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The second largest and northernmost of the four main islands of Japan, Hokkaido is Japan's largest prefecture and the least developed of the islands.
Hokkaido covers 78,040 km2, which is approximately 21 per cent of Japan's total land area, and has a population of 5,507,456 (2010), which is about 4.3 per cent of Japan's total population. The island is bounded by the Sea of Japan to the west and the Sea of Okhotsk to the north, where it is separated from the Russian island of Sakhalin by La Perouse Strait; to the south it is separated from the main island, Honshu, by Tsugaru Strait and the Pacific Ocean lies to the east and south.
Hokkaido was originally settled by the Ainu, believed to be the first inhabitants of Japan. Formerly known as Yezo, the island was largely undeveloped until the Meiji restoration of 1868, after which a period of modernization along American lines followed together with an influx of Japanese immigrants.
Sapporo was established as the base for the colonization of the island and was appointed as capital of the Hokkaido prefecture.
Sapporo is the administrative, industrial, commercial and cultural center of Hokkaido; it is Japan's fourth largest city (2011 population 1,921,831). The city was laid out in 1871 and is fashioned after a modern American city. It lies in the south-west, 800 km north of Tokyo and is the seat of Hokkaido University, founded in 1918. It is also the center of a growing tourist industry, which is fostered by the cool summers and winter skiing. The city was host to the 1972 Winter Olympic Games.
Hakodate is the second largest city (2011 population 279,851). It lies on the southern tip of the island and is the chief port and center of communications with Honshu.
Hokkaido is very mountainous and heavily forested, so only 10 per cent of the land is under cultivation. With relatively poor soil and a cool climate, the land is more suitable for grazing. Hokkaido is Japan's largest dairying area. Coastal and deep sea fishing is also an important industry and Hokkaido supplies 20 per cent of Japan's annual tonnage. Other industries include lumber, pulp and paper, brewing, dairy produce and coal (the island has major coal deposits). Farming is also productive; rice is the main crop followed by wheat, barley, oats, sugar beet, hay and white potatoes.