Tohoku at a Glance


There are six prefectures in Tohoku; Aomori, Iwate, Akita, Miyagi, Yamagata, and Fukushima. Aomori spans the northern tip. Akita is just to the south on the Sea of Japan. Iwate is to the east of Akita on the Pacific. These three prefectures make up what is called northern Tohoku.

Miyagi is south of Iwate on the Pacific side. Yamagata is on the Sea of Japan south of Akita. Fukushima is the farthest south. These three prefectures are called southern Tohoku.


Based on the most recent census, Tohoku’s population is 9.63 million and represents 7% of the population of Japan. Geographically it is 66,889 square kilometres, which makes up 18% of Japan.

The land is mountainous and volcanic. The Ou Mountains divide Tohoku into east and west with sporadic plains and valleys where most of the cities are found. Small towns in Tohoku are suffering serious population decreases and are increasingly weighted toward the elderly.


Just like any other part of Japan, Tohoku has a rainy season in addition to the four seasons, is hit by typhoons, and suffers occasional earthquakes due to its location in an area where plate boundaries meet.

The Sea of Japan side (west of the Ou Mountains) is one of the snowiest regions in the world. However, in the summer, a foehn wind causes extremely hot temperatures.

The northern Pacific side sometimes suffers cold summers that affect crop yield. Southern areas have less snow in the winter and have more sunny days in general.

The average summer temperature is around 23°C, about four degrees cooler than Tokyo. The average winter temperature in Tohoku cities is often blow zero compared to 6°C in Tokyo.



Tohoku hasn’t gained much attention on the main stage of Japanese history.

While Nara and Kyoto established capitals and created rich aristocratic cultures and traditions of literature, the Emishi, represented by different tribes, had autonomous control over most of the Tohoku region. Their livelihood was based on hunting and gathering as well as the cultivation of grains such as millet and barley. Some tribes became allies of the central rule while others remained hostile. The first major attempts to subjugate the Emishi were in the 8th century but were largely unsuccessful against the Emishi’s guerilla tactics. But later at the end of mid-9th century, most of their land in Honshu was conquered by the Japanese and Emishi lost their independence. However, they continued to be influential in local politics as powerful Emishi families who submitted themselves to Japanese rule eventually created feudal domains in the north that became semi-autonomous. In the two centuries following the conquest a few of these became regional states that came into conflict with the central government.

Kamakura to Edo

In the 11th and 12th centuries, the Fujiwara clan in Oshu (which overlaps present day Tohoku) brought their own capital to Hiraizumi (Iwate) in an attempt to create a utopian city. They did prosper for a period of three generations until Fujiwara’s capital was destroyed by the Kamakura Shogunate under Yoritomo.

From the Kamakura era to Edo, Japan entered the Age of Civil Wars (Sengoku jidai) and Tohoku was not excempt from the violence. Local clans conquered or were subjugated during this period. Well known feudal lords included Uesugi in Yonezawa, Aizu Matsudaira in Fukushima, Date in Sendai, Satake in Akita and Nambu in Morioka. Toward the end of the Edo period, major Tohoku clans supported the Edo (Tokyo) Shogunate against southwestern clans seeking to return political power to the imperial court. In this losing battle, Tohoku clans lost their territories and already weak economic foundation with the fall of the Edo Shogunate. They were expelled further north and forced into farming. Tohoku had then already lost a large segment of its population due to famine and continuous wars. It was significantly weakened and its underdevelopment was thus exacerbated with the rise of the Meiji government.


Since then most administrations have been reluctant to invest in industrial and infrastructural development in Tohoku. Tohoku had a late start in industrialization after World War II but the standard of living went up significantly. However, the level of development was dramatically lower than that of the Pacific Belt (the urbanization zone running from Kanto through Osaka to Fukuoka.) Tohoku remains relatively poor and a large number of workers in Tohoku migrate south to those areas.


Tohoku dialects are notorious for their heavy accent. Even locals from different parts of Tohoku sometimes don’t understand each other. Apart from obvious differences in words and expressions, Tohoku dialects feature; mixtures of ‘i’ and ‘e’ sounds, mixtures of ‘shi’ and ‘su’, ‘ji’ and ‘zu,’ and ‘chi’ and ‘tsu,’ unisex expressions (e.g. ‘ore’ is usually for men but it’s not rare for women to call themselves ‘ore’), and heavy usage of voiced consonants.

Tohoku people like to hide their accent and are sometimes rather embarrassed about them in public eyes outside Tohoku. Fewer and fewer young people speak clear local dialects as they are considered ‘uncool’. Tohoku dialects or northern Japanese dialects in general don’t get much popular attention in Japan compared to those of western Japan. Although a number of celebrities from the western part of Japan don’t hesitate to speak publicly in their local dialect, when you hear Tohoku dialects on TV it’s usually for a joking or self-mocking purpose, not so much for regional pride. This difference in attitude seems to be rooted in the region’s backwardness in development and power.


According to the Tohoku Bureau of Economy, Trade and Industry, the total production of theTohoku region in 2005 was 57 trillion yen which accounts for 6% of the entire nation. Agriculture, forestry and fishery represent 3.4%, the mining, manufacturing and construction represent 37.5% and the service industry represent 59.2%.

Although agriculture represents a small ratio in production value, and the industry suffers from a declining workforce and aging workers, it still plays an important role in the nation’s food production and variety.

Japan’s food self-sufficiency was 40% in 2007. Tohoku marked over 100% compared to the 4% of Tokyo and 6% of Osaka. Local food consumption is encouraged and actually expanding throughout Tohoku by an increasing number of farmers markets and local school meal programs thanks to the recent local food movement.


Wikipedia on Tohoku

Wikipedia on Emishi

Tohoku Regional Agricultural Administration Office

Tohoku Bureau of Economy, Trade and Industry (pdf)

Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

Written by Rieko Terui