A potted history

A potted history

Anthony Pearce looks into Sapporo’s rich and varied history, which takes in everything from agriculture and education to sport, war and, of course, beer


Sapporo, the largest city on Japan’s northern island of Hokkaido, was originally a region with many Ainu settlements. The first records of a settlement in the Ishikari Plain date from the late 17th century, in historical documents about conflicts between the Ainu people and the Japanese. Around this time, trading posts were established in the region to trade with retainers from the Matsumae clan, and trade between the two groups began to take place. After this, the Edo shogunate made Sapporo the base for developing Hokkaido, because of its accessibility to inland areas, the Sea of Japan, and the Pacific Ocean via the Ishikari River. Following the Meiji Restoration, the Hokkaido Development Commission (the Kaitakushi) was established ion 1869, and the Meiji government began construction of the main government office as a base for them, which became the foundation of the current city centre of Sapporo.

During this period, Odori Park was first established as a large-scale firebreak that divided the centre of the city into the government district in the north and the commercial district in the south. Today, the likes of the Sapporo Lilac Festival and the world famous Sapporo Snow Festival are held in the park, which is also home to the city’s iconic TV Tower, opened in 1957.

In 1870, the Kaitakushi approached the American government for assistance in developing the land, with Horace Capron, who served as secretary of agriculture under president Ulysses S Grant appointed as O-yatoi gaikokujin – a common practice of the period which meant foreign experts, usually from the UK or US, were hired in Japan to teach new techniques. A demand for a specialised educational institutions to train the leaders of Hokkaido’s development led to the establishment of the Sapporo Agricultural College – today, Hokkaido University. William S Clark, who was the president of the Massachusetts Agricultural College (now the University of Massachusetts Amherst) became the founding vice-president of the college. To understand the influence on the region, you need to look no further than the Hokkaido government office building, built in American Neo-Baroque style with red bricks in 1888, two years after the island’s government was founded.

At this time, the city’s most famous export was born; Sapporo Beer was created by Seibei Nakagawa, who had left Japan at the age of 17 – when doing so was strictly forbidden – and learnt the craft of brewing in Germany, which he put to good use back in Japan in 1875. These developments in agriculture, education and technology, coupled with the construction of the country’s third major railway in 1880, which linked Sapporo to the port city of Otaru, led to greater migration to the ‘new’ region. In 1918, the iconic Sapporo Street Car – currently referred to as the shiden – first began operating. The city became increasingly well connected, with Okadama Airport opening in 1942.

Like much of Japan, Sapporo was devastated by the Second World War. The resulting firestorm from incendiary and fragmentation cluster bombs dropped on the city left tens of thousands of people homeless. A sizeable portion of the city was destroyed, with a considerable rebuilding process needed following the war. From here, the city gradually grew into the neon-lit metropolis we see today.

After hosting the 1972 Winter Olympics, which was the first to be held in Asia, the city has become increasingly well-known outside of Japan, with the Sapporo Dome, which opened in 2001, hosting three games during the 2002 FIFA World Cup and two games during the 2019 Rugby World Cup. It is also one of the planned football venues for the delayed Tokyo Olympics, which will take place this year, having been pushed back from 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The annual Snow Festival, which features giant sculptures carved from packed snow, attracts more than two million tourists each year, while the further growth of Sapporo Beer and the city’s unique style of ramen noodles are just two more reasons why Sapporo is becoming increasingly popular with tourists visiting Japan.