This article is about the tribes. For the statesman at the Yamato imperial court, see Soga no Emishi.
Family name

Emishi paying homage to Prince Shotoku. Produced in 1324, based on Shotokutaishi e-den e-maki, made in 1069.
Pronunciation Emishi
Region of origin Japanese
Footnotes: from Namio, Egami, et al., Ainu to kodai Nippon. Japan: Shogakukan, 1982, p. 92.

The Emishi or Ebisu (蝦夷) constituted a group of people who lived in northeastern Honshū in the Tōhoku region which was referred to as michi no oku (道の奥) in contemporary sources. The origin of the Emishi is unknown, but they are believed to have descended from the Jōmon people. The first mention of them in literature dates to AD 400, in which they are mentioned as "the hairy people" from the Chinese records. Some Emishi tribes resisted the rule of the Japanese Emperors during the late Nara and early Heian periods (7th–10th centuries AD). Scholars believe that they were natives of northern Honshū and were descendants of those who developed the Jōmon culture in that region. They are thought to have been related to the Ainu.


The Emishi were represented by different tribes, some of whom became allies of the Japanese (fushu, ifu) and others of whom remained hostile (iteki).[1] The Emishi in northeastern Honshū relied on their horses in warfare. They developed a unique style of warfare in which horse archery and hit-and-run tactics proved very effective against the slower contemporary Japanese imperial army that mostly relied on heavy infantry. Their livelihood was based on hunting and gathering as well as on the cultivation of grains such as millet and barley. Recently, it has been thought that they practiced rice cultivation in areas where rice could be easily grown. The first major attempts to subjugate the Emishi in the 8th century were largely unsuccessful. The imperial armies, which were modeled after the mainland Chinese armies, were no match for the guerrilla tactics of the Emishi.[2]

It was the development of horse archery and the adoption of Emishi tactics by the early Japanese warriors that led to the Emishi defeat. The success of the gradual change in battle tactics came at the very end of the 8th century in the 790s under the command of the general Sakanoue no Tamuramaro.[3] They either submitted themselves to imperial authority as fushu and ifu or migrated further north, some to Hokkaidō. 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 subjugated, though powerful, Emishi families created semi-autonomous feudal domains in the north. In the two centuries following the conquest, a few of these domains 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.


The record of Emperor Jimmu in the Nihon Shoki mentions the "Emishi" (愛瀰詩) with ateji—whom his armed forces defeated before he was enthroned as the Emperor of Japan.[4] According to Nihon Shoki, Takenouchi no Sukune in the era of Emperor Keikō proposed that they should subjugate Emishi (蝦夷) of Hitakami no Kuni (日高見国) in eastern Japan.[4] The first mention of Emishi from a source outside Japan was in the Chinese book of Song in 478 which referred to them as "hairy people" (毛人). The book refers to "the 55 kingdoms (国) of the hairy people (毛人) of the East" as a report by King Bu—one of the Five kings of Wa.

Most likely by the 7th century AD, the Japanese used this kanji to describe these people, but changed the reading from "kebito" or "mojin" to "Emishi". Furthermore, during the same century, the kanji character was changed to 蝦夷, which is composed of the kanji for "shrimp" and for "barbarian". This is thought to refer to the long whiskers of a shrimp; however, this is not certain. The barbarian aspect clearly described an outsider, living beyond the border of the emerging empire of Japan, which saw itself as a civilizing influence; thus, the empire was able to justify its conquest. This kanji was first seen in the T'ang sources that describe the meeting with the two Emishi that the Japanese envoy brought with him to China (see below). The kanji character may have been adopted from China, but the reading "Ebisu" and "Emishi" were Japanese in origin and most likely came from either the Japanese "yumishi" which means bowman (their main weapon) or "emushi" which is sword in the Ainu tongue.[5]

Other origins—such as the word, "enchiu", for man in the Ainu tongue—have been proposed. However, the way it sounds is almost phonetically identical to emushi so it may most likely have had an Ainoid origin. "Ainoid" distinguishes the people who are related to, or who are ancestors of, the Ainu, who first emerge as "Ezo" in Hokkaido in the Kamakura period and then become known as Ainu in the modern period.

Battles with Yamato army

The Nihon Shoki's entry for Emperor Yūryaku, also known as Ohatsuse no Wakatakeru, records an uprising, after the Emperor's death, of Emishi troops who had been levied to support an expedition to Korea. Emperor Yūryaku is suspected to be King Bu, but the date and the existence of Yūryaku are uncertain, and the Korean reference may be anachronistic. However, the compilers clearly felt that the reference to Emishi troops was credible in this context.

In 658, Abe no Hirafu's naval expedition of 180 ships reaches Aguta (present day Akita) and Watarishima (Hokkaidō). Alliance with Aguta Emishi, Tsugaru Emishi and Watarishima Emishi is formed by Abe who then storms a settlement of Mishihase (Su-shen in the Aston translation of the Nihongi) a people of unknown origin, who are defeated. This is one of the earliest reliable records of the Emishi people extant. The Mishihase may have been another ethnic group who competed with the ancestors of the Ainu for Hokkaidō. The 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.[6][7]

In 709, the fort of Ideha was created close to present day Akita. 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 shōgun. He used 100 ships from the Japan sea side countries along with soldiers recruited from the eastern countries and defeated the Echigo (present day Akita) Emishi.[8]

In 724, Taga Fort was built by Ōno no Omi Azumahito near present-day Sendai and became the largest administrative fort in the northeast region of Michinoku. As Chinju 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 ifu and fushu were also recruited and promoted by the Japanese to fight against their kinsmen.

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

Thirty-Eight Years' War

The monument for commending Aterui and More at Kiyomizu-dera in Kyoto

773 AD marked the beginning of the Thirty-Eight Years' War (三十八年戦争) with the defection of Korehari no Azamaro, a high ranking Emishi officer of the Japanese army based in Taga Castle. 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 a defensive line from east to west established painstakingly over the past generation. Even Taga Castle was not spared. 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 Ōu Mountains. In 780 the Emishi attacked the Sendai plain, torching Japanese villages there. The Japanese were in a near panic as they tried to tax and recruit more soldiers from the Bandō.[9]

In the 789 AD 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, many of whom drowned.

In 794, many key Shiwa Emishi including Isawa no kimi Anushiko of what is now northern Miyagi prefecture became 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 shogun 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 Years' War was over.[10] 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.

Abe clan, Kiyohara clan and Northern Fujiwara

After their conquest, some Emishi leaders became part of the regional framework of government in the Tōhoku culminating with the Northern Fujiwara regime. This regime and others such as the Abe and Kiyohara were created by local Japanese gōzoku and became regional semi-independent states based on the Emishi and Japanese people. However, even before these emerged, the Emishi people progressively lost their distinct culture and ethnicity as they became minorities.

The Northern Fujiwara were thought to have been Emishi, but there is some doubt as to the lineage of them, and if they were descended from local Japanese families who resided in the Tōhoku (unrelated to the Fujiwara of Kyoto) then the study would confirm this. Both the Abe and Kiyohara families were almost certainly of Japanese descent, both of whom represented gōzoku, 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.

Soon after World War II, mummies of the Northern Fujiwara family in Hiraizumi (the capital city of the Northern Fujiwara), hence 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.[11] 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.

Minamoto no Yoritomo, a descendant of Emperor Seiwa, finally defeated the Northern Fujiwara in 1189 and established the Kamakura shogunate in 1192.

Relationship to the Jōmon and Ainu

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 Tōhoku corresponding to places 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 Tōhoku rather than the "replacement" theory which posits that one population (Jōmon) was replaced by another (Yayoi).[12]

The Emishi were composed of two main populations, the Jōmon Ainoid who were the majority and a smaller group the Kofun united by a common Ainoid language distinct from Japanese. These two populations were not distinguished by contemporaries, but rather by present-day physical anthropologists. Historically, they were seen as one group by contemporaries, mainly those who were descendants of the natives (the Jōmon) called Emishi and Ebisu who also had in their population those of mixed ethnicity, most likely descendants of early Japanese colonists. In addition, the contemporary Japanese for their part looked upon the Emishi as foreigners and barbarians whose lands they desired to conquer and incorporate into the Japanese state.

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 by which 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 Nihon Shoki as "Japanese captives" of the Emishi.

The people 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 Hokkaidō. Historically, they became a distinctly different population from those who were conquered and integrated into the Japanese state. The Emishi (not including them) became more like other ethnic Japanese while the Hokkaidō Emishi, known by contemporaries as Watarishima Emishi, or "Emishi who crossed to the island", eventually became known as the Ezo, and later in the modern period the Ainu.

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- 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 in which 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 Tōhoku accompanied the minister Sakaibe no Muraji to Tang China. The emperor was delighted with the two Emishi because of their "strange" physical appearance. This emperor 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. 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 和蝦夷 niki-emishi, i.e. "gentle Emishi"), those who remained as enemies staunchly opposed to Yamato (known as 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 Hokkaidō). All Chinese documents from the T'ang and Song refer to them as having a separate state north of Japan and call them 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.


  1. Takahashi, pp. 110–113.
  2. Farris, William Wayne, Heavenly Warriors (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1992), p. 117.
  3. Farris, pp. 94–95, 108–113.
  4. 1 2 朝廷軍の侵略に抵抗 (in Japanese). Iwate Nippo. September 24, 2004. Retrieved March 1, 2011.
  5. Takahashi, Takashi, 蝦夷 (Emishi) (Tokyo: Chuo koron, 1986), pp.22–27. Good discussion on the possible origins of the name.
  6. Aston, W. G. trans. Nihongi (Tokyo: Charles E. Tuttle), pp. 252, 260, 264.
  7. Nakanishi, Susumu, エミシとは何か(Emishi to wa nanika), (Tokyo:Kadokawa shoten,1993), pp. 134–140. Modern analysis of the expedition.
  8. Farris,p.86. Farris's account does not have all the details, but is a readily available source for the war's chronology in English.
  9. Farris, pp. 90–96.
  10. Takahashi, pp. 168–196. Very detailed analysis of the end of the war and the effects on the former Emishi territory.
  11. Farris, p.83.
  12. Ossenberg, Nancy (see reference) has the best evidence of this relationship with the Jōmon. Also, a newer study, Ossenberg, et al., "Ethnogenesis and craniofacial change in Japan from the perspective of nonmetric traits" (Anthropological Science v.114:99-115) is an updated analysis published in 2006 which confirms this finding.


Look up 蝦夷 or emishi in Wiktionary, the free dictionary.
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