: "For the statesman at the Yamato imperial court, see Soga no Emishi."The name Emishi ( _ja. 蝦夷, pre-7th century _ja. 毛人) was used by the Japanese to designate people who lived in northeastern Honshū in what is today known as the Tohoku region but appears in contemporary sources as "michi no oku" ( _ja. 道奥). Some Emishi tribes opposed and resisted the rule of the Japanese Emperors during the late Nara and early Heian periods (7th–10th centuries AD). More recently, scholars believe that they were natives of northern Honshū who were descendants of those who produced the Jōmon culture. They are thought to have been related to the Ainu. The separate ethnic status of the Emishi is not in doubt, based on a separate language from Japanese that scholars have not been able to reconstruct, but can be inferred from the use of interpreters who were needed to communicate between the Japanese and the Emishi, and the many Ainoid place names left in the Tohoku. The famous Emishi generals who fought in the Thirty-Eight Year War (AD 774 to 811), Moro and Aterui, have non-Japanese names as well.


The first mentioning of the word "Emishi" was in the Chinese book of Song in 478. In the East the Emishi (毛人) consisted of 55 kingdoms(国), in the west (衆夷) 66 kingdoms and in the northern seas 95 kingdoms. Common surnames among the captured included Keno (毛野氏) and Kimikobe (吉弥侯部, alternatively 君子部).


The Enu were represented by different tribes, some of whom became allies of the Japanese ("fugu, ifu") while others remained hostile ("iteki"). The Emishi in northeastern Honshū relied on their horses in warfare. They developed a unique style of warfare where horse archery and hit and run tactics proved very effective against the slower contemporary Japanese imperial army that relied on mostly heavy infantry. Their livelihood was based on hunting and gathering as well as the cultivation of grains such as millet and barley. Recently, it is thought they practiced rice cultivation as well in areas where rice could be grown readily.

The first major attempts to eradicate the Emishi by the emperors of Japan, particularly Emperor Kanmu in the late 8th century were largely unsuccessful. The imperial armies modelled after the mainland Chinese were no match for the guerrilla tactics of the Emishi.

It was the development of horse archery and the adoption of Emishi tactics by the early Japanese warriors that led to the Emishi defeat. They either submitted themselves to imperial authority as "fugu" and "ifu", or migrated further north, some to Hokkaido. By the mid-9th century most of their land in Honshū was conquered and they ceased to be independent. However, they continued to be influential in local politics as powerful Emishi families who submitted themselves to Japanese rule eventually created feudal domains in the north that became semi-autonomous. In the two centuries following the conquest a few of these became regional states that came into conflict with the central government. The following is a brief chronology of the main events in the relations between the Emishi and the Japanese.

AD 658: Abe no Hirafu's naval expedition of 180 ships reaches "Aguta" (present day Akita) and Wakarimasu (Hokkaido). Alliance with "Aguta" Emishi, Tsugaru Emishi and Watarishima Emishi is formed by Abe who then storms a settlement of Ashihase, a people of unknown origin, who are defeated. This is one of the earliest reliable records of the Emishi people extant. At this early age it is almost certain that the Emishi encountered here are ancestors of the Ainu since the territories covered by the expedition are in areas where these people are thought to have lived. The Ashihase may have been another ethnic group who competed with the ancestors of the Ainu for Hokkaido. Ironically, the earliest expedition happens to be the furthest northern penetration of the Japanese Imperial army until the 16th century, and that later settlement was from a local Japanese warlord who was independent of any central control.

AD 708: The fort of Ideha was created close to present day Unchi. This was a bold move since the intervening territory between Akita and the northwestern countries of Japan was not under government control. The Emishi of Akita in alliance with Michinoku attacked Japanese settlements in response. Saeki no Iwayu was appointed "Sei Echigo Emishi shogun". He used 100 ships from the Japan sea side countries along with soldiers recruited from the eastern countries and successfully defeated the Echigo (present day Akita) Emishi.

AD 724: Taga Castle was built by Oono no Omi Azumahito near present day Sendai and became the largest administrative fort in the northeast region of Michinoku. As "Chinko shogun" he steadily built forts across the Sendai plain and into the interior mountains in what is now Yamagata prefecture. Guerilla warfare was practiced by the horse riding Emishi who kept up pressure on these forts, but Emishi allies "fugu" and "mune" were also recruited and promoted by the Japanese to fight against their kinsmen.

AD 758: After a long period of stalemate, the Japanese army under Fujiwara no Asakari penetrated into what is now northern Miyagi prefecture, and established Momonohu Castle on the Kitakami River. The fort was built despite constant attacks by the Emishi of Isawa (present-day southern Iwate prefecture).

Thirty-Eight Year War

AD 774 marked the beginning of the Thirty-Eight Year War ( _ja. 三十八年戦争) with the defection of a high ranking Emishi officer of the Japanese army based in Taga Castle, Emishi no kimi Ukutsuhau. The Emishi counterattacked along a broad front starting with Momonohu Castle, destroying the garrison there before going on to destroy a number of forts along the line established painstakingly over the past generation. Large Japanese forces were recruited, numbering in the thousands, the largest forces perhaps ten to twenty thousand strong fighting against an Emishi force that numbered at most around three thousand warriors, and at any one place around a thousand. In 776 a huge army of over 20,000 men was sent to attack the Shiwa Emishi, but failed to destroy the enemy who then successfully counterattacked their cumbersome foes in the Ou mountains. In 780 the Emishi attacked the Sendai plain successfully torching Japanese villages there. The Japanese were in a near panic as they tried to tax and recruit more soldiers from the Bando (the Kanto plain).

In the AD 789 Battle of Koromo River (also known as Battle of Sufuse) the Japanese army under Ki no Kosami "Seito shogun" was defeated by the Isawa Emishi under their general Aterui. A four thousand strong army was attacked as they tried to cross the Kitakami River by a force of a thousand Emishi. The imperial army suffered its most stunning defeat, losing a thousand men to the Emishi, many of whom drowned.

AD 794: Many key Shiwa Emishi including Isawa no kimi Anushiko of what is now northern Miyagi prefecture become allies of the Japanese. This was a stunning reversal to the aspirations of those Emishi who still fought against the Japanese. The Shiwa Emishi were a very powerful group and were able to attack smaller Emishi groups successfully as their leaders were promoted into imperial rank. This had the effect of isolating one of the most powerful and independent Emishi, the Isawa confederation. The newly appointed general Sakanoue no Tamuramaro then attacked the Isawa Emishi relentlessly using soldiers trained in horse archery. The result was a desultory campaign that eventually led to Aterui's surrender in 802. The war was mostly over and many Emishi groups submitted themselves to the imperial government. However, skirmishes still took place and it was not until 811 that the so-called Thirty-Eight Year War was over. North of the Kitakami River the Emishi were still independent, but the large scale threat that they posed ceased with the defeat of the Isawa Emishi in 802.

Relationship to the Jōmon

Recent scholarship has created a much more complicated portrait of this people. By and large, they are seen as indigenous to Japan and not simply as ancestors to the Ainu, but descendants of the Jōmon. Even though historically they emerge as serious challengers to the nascent Japanese state they had inherited a rich and separate tradition that went back several millennia before the Japanese speakers came to the islands of Japan.

In the study of Jōmon skeletal remains dating from thousands of years ago, a direct connection with the modern Ainu was confirmed, showing a definite linkage between the two groups. This linkage however, shows that the Jōmon people were very different from modern Japanese and other modern East Asians. The physical appearance of a number of the Ainu who were first encountered by the Europeans in the 19th Century were similar to Caucasians, and thus caused quite a stir among contemporary academics, and has spurred debate about their origins. It is thus surmised that the Jōmon also were physically unlike other East Asians. This said, physical anthropologists have found that diachronically, and geographically, the skeletal structure of the Jōmon population changed over time from southwest to northeast, paralleling the actual migration of Japanese speakers historically, so that more Jōmon traits are preserved in the north.

Studies have also shown that skeletal remains from larger settlements in the Tohoku corresponding to where burial mounds (kofun) were built have traits that are halfway between Ainu and present day Japanese, so the idea that the Emishi were made up solely of Ainoid ancestors is untrue. The Emishi were a mix of both Ainoid and types of people scholars have called "Kofun" people" who were not a separate race or ethnic group, but were a mixture of both native Jōmon and the more recent groups identified with the Yayoi culture. This dovetails nicely with the "transformation" theory that native Jōmon peoples changed gradually with the infusion of Yayoi immigrants into the Tohoku rather than the "replacement" theory which posits that one population (Jōmon) was replaced by another (Yayoi).

Northern Fujiwara

Soon after the Second World War, mummies of the Northern Fujiwara family in Hiraizumi (the capital city of the Northern Fujiwara), who were thought to have been Emishi, and hence were thought to have been related to the Ainu were studied by scientists. However, the researchers concluded that the rulers of Hiraizumi were like other Japanese of the time, and certainly not related to the ethnic Ainu. This was seen as evidence that the Emishi were not related to the Ainu. This had the effect of popularizing the idea that the Emishi were like other contemporary ethnic Japanese who lived in northeast Japan, outside of Yamato rule.

However, there is some doubt as to the lineage of the Northern Fujiwara, and if they were descended from local Japanese families who resided in the Tohoku (unrelated to the Fujiwara of Kyoto) then the study would confirm this. Both the Abe and Kiyowara families were almost certainly of Japanese descent, both of whom represented "gozoku" or powerful families who had moved into the provinces of Mutsu and Dewa perhaps during the ninth century though when they emigrated is not known for certain. They were likely a Japanese frontier family who developed regional ties with the descendants of the Emishi "fushu", and may have been seen as "fushu" themselves since they had lived in the region for several generations. Though it is not known how much the Emishi population changed as Japanese settlers and frontiersmen began to live in their territories even before the conquest, the existence of Emishi "Kofun" types attests to some form of ethnic mixing. The Japanese established trading relations with the Emishi where their horses were imported and iron tools and weapons exported to their territories. To complicate matters, some ethnic Japanese allied themselves with the Emishi in their wars against the Yamato court. The latter were known in the Nihongi as "Japanese captives" of the Emishi.

Emishi envoys to the Tang court

The evidence that the Emishi were also related to the Ainu comes from historical documents. One of the best sources of information comes from both inside and outside Japan, from contemporary Tang Dynasty and Song Dynasty histories as these describe dealings with Japan, and from the "Shoku Nihongi". For example, there is a record of the arrival of the Japanese foreign minister in AD 659 where conversation is recorded with the Tang Emperor. In this conversation we have perhaps the most accurate picture of the Emishi recorded for that time period. This episode is repeated in the "Shoku Nihongi" in the following manner.

Two Emishi, a man and woman, from contemporary Tohoku accompanied the minister Sakaibe no Muraji to Tang China. The emperor was delighted with the two Emishi because of their "strange" physical appearance. This was an emperor who was most likely the illustrious Emperor Tang Taizong who was familiar with many ethnic groups throughout his Empire, from Uyghurs and Turks to Middle Eastern traders. However, he probably did not have any contact with Europeans. The Japanese envoy for his part describes the contemporary relationship with the various Emishi: those who had allied themselves with the Yamato court (known as _ja. 和蝦夷 "niki-emishi", i.e. 'gentle Emishi'), those who remained as enemies staunchly opposed to Yamato (known as _ja. 荒蝦夷 "ara-emishi", i.e. 'rough Emishi' or 'wild Emishi'), and the distant Tsugaru Emishi (located in present-day northern Aomori and in southern Hokkaido). All Chinese documents from the T'ang and Sung refer to them as having a separate state north of Japan and call them _ja. 毛人 (Mandarin "máo rén", Sino-Japanese "mōjin"), literally 'hairy people'. This is also corroborated in the "Shoku Nihongi", in which they are described consistently as having long beards and as "kebito",or 'hairy people', characteristics that have been used to describe the Ainu in the modern period. These same kanji characters were read as 'emishi' before the Nara period.


The Emishi were composed of two populations, the Ainoid and the "Kofun" united by a common language distinct from Japanese. These two populations were not distinguished by contemporaries, but rather by present-day physical anthropologists. Historically, there was one group that were ancestors of the native Jōmon who also had in their population those of mixed ethnicity. And the contemporary Japanese for their part looked upon the Emishi as "foreigners" and barbarians whose lands needed to be conquered and incorporated into the Japanese state. After their conquest Emishi leaders became part of the regional framework of government in the Tohoku culminating with the Northern Fujiwara regime. However, even before the Northern Fujiwara they gradually but progressively lost their distinct culture and ethnicity. Those who migrated to the northern tip of Honshū and Hokkaidō region retained their identity and their separate ethnicity, and their descendants eventually formed the Satsumon culture in Hokkaido.

Historically, the Emishi who moved to Hokkaido became a distinctly different population from those who were conquered and integrated into the Japanese state. The latter became more like other ethnic Japanese while the Hokkaido Emishi, known by contemporaries as "Watarishima" Emishi, eventually became the Ainu.

Emishi in Popular Culture

* The term "Emishi" is used for the village tribe of the main character Ashitaka in the Hayao Miyazaki animated film "Princess Mononoke". The village was supposedly a last pocket of Emishi surviving into a later period.


Aston, W.G.. Nihongi: Chronicles of Japan from Earliest Times to A.D. 697. London: Kegan Paul, 1924. Originally published in 1896. The standard English translation of the ancient Japanese compilation known as the "Shoku Nihongi".

Farris, William Wayne. Heavenly Warriors: The Evolution of Japan's Military: 500-1300. Harvard: Harvard University press, 1996. The best military treatment of the subject in English, summarizing the entire conflict. Cites the Fujiwara mummy study as evidence that the Emishi are not Ainu.

Nagaoka, Osamu. "Kodai Togoku Monogatari". Tokyo: Kadokawa Shoten, 1986. For readers of Japanese, a detailed account of the campaign against Aterui.

Nakanishi, Susumu. "Emishi to wa nanika". Tokyo: Kadokawa, 1993. Japanese source that actually conducted a study of skulls and skeletons of remains of persons who lived in that region both before and after the conquest.

Ossenberg, Nancy S., "Isolate Conservatism and Hybridization in the Population History of Japan" in Akazawa, T. and C.M.Aikens, eds., Prehistoric Hunter Gatherers in Japan. Tokyo: University of Tokyo Press, 1986.

Sansom, George. A History of Japan to 1334. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1958. A standard history of the conflict in the context of Japanese history as a whole.

External links

* [http://www.emishi-ezo.net/WhoEmishi.htm Who Were the Emishi?]
* [http://www.emishi-ezo.net/Conquest/Conquest.html Conquest of Emishi]
* [http://www.fieldmuseum.org/research_collections/anthropology/anthro_sites/boone/ainu/ainu_map/ainu_map7.html Ainu Origins from the Field Museum of Natural History site]
* [http://www.emishi-ezo.net/index.html Emishi: a more in-depth interpretation of recent research]
* [http://p-www.iwate-pu.ac.jp/~acro-ito/Japan_pics/Japan_MZS/Aterui.html Aterui the Great]

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