Ezo, Emishi or Ebisu (蝦夷)

Ezo (also referred to as "Emishi" or "Ebisu") is an appellation for the people who once lived in the eastern and northern areas of what is now Japan, and who were considered by the Japanese to belong to a different ethnic group. The scope of where the idea of Ezo begins and ends has changed, depending on the period. "Ezo" of recent years refers to the Ainu.

Origin of the word and how to use the characters

There are various theories as to the origin of the word, and one of them asserts that "encu" (meaning "person" in the Ainu language of the Sakhalin Ainu) is its origin.

In ancient times, Ezo was written as "毛人" and read as "Emishi" or "Ebisu," but from the seventh century onward, it was written as "蝦夷." However, no Chinese character used in "毛人" or "蝦夷" has a sound related to "Emishi" or "Ebisu." Therefore, it is thought that the use of the characters "毛" and "蝦" isn't simply based on the sound but must have a particular meaning. One theory explains that the Emishi had a lot of body hair (毛), which compares with the Ainu, who are hairy in general. Regarding the use of the Chinese characters "蝦夷," one theory asserts that the people had some sort of name related to the sound "kai" (the Ainu were called "kui" by Mongolians and "kuriru" by Russians), and another asserts that the people had long beards and therefore resembled a prawn (蝦) or a lobster. However, these three theories were developed just by examining the Chinese characters, and thus none of them has solid evidence. The Chinese character "夷" in "蝦夷" is a derogatory term for a different ethnic group (Toi) in the eastern area. In "Shoku Nihongi (Chronicle of Japan Continued"), written by the Emperor Monmu in December 697, the Ezo who lived in Echigo Province (later Dewa Province) are referred to as "Kateki" (蝦狄). This name is probably derived, like Toi, from a derogatory term used for a different ethnic group (狄) in the northern area.

"蝦夷" started to be read as "Ezo" in the late Heian period. There is a theory stating that the difference in reading corresponds to the difference in ethnic groups.

Incidentally, Makoto TAKEMITSU has a theory that "Emishi" was originally a word to describe a "warrior." This theory asserts that the Yamato Administration used the written expression "蝦夷" to call attention to China that the Yamato Administration was also holding the ethnic groups in subjection along with the expansion of the Administration.


"Emishi" in ancient times meant a group who lived in the eastern areas of Honshu and to the north, refusing to belong to or assimilate into Japan and regions under the control of the Japanese government, either politically or culturally. They did not have unified political power and were gradually conquered and absorbed by Japan. It is thought that a part of the group called Emishi became the medieval Ezo, that is the Ainu, and that another part of them became Japanese.

However, there is a difference between "Emishi" (蝦夷) and "Ezo" (蝦夷). Because "Emishi" and "Ezo" are expressed by the same Chinese characters, they tend to be confused with one another; however, these two must be distinguished accurately because the periods in which these peoples appeared are completely different.

"Emishi" is an appellation that was used by the Imperial Court, but there are no recorded documents mentioning their awareness of the presence or absence of an ethnic group as "Emishi." Opinions are varied among researchers regarding the interpretation of whether the Emishi lacked a unified identity or if their ethnic consciousness was formed while they were negotiating with Japan.

The oldest record of Emishi in form is introduced in Kumeuta (a kind of poem) composed in a "Nihon Shoki" (Chronicles of Japan) Jinmu tosei (story in Japanese myth about the first generation of the Imperial family) as an Aibishi.

(Translation: Although people have said that a person of the Emishi is equivalent to 100 soldiers, they were vanquished easily without resisting.)

(Translation: Although people have said that a person of the Emishi is equivalent to 100 soldiers, they were vanquished easily without resisting.)

(Translation: Although people have said that a person of the Emishi is equivalent to 100 soldiers, they were vanquished easily without resisting.)

However, it isn't clear how accurately this Kumeuta reflects the history or whether "Emishi" in this poem means the same "蝦夷" that appeared in later history; instead, there are various theories about the characteristics as an ethnic group of an occupied zone of "蝦夷" in ancient times, but no one knows for sure.

In "Sosho (Sung Shu) Wakokuden," the Chinese history book of the fifth century, the following sentence is seen as a Johyobun (memorial to the Emperor) delivered from Waobu to Sung (Nan-Dynasty) in 478.

Since early times, Sodei himself has been breaking through Kacchu (armor and helmet) and walking in the mountains and rivers, and never had a comforting place, and accordingly, he has conquered fifty-five countries of "毛人" to the eastern areas, sixty-six countries of "衆夷" to the western areas, and ninety-five countries by crossing the northern sea.

Since early times, Sodei himself has been breaking through Kacchu (armor and helmet) and walking in the mountains and rivers, and never had a comforting place, and accordingly, he has conquered fifty-five countries of "毛人" to the eastern areas, sixty-six countries of "衆夷" to the western areas, and ninety-five countries by crossing the northern sea.

From this Johyobun it can be confirmed that the presence of the Emishi and its rule went forward.

As a description of the Emishi written by someone who lived during the same period in which they were present, a dialogue between a Kento-shi (Japanese envoy to Tang Dynasty China) and Gao Zong (Tang Dynasty) held in 659 is found in "Nihon Shoki (Chronicles of Japan)." According to the dialogue, Niki-Emishi (quiet Emishi) lived closest, Ara-Emishi (rough Emishi) lived farther away, and Tsugaru was located farthest. This Kento-shi explained that Emishi had eaten no cereal crops and built no houses but lived under the trees. However, this type of lifestyle contradicts other descriptions in the history books and the archaeological evidence presented to date, and therefore it seems to be an attempt to exaggerate Emishi's characteristics as barbarians. What can be said for sure from this description, which has no credibility, is that Tsugaru was a dominant group of the Emishi because its proper name was mentioned in the record.

By the seventh century, the Emishi had lived broadly in the Tohoku region (from mid-Miyagi Prefecture through Yamagata Prefecture and to the north) and most of Hokkaido (local public entity), a part of which was included in the Japanese territory. In 658, ABE no Hirafu attacked the Emishi with Suigun (warriors who battle in the sea) in a fleet of 180 boats. As Japan expanded its territory, the Emishi often fought for self-defense, carried out revolts and performed attacks across borders. The biggest battle took place in Isawa, between Japan and the Emishi who lived nearby; some of the names of leaders of the battle include KOREHARI no Azamaro, who is known from Hoki no Ran, in which he once took control of Taga-jo Castle in 780, and Aterui, who wiped out the expeditionary force in the Battle of Subushi in 789. Japan repeatedly set forth on expeditions with large armies, and eventually SAKANOUE no Tamuramaro, the seii taishogun (literally, "great general who subdues the barbarians"), subdued the enemy by building the Isawa and Shiwa castles. The Emishi who came under the control of Japan were called Fushu (barbarians).

In times of peace, trade was carried out between the Emishi and Japan; Emishi offered their specialties such as seaweed, horses, fur pelts and feathers, and in return they obtain rice, cloth and iron.

The conquest of the Emishi carried out by the Imperial Court (Kansai) in the ninth century was discontinued in what is now the area of the mid-Iwate and Akita prefectures. However, even after that the local bureaucracy and chiefs of Fushu kept getting involved in disputes within Emishi and spread their dominance through the local administration. In this way, the Emishi lost their independence in the Tohoku region by the twelfth century. From this period the terms "Ifu" or "Fushu" started to be recorded instead of "Emishi."

There have been two different theories concerning the characteristics of the Emishi, revolving around the relationship with the Ainu since the Edo period. One is the "Emishi-Ainu Theory," which insists that the Emishi and Ainu were identical, and the other is the "Emishi-Frontiersmen Theory," in which the Emishi were part of the Japanese people. Nowadays, the leading hypothesis is derived from a theory that considers the issue from the perspective of cultural areas based on archaeology; another theory considers the continuity of Emishi after the seventh century with the Ainu, as examined from the perspective of toponyms of the Ainu language distributed in the northern Tohoku region. In this case it is thought that the people who lived in the northern Tohoku region and Hokkaido and in the Satsumon period were the pure Emishi, but that those in Hokkaido turned into Ainu while the Emishi in the Tohoku region and the Fushu, who moved into the Japanese territory, became Japanese. Incidentally, a few theories insist that the Emishi were Tungus, the northern people.

However, information in the document-based research and development of archaeological excavations show complexities in the expansion and actual condition of the Satsumon culture and the transition processes from the post-Jomon period to the Satsumon period or from the Satsumon period to the Ainu culture, resulting in more complex factual relationships than the above-mentioned theories, which should not so readily be regarded as the accepted concepts. Thus there is still no definitive conclusion about the Emishi in all of the eastern Japan mentioned in "Nihon Shoki," nor about arguments concerning the relationship with people in the Jomon and Yayoi periods.


The mainstream theories say that "Ezo" after the Medieval period means "Ainu."
(However, these theories include some opinions stating that the Ezo in the Medieval period were not simply Ainu but latter-day Japanese.)
In some historical documents it can be confirmed that a group called "Ezo," who seem to have been identical to today's Ainu, already lived in Japan by the thirteenth century through the fourteenth century. Hokkaido, in which most of the Ainu lived then, was called "Ezoga-shima" or "Ezo-chi" in Japan and "Yezo" in the Western countries.

It is thought that the Ainu culture was born by the fusion of the Okhotsk culture with the culture that succeeded from the previous Satsumon period, whereupon it gradually absorbed the culture in Honshu. It was probably established in the thirteenth century, when the word "Ezo" can be seen for the first time as mentioned above; however, the greatest difference between the Satsumon culture and the Ainu culture was the increase in imported items (especially ironware), meaning that it should be seen that Ainu had increased negotiations with Japan when the Ainu culture was born, because the Ainu culture was very reliant on trade with Japan. In concrete terms, the relationship with the ups and downs of the government of the Oshu-Fujiwara clan has been pointed out.

In the fourteenth century the Ezo group was divided into Watari-to (Oshima Peninsula in Hokkaido, the predecessor of the Matsumae domain in modern history), Hinomoto (the Pacific Ocean side of Hokkaido (local public entity) and Chishima (Kurile Islands), or Higashi-Ezo in modern history), Karako (the Sea of Japan side of Hokkaido and Sakhalin, or Nishi-Ezo in modern history); and a record stating that Watari-to could communicate with Japanese and conducted trade with people in Honshu is seen in one document (Suwa Daimyojin Ekotoba). Another record states that the Ando clan, the Gozoku (local ruling family) in the Tsugaru region, was appointed as an Ezo Kanrei (or Ezo Daikan (local governor)) by the Hojo clan, the regent of the Kamakura bakufu, and that it controlled these three Ezo groups in the Kamakura period.

From the fifteenth century to the sixteenth century, the Kakizaki clan, who was growing to become the feudal lord of the southern Oshima Peninsula by unifying Watari-to, was recognized as to the right of dominion and trade in the Ezo territory by Hideyoshi TOYOTOMI and Ieyasu TOKUGAWA and thus became independent from the Ando clan in both name and reality; and the Kakizaki clan changed its name to Matsumae and was elevated to Daimyo (Japanese feudal lord), by which Watari-to became Japanese in Edo period.

For more details, refer to "Ainu."