Thomas Wright Blakiston (1832 – 1891) was born in Hampshire, England. His first career was in the military, serving with the Royal Artillery in Ireland, Nova Scotia and the Crimea. In 1857 he joined an expedition that explored the Canadian Rockies. From there it was off to Canton where he commanded a detachment of artillery in the war of 1859 with China. Whilst there he organised and led an expedition to explore the middle and upper reaches of the Yangtse River. He produced a chart of the river for which he was recognised by the Royal Geographical Society.
Winding up in Shanghai and not enjoying either the heat or the mosquitoes he thought it would be nice to go somewhere cooler and took a ship to Hakodate on the southern tip of Hokkaido. When he arrived there towards the end of 1861 there were only twenty foreigners in the town. This was seven years prior to the Meiji Restoration that would open Japan to a greater measure of foreign influence. He resigned his commission and stayed for twenty-three years.
He went into business in sawmilling and coastal shipping to support his passions – exploration and ornithology, and he seems to have been more successful at his hobbies than he was at business. Hokkaido was, at the time, the Japanese frontier, far less developed than further south. He made some prodigious journeys and seemed to take all sorts of hardships in his stride. For instance, in 1873, he took ship on the PMSS Ariel …
When Captain Newell and myself slid down a rope from the fore chains, the vessel had sunk so far aft that the water was on the upper deck forward of the paddle boxes, and the whole after hurricane deck was submerged. Fortunately there was little swell, so that all the boats in the darkness of the night reached the shore, and chanced to strike parts of the beach between the reefs. The headman of the little village of Toyoma whom I found with the assistance of a fisherman and his paper lantern, made arrangements for the accommodation of the eighty-four shipwrecked people, and the villagers were all extremely civil. (Japan in Yezo).
All that was visible of the good ship Ariel the following morning was the top of a mast. Arrangements were made to ship the survivors to Tokyo but Blakiston preferred the more direct alternative of walking home to Hakodate. He needed an official passport to make such a journey. This was denied him, he set off nonetheless. Over the next fortnight he travelled 352 miles, an average of 27 miles a day through the sleet and snow of early winter.
Blakiston contributed specimens to museums in Japan, Britain and the US, and published papers in the ornithological literature of the day. One of the birds he collected was a very large owl.
But his most significant contribution was to recognise that there is a distinct difference between the fauna of Honshu and Hokkaido. Although the Straits of Tsugaru are not quite 20 km wide at their narrowest point and can freeze, animals to the north are related to northern Asian species, whereas those on Honshu to the south were related to those from southern Asia. He published his findings in 1883, the zoogeographic divide has come to be known as Blakiston’s line.
Now you know why I interject these biographical notes between leaving Honshu and arriving in Hokkaido. We have crossed the line and left the Macaque and Serow and a good number of birds behind. In the next week or so I very much hope to get a glimpse of the world’s largest owl, Blakiston’s Fish Owl and I very much hope that I don’t have to slide down a rope from the fore chains …
(The biographical material is largely drawn from a paper published in 1999 (Japan Library) in Britain and Japan: Biographical Portraits, Vol.lll. by Sir Arthur Henry Hugh Cortazzi.)