In 2010, an H5N1 highly pathogenic avian influenza virus (HPAIV) was isolated from feces of apparently healthy ducks migrating southward in Hokkaido, the northernmost prefecture of Japan. The H5N1 HPAIVs were subsequently detected in domestic and wild birds at multiple sites corresponding to the flyway of the waterfowl having stopovers in the Japanese archipelago. The Hokkaido isolate was genetically nearly identical to H5N1 HPAIVs isolated from swans in the spring of 2009 and 2010 in Mongolia, but less pathogenic in experimentally infected ducks than the 2009 Mongolian isolate. These findings suggest that H5N1 HPAIVs with relatively mild pathogenicity might be selected and harbored in the waterfowl population during the 2009-2010 migration seasons. Our data provide "early warning" signals for preparedness against the unprecedented situation in which the waterfowl reservoirs serve as perpetual sources and disseminators of HPAIVs.