Hokkaido lies north of Honshu. While encompassing a very large area, Hokkaido hosts only one prefecture.
The suffix of -do, indicating a prefecture, is always naturally included in Hokkaido's name. No additional suffix need be added to this prefectural name.
The islands of Etorofu, Shikotan, Habomai, and Kunashiri off of the Straits of Nemuro, off of Hokkaido's north-east coast, are currently administered and occupied by Russia. However, before 1945 they were claimed as Japanese islands by Japan. Japan continues to claim ownership of these islands which are often referred to as the Northern Territories. The dispute between Russia and Japan over ownership of these islands continues today.
Over a century and a half ago Japan became a more ethnically diverse country through incorporation of northern Honshu and the island of Hokkaido into Japanese territory. Hokkaido is home to Japanese as well as the indigenous people of this island the Ainu. Despite comments to the contrary, Japan is not a racially homogenous country.
Many (although not all) mountain, river, lake, and town names in Hokkaido originated in the Ainu language. Having lived here long before the arrival of Japanese, and as other peoples are wont to do, the Ainu gave names to mountains, rivers, lakes, and to other areas of their homeland as well. Ainu language was and remains distinctly different from and is not a form of Japanese, just as the Ainu themselves maintain a proud history and heritage as a race distinct from the Japanese. The arrival of Japanese on Hokkaido meant that Japanese characters had to be jerry-rigged to support the pronunciation of the Ainu place names. This means that non-Hokkaidoans faced with reading a map of Hokkaido may stumble over the strange combinations of kanji characters and obscure kanji readings. If you think your relatives may have been Ainu or from some rural area in Hokkaido and you have some old records from Japan, you may do well to locate a native of the area who can give you local pronunciation of the kanji characters.
Thanks to Debbie McMillan-Ito for this information!
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Last updated August 6, 2001.
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