miles.

Hokkaido is the only part of Japan that fronts on the Sea of Okhotsk, which Moscow would like to turn into a Soviet lake, a lair for Delta-class submarines. Nuclear missiles fired from these subs would be able to hit targets anywhere in the United States except southern Florida.

That, however, is not the kind of thing Mr. Ishiguro and his 5.6 million fellow Hokkaidoans spend much time worrying about. Despite their proximity to Soviet territory, they do not seem any more nervous about the Kremlin's intentions than do their compatriots in the main Japanese island of Honshu.

Rather, Hokkaidoans, again like their compatriots farther south, are interested in the good life, in new houses and more cars, and more blaring stereo sets. And while the Soviets are mounting a modest culture drive in the island, most Hokkaidoans are far more interested in exchanges with the US.

Mr. Ishiguro is director of research for the island's largest bank, the Hokkaido Takushoku Ginkoo, or Takugin for short, which has 100 branches throughout the island, 60 in the rest of Japan, and 12 overseas, including New York.

He would be delighted if he could snare a US investment or two in the spacious seaside industrial parks the Hokkaido government is promoting.

General Motors, he thinks, is a possibility, because GM's Japanese partner, Isuzu, has decided to build an assembly plant in the Tomakomai industrial park south of Sapporo, which has excellent port facilities. Americans should like Hokkaido, Mr. Ishiguro says, because of all parts of Japan, Hokkaido is most like the US.

If geography places the island almost in the jaws of the Soviet bear, the islanders' spirit partakes of the pioneering impulse that pushed Americans across the Rockies and on to the Pacific. Whereas in crowded Japan the average population per square kilometer (.386 square miles) is 314, in spacious Hokkaido it is only 71.8.

Farms here are 10 times the size they are in the rest of Japan. Although rice is grown, the most typical postcard scene here is of red-roofed barns and black-and-white Holsteins chewing their cud in lush green pastures.

And if America has its Indians, Hokkaido has its Ainu, a nation of hunters and fishers who used to inhabit most of the Japanese islands but were gradually driven northward until today they are found only in Hokkaido. Fairer-skinned and hairier than the Japanese, the Ainu have a distinctive language and a shamanistic religion emphasizing bear worship.

Today they number around 20,000, and their language survives mostly in exotic unpronounceable place names like Samakkarinuluri and Nupuntomuraushi.

Hokkaido's American connection goes back over 100 years to the Meiji government's decision to develop the island.American experts, including the famous Dr. William Clark of Massachusetts, were invited to teach the latest agricultural and industrial methods, and President Ulysses S. Grant was persuaded to send a former secretary of agriculture, Horace Capron.

Dr. Clark's parting words to his students at Sapporo Agricultural College (now Hokkaido University), "Boys, be ambitious" are still quoted in every Japanese high school textbook, and Americans can see their country's influence reflected in every aspect of the island, from the gridiron pattern of Sapporo's streets to the building of silos and barns.

And the spirit of the islanders, as Mr. Ishiguro noted, is not exclusive. Hokkaidoans come from all parts of Japan and all ranks of society. Facing harsh winters in a new land, neighbors survived only by helping each other regardless of what they might have been doing back home in Japan proper.

But here, noted a businessman from Osaka, the people are not very good at commerce because they lack the competitive spirit. "They work hard, although perhaps their fingers aren't as simple as those of mainlanders," he said.

"But when it comes to personal relationships they are too easygoing. They're not interested in all the intricacies of status and hierarchy and just exactly how A relates to B. Without knowing these things, you just can't do business in Japan, and that's why Hokkaidoans lose out to mainlanders all the time."

A critique, one might note, that Japanese often make of Americans trying to do business with their country.

Hokkaido's natural resources are limited to agriculture, lumber, fisheries, and coal. But Mr. Ishiguro hopes that a structural reorganization of industry emphasizing electronics and other "small, light nonenergy-guzzling products" will make Hokkaido products competitive in the markets of the world.

Meanwhile, the island's crystal-clear volcanic lakes and rugged shorelines are magnificent, the winter skiing superb, the summer hikes exhilarating (but beware of bears). Sapporo, with a population of 1.4 million, is probably the most livable city in Japan, bustling but not tiring, and surrounded by greenery.

"Here," a transplanted Tokyoite says, "you have space to breathe."

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