WHEN Americans think of Japan they often picture a country that is highly modernized and totally urban. In part it is. But not the entire Japanese nation is that way: Hokkaido, Japan's northern island, is totally different. Optimists see Hokkaido as the nation's last frontier; pessimists see it more as the equivalent of Appalachia. Economic underdevelopment and isolation are its major difficulties. These, plus strategic vulnerability, have been continuing problems for Hokkaido over the last 100 years and more.
Hokkaido has 22 percent of Japan's land area but only 5 percent of its population, mostly concentrated in a few cities, and at 5.5 million, totaling less than half the number of people living in the Tokyo metropolis. Looking at it another way, Hokkaido in population is nearly twice as populous as New Zealand; Hokkaido in area is roughly Switzerland plus Denmark. But it has yet to play a strong role in Japanese affairs.
Most Japanese, including some who live there, see Hokkaido as an ``icebox,'' which it is only by contrast to southern Japan. In climate Hokkaido compares more with Massachusetts than with Lapland or Alaska, but the Japanese perceive it in subarctic terms, and this attitude has discouraged a flow of settlers. Given the opportunity, Japanese choose Hawaii over Hokkaido.
Hokkaido's history is short, although the native Ainu people have a past comparable in depth to that of native Americans. Development of the island, a virtual wilderness, began little more than a century ago, with American agricultural advisers playing a heavy role in the process. Cows, silos, and stone walls remind today's visitor of that; they impart a special character to this portion of the Japanese landscape. Japanese settlement of Hokkaido was prompted in part by fear that if Japan did not do so, the Soviet Union would.
The sense of vulnerability remains; Soviet aircraft frequently flaunt the power of a potential enemy. The unresolved ``northern territories question,'' created by Soviet seizure in 1945 of a number of islands claimed by the Japanese off the northeast coast, provides a constant irritant in Russian-Japanese relations, to which the people of Hokkaido are particularly sensitive. Japan's Ground Self Defense Force maintains a heavy presence on the island.
On March 10, a breaking-through ceremony was held for the world's longest (34 miles) underseas tunnel (11/4 miles longer than an English Channel tunnel would be). The Seikan Tunnel, stretching deeply beneath the Tsugaru Strait, will link Hokkaido to the rest of Japan. Its completion is now anticipated for 1987. The original plan was to run a high-speed line through it, connecting the island capital of Sapporo with Tokyo in 5 hours and 40 minutes.
The existing rail-ferry tie takes 16 hours and 50 minutes and is frequently disrupted by bad weather. Even if the authorities should decide the ``bullet train'' system would be too expensive (many people judge it so) and satisfy themselves with a cheaper, conventional rail system, the tunnel will do a lot to break down the isolation of Hokkaido. Recent extension of the high-speed rail system to the north of Tokyo has caused that area, the Tohoku, to become one of the nation's most rapidly developing regions.
Planned expansion of Chitose, Hokkaido's chief airport, to be completed at about the same time as the tunnel, will open Hokkaido to direct flights from overseas. Since Hokkaido is thrust into the North Pacific, Chitose lies one hour closer to the United States than does Tokyo's Narita Airport. With the growing importance of air transport for high-value goods, this fact may carry considerable future commercial significance.
The Hokkaido economy is still based upon industries that are not in decline: coal, timber, fish. Tourism and agriculture supplement these. But the overall product is inadequate: Hokkaido survives only because of massive annual subsidies by Tokyo.
As the world moves into a new era of North Pacific prominence, Hokkaido's young Governor Yokomichi hopes to capitalize on the island's assets. Land in Hokkaido, at least by Japanese standards, remains cheap, an attraction to entrepreneurs. Hokkaido's agricultural tradition, the governor hopes, places it in a good position to develop and exploit biotechnology. Mr. Yokomichi is cultivating ``internationalism'' -- attempting to break out of past provincialism by nurturing scientific research, direct overseas linkages, and international education. He has, for example, invited the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University to study the possibility of creating a coordinate school in Hokkaido.
Some people hope that Hokkaido can establish near Sapporo and near Chitose Airport a major cultural complex centering on a state-of-the-art world-class library; the possibility exists for the generating of an environment comparable to California's Silicon Valley or Massachusetts' Route 128. A mere fantasy? Hokkaido obviously can't afford such an ambitious project.
But Tokyo can. The core of a cultural complex in Hokkaido could be created at the cost of the current Tsukuba World's Fair (say, $2 billion). The question is simply one of priorities.
John Curtis Perry teaches history at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy.