At the start of the Meiji Era (1868-1912), the new government debated on what to rename Ezo-chi, the northern lands inhabited by the indigenous Ainu people.

Takeshiro Matsuura (1818-1888), an explorer and geographer who held a key government post at the time as "kaitaku hangan" (chief magistrate for northern lands development), came up with six proposals--Hitakamido, Hokkaido, Kaihokudo, Kaitodo, Tohokudo and Chishimado. (The "do" in each of these names is the equivalent of "prefecture" in the rest of Japan.)

The government chose Hokkaido. Originally, Matsuura wrote this name with kanji characters denoting "northern lands of the Ainu." But the government changed the kanji to those for "north" and "sea."

"Matsuura's top pick was none other than Hokkaido--written the way he did--which amply proved his respect for the Ainu people," said Mei Yamamoto, 42, a curator at the Matsuura Takeshiro Kinenkan memorial museum in Matsuura's birth city of Matsuzaka, Mie Prefecture.

Matsuura grew up dreaming of traveling far and wide. He was almost 16 when he went on his first long journey. "I am going to Edo (present-day Tokyo), Kyo (Kyoto), Osaka, Nagasaki and To, or Tenjiku (China)," he wrote to a friend, and left for Edo without telling his family.

His parents ordered him home, but could not quash his wanderlust. Matsuura later spent nine years touring Honshu, Shikoku and Kyushu and went as far as Tsushima, hoping to get to the Korean Peninsula.

A robust walker who could cover 80 kilometers a day, he was nicknamed "a man with iron legs."

In the final years of the Edo Period (1603-1867), Matsuura made six survey trips to Ezo-chi. There, he witnessed acts of outright plundering by the feudal Matsumae clan and unscrupulous merchants. They seized Ainu land, put the people to forced labor and abducted young women.

Matsuura reported the situation to the bakufu government, and later urged the Meiji government to remedy the wrong. But when he was not heeded, he resigned as chief magistrate.

A poem he wrote after retirement went to the effect, "Beware/ Our Ainu neighbors are no different from us/ They are part of our population." He assumed the pen-name of Bakakusai, which phonetically translates as "idiotic"--his scathing putdown of the idiocy of working as a bureaucrat.

Reading about his life and visiting the home of his birth, I kept picturing him as an adventure-loving eternal youth. His passion for exploring unknown places never waned even in his final years.

This year marks the 200th anniversary of his birth. Were he still alive today, where would his "iron legs" take him? Just thinking about this thrills me.

--The Asahi Shimbun, Aug. 1

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Vox Populi, Vox Dei is a popular daily column that takes up a wide range of topics, including culture, arts and social trends and developments. Written by veteran Asahi Shimbun writers, the column provides useful perspectives on and insights into contemporary Japan and its culture.