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Throughout the first millenium of Japanese history (and before that even) the Japanese rather steadily expanded up Honshu. Once they had taken the whole of Honshu however they seemed largely to stop. Throughout the Edo period their dealings with Hokkaido were very limited to just small scale trading posts, there was never any serious attempt to actually expand there until the 19th century.

Why was this? I don't think the Edo period and the need to keep the clans within reach of Tokyo was the whole story as this behaviour predates that too. I've also heard the story that it was down to Japanese rice-based agriculture not working in Hokkaido...but the weather of south Hokkaido isn't all that different to north Honshu. Any ideas?

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+1 for VG first post. Welcome to the site. – Drux May 13 '13 at 3:52

The people already living in the Ezo, the Ainu, were no joke militarily, and tangled regularly with the Mongolian Empire on Sakhalin, and later, the Ming in the Amur Valley. It's not clear the Japanese could have taken the island completely if they wanted to, not before they modernized in the 19th century.

This also highlights another point - the islands further north were more in reach of the mainland powers. Hokkaido, until the Meiji Restoration, was more useful as a frontier than a destination for colonization.

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The Emishi didn't just roll over and be conquered either. It's curious Japan didn't even try with Hokkaido. The frontier issue however could be a point....I have read that the Sakhalin natives were at least nominally Chinese vassals, could it be Japan was afraid to go after them for this reason? – Lee Jackson May 16 '13 at 5:16

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