Hokkaido was settled by the
Orok before recorded history.
Nihon Shoki, finished in 720 AD, is often said to be the first mention of Hokkaido in
recorded history. According to the text,
Abe no Hirafu
 led a large navy and army to northern areas from 658 to 660 and came into contact with the
Emishi. One of the places Hirafu went to was called Watarishima (渡島), which is often believed to be present-day Hokkaido. However, many theories exist in relation to the details of this event, including the location of Watarishima and the common belief that the Emishi in Watarishima were the ancestors of the present-day
Heian periods (710–1185), people in Hokkaido conducted trade with
Dewa Province, an outpost of the Japanese central government. From the
Middle Ages, the people in Hokkaido began to be called
Ezo. Hokkaido, formerly known as Ezochi
 Ezochi (蝦夷地, lit. "Ezo-land") or Ezogashima (蝦夷ヶ島, lit. "Island of the Ezo"). The Ezo mainly relied upon hunting and fishing and obtained rice and iron through trade with the Japanese.
Muromachi period (1336–1573), the Japanese created a settlement at the south of the
Oshima Peninsula. As more people moved to the settlement to avoid battles, disputes arose between the Japanese and the Ainu. The disputes eventually developed into a war.
Takeda Nobuhiro killed the Ainu leader, Koshamain,
 and defeated the opposition in 1457. Nobuhiro's descendants became the rulers of the
Matsumae-han, which was granted exclusive trading rights with the Ainu in the
Azuchi-Momoyama and Edo periods (1568–1868). The
Matsumae family's economy relied upon trade with the Ainu. They held authority over the south of Ezochi until the end of the
Edo period in 1868.
Matsumae clan rule over the Ainu must be understood in the context of the expansion of the Japanese feudal state. Medieval military leaders in northern Honshū (ex.
Akita clan) maintained only tenuous political and cultural ties to the imperial court and its proxies, the
Kamakura Shogunate and
Ashikaga Shogunate. Feudal strongmen sometimes located themselves within medieval institutional order, taking shogunal titles, while in other times they assumed titles that seemed to give them a non-Japanese identity. In fact many of the feudal strongmen were descended from
Emishi military leaders who had been assimilated into Japanese society.
 The Matsumae clan were of
Yamato descent like other ethnic
Japanese people, whereas the Emishi of northern Honshu were a distinctive group related to the Ainu. The Emishi were conquered and integrated into the Japanese state dating back as far as the 8th century, and as result began to lose their distinctive culture and ethnicity as they became minorities. By the time the Matsumae clan ruled over the Ainu most of the Emishi were ethnically mixed and physically closer to Japanese than they were to Ainu. This dovetails nicely with the "transformation" theory that native
Jōmon peoples changed gradually with the infusion of Yayoi immigrants into the Tōhoku rather than the "replacement" theory which posits that one population (Jōmon) was replaced by another (Yayoi).
There were numerous revolts by the Ainu against feudal rule. The last large-scale resistance was
Shakushain's Revolt in 1669–1672. In 1789, a smaller movement, the
Menashi-Kunashir Rebellion, was also crushed. After that rebellion the terms "Japanese" and "Ainu" referred to clearly distinguished groups, and the Matsumae were unequivocally Japanese. In 1799–1821 and 1855–1858, the Edo Shogunate took direct control over Hokkaido in response to a perceived threat from Russia.
Leading up to the
Meiji Restoration, the
Tokugawa Shogunate realized there was a need to prepare northern defenses against a possible
Russian invasion and took over control of most of Ezochi. The Shogunate made the plight of the Ainu slightly easier, but did not change the overall form of rule.
Hokkaido was known as Ezochi until the Meiji Restoration. Shortly after the
Boshin War in 1868, a group of Tokugawa loyalists led by
Enomoto Takeaki temporarily occupied the island (the polity is commonly but mistakenly known as the
Republic of Ezo), but the rebellion was crushed in May 1869. Ezochi was subsequently put under control of Hakodate-fu (箱館府), Hakodate Prefectural Government. When establishing the Development Commission (開拓使 Kaitakushi), the Meiji Government introduced a new name. After 1869, the northern Japanese island was known as Hokkaido;
 and regional subdivisions were established, including the provinces of
are Hokkaido's indigenous people
The primary purpose of the development commission was to secure Hokkaido before the Russians extended their control of the Far East beyond
Kuroda Kiyotaka was put in charge of the venture. His first step was to journey to the United States and recruit
Horace Capron, President
Grant's Commissioner of Agriculture. From 1871 to 1873 Capron bent his efforts to expounding Western agriculture and mining with mixed results. Capron, frustrated with obstacles to his efforts returned home in 1875. In 1876,
William S. Clark arrived to found an
agricultural college in Sapporo. Although he only remained a year, Clark left lasting impression on Hokkaido, inspiring the Japanese with his teachings on agriculture as well as Christianity.
 His parting words, "Boys, be ambitious!", can be found on public buildings in Hokkaido to this day. The population of Hokkaido boomed from 58,000 to 240,000 during that decade.
In 1882, the Development Commission was abolished. Transportation on the island was still underdeveloped, so the prefecture was split into several "sub-prefectures" (支庁 shichō), namely
Hakodate Prefecture (函館県 Hakodate-ken),
Sapporo Prefecture (札幌県 Sapporo-ken), and
Nemuro Prefecture (根室県 Nemuro-ken), that could fulfill administrative duties of the prefectural government and keep tight control over the developing island. In 1886, the three prefectures were demoted, and Hokkaido was put under the Hokkaido Agency (北海道庁 Hokkaidō-chō). These sub-prefectures still exist today, although they have much less power than they possessed before and during World War II: they now exist primarily to handle paperwork and other bureaucratic functions.
In mid-July 1945 shipping, cities and military facilities in Hokkaido were attacked by the
United States Navy's
Task Force 38. On 14 and 15 July aircraft operating from the task force's
aircraft carriers sank and damaged a large number of ships in ports along Hokkaido's southern coastline as well as in northern Honshu. In addition, on 15 July a force of three
battleships and two
bombarded the city of Muroran.
 Before the Japanese surrender was formalized, the Soviet Union made preparations for an invasion of Hokkaido, but
President Harry Truman made it clear that the surrender of all of the Japanese home islands would be carried out by
General MacArthur per the
1943 Cairo Declaration.
Hokkaido became equal with other prefectures in 1947, when the revised Local Autonomy Law became effective. The Japanese central government established the Hokkaido Development Agency (北海道開発庁 Hokkaidō Kaihatsuchō) as an agency of the
Prime Minister's Office in 1949 to maintain its executive power in Hokkaido. The Agency was absorbed by the
Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport in 2001. The Hokkaido Bureau (北海道局 Hokkaidō-kyoku) and the Hokkaido Regional Development Bureau (北海道開発局 Hokkaidō Kaihatsukyoku) of the Ministry still have a strong influence on public construction projects in Hokkaido.
Naming of Hokkaido
When establishing the Development Commission (開拓使 Kaitakushi), the Meiji Government decided to change the name of Ezochi.
Matsuura Takeshirō submitted six proposals, including names such as Kaihokudō (海北道) and Hokkaidō (北加伊道), to the government. The government eventually decided to use the name Hokkaidō, but decided to write it as 北海道, as a compromise between 海北道 and because of the similarity with names such as
Tōkaidō (東海道). According to Matsuura, the name was thought up because the Ainu called the region Kai. Historically, many peoples who had interactions with the ancestors of the Ainu called them and their islands Kuyi, Kuye, Qoy, or some similar name, which may have some connection to the early modern form Kai. The Kai element also strongly resembles the
Sino-Japanese, reading of the characters 蝦夷 (on'yomi as [ka.i, カイ],
kun'yomi as [e.mi.ɕi, えみし]) which have been used for over a thousand years in China and Japan as the standard orthographic form to be used when referring to Ainu and related peoples; it is possible that Matsuura's Kai was actually an alteration, influenced by the Sino-Japanese reading of 蝦夷 Ka-i, of the
exonym for the Ainu, namely Qoy or IPA:
There is no known established
Ainu language word for the island of Hokkaido. However, the Ainu people did have a name for all of their domain, which included Hokkaido along with the
Sakhalin, and parts of northern
Honshu, which was Aynu Mosir (
アィヌ・モシリ), a name taken by the modern Ainu to refer to their traditional homeland.
 "Ainu Mosir" literally translates as "The Land Where People (the Ainu) Live", and it was traditionally used to be contrasted with Kamuy Mosir, "The Land of the
In 1947, Hokkaido became a full-fledged prefecture, but the -ken suffix was never added to its name, so the -dō suffix came to be understood to mean "prefecture". "Hokkai-do-ken" (literally "North Sea Province Prefecture") is therefore, technically speaking, a redundant term, although it is occasionally used to differentiate the government from the island itself. The prefecture's government calls itself the "Hokkaido Government" rather than the "Hokkaido Prefectural Government".