YEZO, or Ezo, the most northerly of the five principal islands forming the Japanese empire, the five being Yezo, Nippon, Shikoku, Kiushiu and Formosa. It is situated between 45° 30' and 41° 21' N. and between 146° 7' and 13 9 ° II' E.; its coast-line measures 1423.32 m., and it has an area of 30,148.41 sq. m. On the N. it is separated from Sakhalin by Soya Strait (La Perouse) and on the S. from Nippon by Tsugaru Strait. Its northern shores are washed by the Sea of Okhotsk, its southern and eastern by the Pacific Ocean, and its western by the Sea of Japan. .
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The highest mountain in the island is Ishikaridake (6 955 ft.) and the next in importance is Tokachi-dake (6541 ft.). Yubari-take in Ishikari has a height of 6508 ft., and in the province of Kushiro are O-akan-dake (4470 ft.) and Meakan-take (4500 ft.). Dr Rein's investigations led him to state that Tokachi-dake forms a species of central elevation whence most of the principal rivers flow towards the sea, and that the mountain system is a continuation, on the W., of the Sakhalin range, and on the E. of the Kuriles range; the former consisting of granite and old schists, the latter chiefly of volcanic formations. Near Hakodate are two conspicuous volcanic peaks, Komaga-take (3822 ft.) and Tokatsu-dake (3800 ft.); and 24 m. from Kushiro (by rail) is a volcano called Atosa-nobori, or Iwo-zan (sulphur mountain), whence great quantities of first-rate sulphur are exported to the United States. Mention must also be made of Rishiri, an islet on the extreme N.W. of Yezo, which has a peak of the same name rising to a height of nearly 6000 ft.
Yezo boasts the largest river in the Japanese empire, the Ishikari-gawa, which is estimated to measure 275 m. Its other large rivers are the Teshio-gawa (192 m.), the Tokachi-gawa (120 m.), the Shiribeshi-gawa (88 m.), the Kushiro-gawa (81 m.), the Toshibetsu-gawa (64 m.), and the Yubetsu-gawa (64 m.). The valley of the Ishikari is believed to be the most fertile part of the island; the Tokachi is navigable to a point 56 m. from its mouth, but the Teshio has a bar which renders its approach extremely difficult. A peculiarity of several of the rivers is that, on approaching the seashore, they run parallel to it for some distance before finding an exit. Those flowing to the S. coast take a W. direction, those flowing to the E. coast a N. direction. This is attributed to the fact that the prevailing winds set up the sand so as to deflect the rivers from their straight course. Nearly all these rivers abound with salmon, the most remarkable in that respect being the Nishibetsu-gawa, which yields an average of over 2000 tons of fish annually.
There are no large lakes, the most extensive - Toyako, Shikotsuko and Kushiroko - not having a circumference of more than 25 m. Lagoons, however, are not uncommon. The largest of these - Saruma-ko in Kitami - is some 17 m. long by 7 wide. It abounds with oysters nearly as large as those for which the much smaller lagoon at Akkeshi is famous, the molluscs measuring about 18 in. in length.
The climate differs markedly from that of the main island of Japan, resembling rather the climate of the British Isles, though the winter is longer and more severe, and the atmosphere in the warm season contains a greater quantity of moisture. During five months the country is under snow, its depth averaging about 2 ft. in the regions along the southern coast and more than 6 ft. in the northern and western regions. An ice-drift, setting from the north and working southwards as far as Nemuro, stops all sea trade on the E. coast during January, February and March, though the W. coast is protected by the warm current of the Kuro-shiwo. Fogs prevail along the E. coast during the summer months, and it is not uncommon to find a damp, chilly atmosphere near the sea in July, whereas, a mile inland, the thermometer stands at 80° or 90° F. in the shade, and magnolia trees are in full blossom.
Tsugaru Strait has been shown by Captain T. W. Blakiston, R.A., to form a line of zoological division. Pheasants and monkeys are not found on the Yezo side of this line, though they abound on Nippon, and, on the other hand, Yezo has grouse and solitary snipe which do not exist in Nippon. The Yezo bear, too, is of a distinct species, and the island has an abundance of singing birds which are absent S. of the strait. There are also notable differences in the flora, the trees and flowers of Yezo resembling those of the British Isles rather than those of Japan.
The island seems to have been originally peopled by a semi-barbarous race of pit-dwellers, whose modern representatives are to be found in the Kuriles or their neighbours of Kamchatka and Sakhalin. These autochthons were driven out by the Ainu, and the latter, in their turn, succumbed to the Japanese. The population of Yezo is 605,742, of whom 17,573 are Ainu. There is a steadily growing but not large emigration from Japan proper to Yezo. Yezo is divided into ten provinces, the names of which, beginning from the S., are Oshima, Shiribeshi, Ishikari, Teshio, Kitami, Iburi, Hidaka, Tokachi, Kushiro and Nemuro. Of these, Oshima, Shiribeshi and Ishikari are by far the most important. There are only three towns having a population of over 20,000, viz. Hakodate (50,314), Sapporo (46,147) and Otaru (34,586). Other towns of importance are Fukuyama (formerly called Matsumae), the seat of government in feudal days, Esashi, Mombetsu, Oiwake, Tomakomai, Piratori (the chief Ainu settlement), Mororan, Kushiro, Akkeshi, Nemuro, Horobetsu, Yunokawa, Abashiri and Mashike. Yunokawa, 42 m. from Hakodate, is much frequented for its hot springs; Oiwake is the junction of the main line of railway with the branch to the Yubari collieries; Kushiro exports coal and sulphur; Akkeshi is celebrated for its oysters.
Marine products constitute the principal wealth of Yezo. Great quantities of salmon, sardines and codfish are taken. The salmon are salted for export to Nippon and other parts of Japan; the sardines are used as an agricultural fertilizer, their value varying from £2 to £5 per ton; and the codfish serve for the manufacture of oil. An immense crop of edible seaweed is also gathered and sent to Chinese markets as well as to Japanese. This kombu, as it is called, sometimes reaches a length of 90 ft. and a width of 6 in. The herring fishery, too, is a source of wealth, and the canning of Akkeshi oysters as well as of salmon gives employment to many hands. Vast tracts are covered with a luxuriant growth of ash, oak, elm, birch, chestnut and pine, but, owing to difficulties of carriage, this supply of timber has not yet been much utilized. One of the earliest acts of the Meiji government was to develop the resources of Yezo and encourage Japanese to emigrate thither. Free grants of agricultural land were made, roads were constructed, model farms established, beet-sugar factories and sawmills opened, horse-breeding undertaken, foreign fruit trees planted and railways laid. The outlays incurred did not immediately bear fruit, but they attracted large numbers of settlers. During recent years attention has been attracted to the mineral resources of Yezo. Coal of fair quality is abundant, and a railway has been built for its carriage; an apparently inexhaustible supply of sulphur is obtained from a mountain near Kushiro lake; petroleum seems likely to pay exploiters, and in 1899 gold was discovered at Usotannai, Pankanai and other places along the Poropetsu river, near Esashi in Kitami province.
The roads are few and in bad order, but there is a railway which, setting out from Hakodate in the extreme S., runs, via Sapporo and Iwamizawa, to the extreme N., with branches from Iwamizawa, S. to Mororan and E. to Poronai, and from Oiwake N.E. to the Yubari coal-mines. There is also a line W. along the S. coast from Nemuro. In districts beyond the railway, travelling is done on horseback, there being an abundant supply of ponies. There is good coastwise communication by steamer.
Yezo was not brought under Japan's effective control until medieval times. In 1604 the island was granted in fief to Matsumae Yoshihiro, whose ancestor had overrun it, and from the close of the 18th century the E. was governed by officials sent by the shogun, whose attention had been attracted to it by Russian trespassers. In 1871 the task of developing its resources and administering its affairs was entrusted to a special bureau, which employed American agriculturists to assist the work and American engineers to construct roads and railways; but in 1881 this bureau was abolished, and the government abandoned to private hands the various enterprises it had inaugurated.
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