The (also called Ebisu and Ezo), written with
Chinese characters Chinese characters, also called ''hanzi'' (), are logogram In a written language A written language is the representation of a spoken or gestural language A language is a structured system of communication used by humans, ...
that literally mean "
shrimp Shrimp are Decapoda, decapod crustaceans with elongated bodies and a primarily swimming mode of locomotion – most commonly Caridea and Dendrobranchiata. More narrow definitions may be restricted to Caridea, to smaller species of either group ...

barbarians A barbarian is a human Humans (''Homo sapiens'') are the most abundant and widespread species In biology, a species is the basic unit of biological classification, classification and a taxonomic rank of an organism, as well as a u ...
," constituted an ancient
ethnic group An ethnic group or ethnicity is a grouping of people A people is any plurality of person A person (plural people or persons) is a being that has certain capacities or attributes such as reason, morality, consciousness or self-consciousn ...
of people who lived in parts of
Honshū , historically called , is the largest and most populous main island of Japan Japan ( ja, 日本, or , and formally ) is an island country An island country or an island nation is a country A country is a distinct territory, ...
, especially in the Tōhoku region, referred to as in contemporary sources. The first mention of the Emishi in literature that can be corroborated with outside sources dates to the 5th century AD, in which they are referred to as ("hairy people") in
Chinese Chinese can refer to: * Something related to China China (), officially the People's Republic of China (PRC; ), is a country in . It is the world's , with a of more than 1.4 billion. China spans five geographical and 14 different count ...

records. Some Emishi tribes resisted the rule of various
Japanese Emperor The Emperor of Japan is the head of state A head of state (or chief of state) is the public persona who officially embodies a state (polity), state#Foakes, Foakes, pp. 110–11 " he head of statebeing an embodiment of the State itself o ...
s during the Asuka,
Nara The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) is an independent agency A regulatory agency or regulatory authority, is a Public benefit corporation Public-benefit corporation is a term that has different meanings in different jur ...
and early
Heian period The is the last division of classical History of Japan, Japanese history, running from 794 to 1185. It followed the Nara period, beginning when the 50th emperor, Emperor Kanmu, moved from the capital of Japan to Heian-kyō (modern Kyoto). It i ...
s (7th–10th centuries AD). The origin of the Emishi is disputed. They are often thought to have descended from some tribes of the
Jōmon people is the generic name of several ethnic group, peoples who lived in the Japanese archipelago during the Jōmon period. Today, most Japanese historians raise the possibility that the Jōmon were not a single homogeneous people but consisted of multipl ...
. Some historians believe that they were related to the
Ainu people The Ainu or the Aynu ( ain, アィヌ, , ; ja, アイヌ, ; russian: Áйны, ), also known as the in historical Japanese texts, are an East Asian people, East Asian ethnic group Indigenous peoples, indigenous to Japan, northern Japan, the o ...
, but others disagree with this theory and see them as a completely distinct ethnicity.Aston, W.G., trans. Nihongi: Chronicles of Japan from the Earliest Times to AD 697. Tokyo: Charles E.Tuttle Co., 1972 (reprint of two volume 1924 edition), VII 18. Takahashi, Tomio. ''"Hitakami.''" In Egami, Namio ed. ''Ainu to Kodai Nippon''. Tokyo: Shogakukan, 1982. Recent evidence suggests that the Emishi that inhabited Northern Honshu consisted of several distinct tribes (which included Ainu, non-Yamato Japanese, and admixed people), they united and resisted the expansion of the
Yamato Empire The Emperor of Japan is the monarch and the head of the Imperial House of Japan, Imperial Family of Japan. Under the Constitution of Japan, he is defined as the symbol of the Japanese state and the unity of the Japanese people, and his positio ...
. It is suggested that the majority of Emishi spoke a divergent
Japonic language Japonic or Japanese–Ryukyuan, sometimes also Japanic, is a language family comprising Japanese language, Japanese, spoken in the main islands of Japan, and the Ryukyuan languages, spoken in the Ryukyu Islands. The family is universally accepted ...
, similar to the historical Izumo dialect.


The Emishi were represented by different tribes, some of whom became allies of the Japanese (referred to as and ) and others of whom remained hostile (referred to as ). The Emishi in northeastern Honshū relied on
horse The horse (''Equus ferus caballus'') is a domesticated Domestication is a sustained multi-generational relationship in which one group of organisms assumes a significant degree of influence over the reproduction and care of another group to ...

s in warfare, developing a unique style of warfare in which
horse archery A horse archer is a cavalry Historically, cavalry (from the French word ''cavalerie'', itself derived from "cheval" meaning "horse") are soldier A soldier is a person who is a member of a professional army An army (from Lat ...
hit-and-run tactics Hit-and-run tactics are a tactical doctrine Doctrine (from la, doctrina, meaning "teaching, instruction") is a codification Codification may refer to: *Codification (law), the process of preparing and enacting a legal code *Codification (l ...
proved very effective against the slower contemporary Japanese imperial army that mostly relied on
heavy infantry Heavy infantry consisted of heavily armed Armed (May, 1941–1964) was an United States, American Thoroughbred gelding horse racing, race horse who was the American Horse of the Year in 1947 and Eclipse Award for Outstanding Older Male Horse ...
. The livelihood of the Emishi was based on hunting and gathering as well as on the cultivation of grains such as
millet Millets () are a group of highly variable small-seeded grasses, widely grown around the world as cereal crops or grains for fodder and human food. Millets are important crops in the semiarid tropics of Asia and Africa (especially in Indi ...

barley Barley (''Hordeum vulgare''), a member of the grass family Poaceae () or Gramineae () is a large and nearly ubiquitous family In human society, family (from la, familia) is a group of people related either by consanguinity (by recogn ...

. 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, proved unsuccessful when faced with the guerrilla tactics employed by the Emishi. Following the adoption and development by the imperial forces of horseback archery and the guerilla tactics used by the Emishi, the army soon saw success, leading to the eventual defeat of the Emishi. 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 Sakanoue (written: 坂上 or 坂ノ上) is a Japanese surname. Notable people with the surname include: *, Japanese actress *, Japanese samurai *, Japanese ''waka'' poet *, Japanese ''waka'' poet and son of Sakanoue no Korenori *, Japanese general ...
. The adoption of horseback archery and horseback combat later led to the development of the
samurai were the hereditary military nobility and officer caste of History of Japan#Medieval Japan (1185–1573/1600), medieval and Edo period, early-modern Japan from the late 12th century to their abolition in 1876. They were the well-paid retainer ...

. Following their defeat, the Emishi either submitted themselves to imperial authorities as or , or migrated further north, some to
Hokkaidō , officially Hokkaidō Circuit Prefecture, is the Japanese archipelago, second largest island of Japan and comprises the largest and northernmost Prefectures of Japan, prefecture. The Tsugaru Strait separates Hokkaidō from Honshu; the two islan ...
. By the mid-9th century, most of the land held by the Emishi in Honshū had been conquered, and the Emishi became part of wider Japanese society. 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 Emishi are described in the , which presents a view of the Emishi stemming more from a need to justify the Yamato policy of conquest than from accuracy to the Emishi people:
Amongst these Eastern savages the Yemishi are the most powerful; their men and women live together promiscuously; there is no distinction of father and child. In winter, they dwell in holes; in summer, they live in nests. Their clothing consists of furs, and they drink blood. Brothers are suspicious of one another. In ascending mountains, they are like flying birds; in going through the grass, they are like fleet quadrupeds. When they receive a favour, they forget it, but if an injury is done them they never fail to revenge it. Therefore, they keep arrows in their top-knots and carry swords within their clothing. Sometimes, they draw together their fellows and make inroads on the frontier. At other times, they take the opportunity of the harvest to plunder the people. If attacked, they conceal themselves in the herbage; if pursued, they flee into the mountains. Therefore, ever since antiquity, they have not been steeped in the kingly civilizing influences.


The first mention of the Emishi from a source outside Japan was in the Chinese ''
Book of Song The ''Book of Song'' (''Sòng Shū'') is a historical text of the Liu Song Dynasty The Liu Song dynasty (420–479 CE; ), also known as Former Song (前宋) or Southern Song (南朝宋), was the first of the four Southern Dynasties in China, ...
'' in 478, which referred to them as "hairy people" (). The book refers to "the 55 kingdoms () of the hairy people () of the East" as a report by King Bu — one of the
Five kings of Wa The were kings of ancient Japan Japan ( ja, 日本, or , and formally ) is an island country An island country or an island nation is a country A country is a distinct territory, territorial body or political entity. It is often ...
. The first mention in Japanese of the word ''Emishi'' is in the ''
Nihon Shoki The , sometimes translated as ''The Chronicles of Japan'', is the second-oldest book of classical Japanese history The first human inhabitants of the Japanese archipelago The Japanese archipelago (Japanese: 日本列島, ''Nihon rett ...
'' of 720, where the word appears in the phonetic spelling .1988, (''Kokugo Dai Jiten'', Revised Edition) (in Japanese), Tōkyō: w:Shogakukan, Shogakukan, entry available onlin
This is in the record of Emperor Jimmu, stating that his armed forces defeated a group of Emishi before Jimmu was enthroned as the Emperor of Japan. According to the , Takenouchi no Sukune in the era of Emperor Keikō proposed the subjugation the Emishi of in eastern Japan. In later records, the kanji spelling changed to , composed of the characters for "shrimp" and "barbarian". The use of the "shrimp" spelling is thought to refer to facial hair, like the long whiskers of a shrimp, but this is not certain. The "barbarian" portion clearly described an outsider, living beyond the borders of the emerging empire of Japan, which saw itself as a civilizing influence; thus, the empire was able to justify its conquest. This kanji spelling 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. The kanji spelling may have been adopted from China. The oldest attested pronunciation ''Emishi'' may have come from Old Japanese, perhaps from the word meaning "bowyer" (in reference to an important weapon), however some suggest that it came instead from the Ainu language, Ainu term meaning "sword". The ''yumishi'' theory is problematic, as the Old Japanese term for "bowyer" was (''yuge''), whereas (''yumishi'') is not attested until the 1600s. Meanwhile, the later pronunciation ''Ebisu'' (derived from ''Emishi'') was also spelled as , which also means "warrior", possibly aligning with the proposed Ainu derivation via metonymy wherein the word for "sword" was used to mean "warrior".

Battles with Yamato army

The '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 reached Aguta (present day Akita Prefecture) and Watarishima (Hokkaidō). An alliance with Aguta Emishi, Tsugaru Emishi and Watarishima Emishi was formed by Abe who then stormed and defeated a settlement of the Mishihase (Su-shen in the Aston translation of the ), a people of unknown origin. 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. In 709, the fort of Ideha was created close to present day Akita, Akita, 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 . 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. In 724, Site of Tagajō, Taga Fort was built by Ōno no Azumabito, Ōno no Omi Azumahito near present-day Sendai and became the largest administrative fort in the northeast region of Michinoku. As Chinju , 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 horseriding Emishi who kept up pressure on these forts, but Emishi allies, and , 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

773 AD marked the beginning of the Thirty-Eight Years' War () 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 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, an effort that failed, before the Shiwa Emishi launched a success counterattack 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 Kantō region, Bandō. In the 789 AD Battle of Koromo River (also known as Battle of Sufuse) the Japanese army under Ki no Kosami Seito 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 the 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 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. 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, Kiyowara clan and the 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 clan, Abe and Kiyowara clan, Kiyowara were created by local Japanese 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 their lineage, and most likely were descended from local Japanese families who resided in the Tōhoku (unrelated to the Fujiwara of Kyoto). Both the Abe and Kiyowara families were almost certainly of Japanese descent, both of whom represented , powerful families who had moved into the provinces of Mutsu and Dewa perhaps during the 9th century, though when they emigrated is not known for certain. They were likely Japanese frontier families who developed regional ties with the descendants of the Emishi , and may have been seen as themselves since they had lived in the region for several generations. Importantly, the Abe held the post of Superintendent of the indigenous. This post proves that the Emishi population was seen as different from other Japanese though it is unclear what the responsibilities of the post were. Soon after World War II, mummies of the Northern Fujiwara family in Hiraizumi (the capital city of the Northern Fujiwara), who were thought to have been related to the Ainu, were studied by scientists. However, the researchers concluded that the rulers of Hiraizumi were not related to the ethnic Ainu but more similar to contemporary Japanese of Honshū. 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 northeastern Japan, outside of Yamato rule. However, the reason the study of the Northern Fujiwara was done was the assumption that they were Emishi, which they were not. They were descendants of the northern Fujiwara branch from Tsunekiyo and the Abe clan. They took liberties with giving themselves Emishi titles because they had become rulers of the previous Emishi held lands of the Tohoku.

Ethnic relations

Emishi–Ainu theory

Many theories abound as to the precise ethnic relations of the Emishi to other ethnic groups within Japan; one theory suggests that the Emishi are related to the
Ainu people The Ainu or the Aynu ( ain, アィヌ, , ; ja, アイヌ, ; russian: Áйны, ), also known as the in historical Japanese texts, are an East Asian people, East Asian ethnic group Indigenous peoples, indigenous to Japan, northern Japan, the o ...
. This theory is considered controversial, as many Emishi tribes were known as excellent horse archers and warriors; although the Ainu are also known as archers, they did not use horses and their war-style was clearly different. They also differed in cultural terms. Despite the cultural differences, the
Jōmon people is the generic name of several ethnic group, peoples who lived in the Japanese archipelago during the Jōmon period. Today, most Japanese historians raise the possibility that the Jōmon were not a single homogeneous people but consisted of multipl ...
are considered the ancestors of both Emishi and Ainu in historical progression, and the names for Emishi and Ezo are the same kanji character; it is already known that the name 'Ezo' was used in the early medieval period for the people of the Tsugaru peninsula, and that the Jōmon inhabitants of Hokkaido were ancestral to the Ainu directly, so this is a logical progression according to this theory. Recent studies suggest that Ainu-speaking people joined with the local japonic-speaking peoples to resist the expansion of the Yamato empire. The Matagi are suggested to be the descendants of these Ainu-speakers from Hokkaido which also contributed several Toponymy, toponyms and loanwords, related to geography and certain forest and water animals which they hunted, to the local Japonic-speaking people. Studies of the skeletal features of the Jōmon culture populations has shown unexpected heterogeneity among the native population, suggesting multiple origin and diverse ethnic groups. A 2014 anthropologic and genetic study concluded: "In this respect, the biological identity of the Jōmon period population is heterogeneous, and it may be indicative of diverse peoples who possibly belonged to a common culture, known as the Jomon".

Emishi-Izumo/Zuzu theories

There are several historians and linguists which propose that the Emishi spoke a divergent Japonic languages, Japonic language, most likely the ancient ":ja:ズーズー弁, Zūzū dialect" (the ancestor of Tōhoku dialect) and are a different ethnic group from the Ainu and early Yamato. They were likely ethnic Japanese, which resisted against the Yamato dynasty and allied themselves with other local tribes.小泉保(1998)『縄文語の発見』青土社 (in Japanese) Especially the similarity of the modern Tōhoku dialect and the ancient Umpaku dialect, Izumo dialect, supports that some of the Izumo people, who did not obey Yamato royalty after the delegation of governance, escaped to the Tōhoku region and became the Emishi. Recent studies, such as Boer et al. 2020, concluded that the Emishi predominantly spoke a Japonic language, closely related to the Izumo dialect. Additionally, the evidence of rice cultivation by the Emishi and the use of horses, strengthen the link between ancient Izumo Japanese and the Emishi. According to the theory, the Emishi are the Izumo Japanese, who were pushed away from the Yamato Japanese, who did not accept any concurrence to the imperial rule.

In popular culture

The term "Emishi" is used for the village tribe of the main character Ashitaka in the Hayao Miyazaki animated film ''Princess Mononoke''. The village was a last pocket of Emishi surviving into the Muromachi period (16th century).

See also

* Satsumon culture



External links

Who Were the Emishi?
{{Authority control Oni Ainu history Ethnic groups in Japan Extinct ethnic groups People of Asuka-period Japan People of Nara-period Japan People of Heian-period Japan Tribes of ancient Japan