Trade and Conflict at the Japanese Frontier: Hakodate as a Treaty Port, 1854–1884

  • Steven Ivings (Author)
    Steven Ivings studied BSc & PhD in Economic History at the London School of Economics & Political Science (LSE – University of London) and an MA in Japanese Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS – University of London).  His PhD thesis examined colonial settlement and migratory labor in Karafuto (Southern Sakhalin) from the years 1905 to 1945. His current research interests include the Japanese empire in comparative perspective, colonial migration, migratory labor markets in northern Japan, Hokkaido in the context of Japanese and global history, whaling, and the sports and leisure industries in East Asia.


Sitting in calm and deep waters, neatly tucked away from the sometimes perilous streams of the North Pacific and Japan Sea, Hakodate was in some ways an obvious choice as a port to be opened. It offered a suitable location for American whalers to call for supplies and repairs as they ventured on voyages of plunder in the nearby seas, and a safe anchorage for the naval ships of treaty powers—especially Russia—as they “wintered” or otherwise sought to project their power over East Asia. Despite the blessings of its physical geography, however, Hakodate sat on the southern tip of Ezo (later Hokkaido), an island which constituted the thinly populated fringe, or frontier, of the Japanese realm. This meant that despite its rumoured richness in natural resources, Ezo was by all accounts an economic backwater when Hakodate was opened to international trade, providing exports of various marine products to the main islands of Japan via a network of seasonal fisheries across Ezo. In the decades that followed Hakodate’s opening, the port’s trade and population expanded rapidly, transforming what was previously described as “a long fishing village” into a bustling port of over 50,000 by the mid-1880s. Nonetheless, this paper will argue that this expansion was not primarily a result of the opening of Hakodate to international trade; rather, it was the opening of Hakodate’s hinterland—Ezo, or from 1869, Hokkaido—which allowed Hakodate to prosper, enhancing its existing role as a hub for the marketing and distribution of northern marine products throughout Japan. The fact that foreign traders struggled to make any inroads into Hakodate’s principal trades serves as a warning to scholars not overstate the transformative capacity of western capitalism everywhere in East Asia.


Academic discipline and sub-disciplines
History, Japanese History, Economic History
Hakodate, Treaty Ports, Hokkaido, Ezo, Trade
How to Cite
Ivings, S. (2018). Trade and Conflict at the Japanese Frontier: Hakodate as a Treaty Port, 1854–1884. The Journal of Transcultural Studies, 8(2), 103–137.