After mineral deposits were discovered in Hokkaido, many miners who dreamed of making fortunes in a single stroke were drawn to the northern land. Some discovered coal mines and made fortunes but there was a shortage of laborers. Efforts made to recruit sufficient labor were unsuccessful. Advertisements for jobs in Hokkaido could be seen on telephone poles and in many other places up to the beginning of the Showa Period (1925-1989). Those who happened to apply for jobs couldn’t return for years. There was one particular place called the "Oyabun Mine" and it was said that once in that mine no one could get out. In other words, no one was allowed to quit.
When workers attempted to escape due to the excessively hard labor, they would be caught by so-called "guards" and beaten half to death. These guards were members of violent gangs hired by the mine owner.
One of my acquaintances worked at a mine in Hokkaido and eventually escaped. He told me the following story. One day he was at work loading coal from a mine into a wagon at a cargo loading station. After finishing the loading operation he somehow managed to elude the strict supervision of the guards and crawled under a car. He hung on to the bottom of the car and was forced to remain in that position as his arms and legs became numb and managed to escape. If he had let go it would have been the end of his life. He garnered all of his strength and remained in that position. Three hours later he finally reached a safe place. He said it was worse than dying!
Since the defeat of Japan in World War II and the implementation of the new constitution granting basic human rights, such situations do not occur. In fact it is unimaginable for us. However, this activity which bordered on a slave trade did take place almost openly until the early Showa period. So much for the digression from our main topic but it has been my intention to describe the situation prevailing in Hokkaido at that time.
It was late in the Meiji period (1912) that Morihei went to Hokkaido together with his followers from Tanabe. There were many kinds of people there. Some were serious, others were merely greedy adventurers, some were happy-go-lucky types and others former prisoners or members of violent gangs. The good and bad congregated in the same area.
There is a difference between those who think only of themselves and those who act for the good of others, of society and of all humankind for the improvement of the world and its peoples. The difference lies in the diametrically opposed way in which they lead their lives. One who works for the good of the public is a man of virtue while one who works only for his own benefit is a man of vice. However, what everyone shares in common is the desire to achieve satisfaction and happiness in every respect.
It may have been due to his inherent innocent nature that Morihei respected public harmony and always engaged voluntarily in virtuous activities starting from childhood. This was revealed in his everyday behavior. Even though a difficult undertaking, it was enjoyable and fulfilling for Morihei to work hard for the people who accompanied him to Hokkaido and on behalf of the national policy of settlement of the northernmost island.
The word "settlement" reminds me of the westward development of the United States. When I look at the history of the settlement of that nation, I feel admiration for the greatness of the land. After Columbus discovered America, the early European ancestors of the Americans came from many parts of the Continent to the new land across the Atlantic imbued with a challenging spirit. They severed themselves from their histories and traditions to open up the new land. The mass migration towards the west as part of the process of the establishment of the American nation was a drama filled with hardship and glory. The term "frontier spirit" is still a matter of pride for Americans. Those persons involved in the settlement of Hokkaido experienced difficulties similar to those of the Americans.
The town of Shirataki in Kitami County, Hokkaido is located just before the Kitami ridge as you proceed southwest from Yubetsu along the coast. Beyond Kitami path there is the highest peak of Hokkaido, Mt. Daisetsu. This area is very rugged and is known as the "roof" of Hokkaido. Shirataki is located to the north-northeast at the base of this hilly area.
The winters are cold there just as in the far north of Manchuria. It was a challenge for people from the warm, temperate climate of southern Kishu to confront such a cold climate. In April, the weather in their native province is warm and confortable with many flowers in bloom and birds singing. On the contrary, the mountains of Kitami are still very cold.
As the first order of business, it was necessary to build more than ten houses. They chose a location called Futamata in a forest area of Shirataki. They cut trees for use in building their homes and then began to cultivate the land. It would not be far from the truth to say that all they had was their labor. There were a few horses but they had no machines to rely on and did things in a very old-fashioned way.
Outlaws and The King of Shirataki
Fall in Hokkaido is short. It is not an exaggeration to say that winter follows on the heels of summer. Thus it is no easy task to make preparations for the long winter. Food must be stocked. Roofs of houses are covered with heavy snow and men and livestock are in forced hibernation and have to spend most of the time in the winter in their houses. Thus, winter preparations are normally completed in summer. Nonetheless, food shortages still occured. It was therefore sometimes necessary to brave ice-cold winds and three- to four-meter deep snow in order to purchase supplies. This is not a taskfor just anyone. Travel by sleigh over tens of miles along mountains roads is called for. Heavy packages containing the supplies purchased must be hauled back.
One day Morihei went out alone. On his way back he was hauling bags of rice through a field covered with snow and encountered three outlaws who had escaped from a bond-laborers’ camp. These types were known popularly as "tobitcho" which refers to escapees of labor camps or men who would frequent these "slave pens" for two or three days to get food and rob people of money and valuables.
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