Tokyo’s thriving Ainu community keeps traditional culture alive

Tokyo’s thriving Ainu community keeps traditional culture alive Mina Sakai, the leader of the Ainu Rebels, a dynamic music ensemble of young Ainu performers. PHOTO BY KOHJI SHIIKI

TOKYO —

They are rough, hairy forest barbarians who hunt deer and catch salmon with primitive tools. They speak an alien tongue that no one even knows how to write. When one of their women get married, they make them tattoo their lips.

Though extreme, this is the view many “pure” Japanese hold of their cousins to the north — the Ainu. Japan’s native peoples may have once conformed to this stereotype, but don’t be surprised if one of your colleagues, neighbors — or even the besuited, clean-shaven gent lining up every morning for the 8:39 express to Shibuya — is of Ainu descent.

The majority of Ainu remain in Hokkaido — a 2006 government survey put their numbers on Japan’s northern island at 23,782 — and estimates in greater Tokyo range from 2,500 to 10,000. The true figure, however, could be much higher, as many Ainu lack the self-assurance to acknowledge their identity.

“The thing that hurt most about being Ainu was the self-loathing — I was negative about myself and thought I was ugly,” says Mina Sakai, the leader of the Ainu Rebels, a dynamic music ensemble of young Ainu performers.

Sakai, 26, was born in Obihiro, Hokkaido, to a Japanese mother and Ainu father. She says it took many years to come to terms with her identity and deal with the discrimination she faced in her hometown.

“There was strong prejudice against Ainu, especially in Obihiro, and I hid the fact that I was Ainu,” she tells an interviewer at the Ainu Culture Center, located a few blocks from Tokyo Station. “For example, when I went shopping, people accused me of shoplifting. Whenever I got into an argument with someone and they called me ‘Ainu,’ I wasn’t able to say anything back.”

While Sakai believes the situation has improved, she tells of a friend in Hokkaido who was turned down for a job because the interviewer took a dislike to her appearance. Ainu tend to be strongly built, taller then the average Japanese, with Caucasian features and more pronounced facial and body hair. Such discrimination has also been known to nip burgeoning young love in the bud. Indeed, as Sakai’s elder brother, Atsushi, also a Rebel, raps in one song: “One day my girlfriend told me over the phone, ‘Ainu people are creepy.’”

Despite having experienced discrimination due to her mixed parentage, Sakai embraces her Ainu identity. She likens the Japanese majority’s view of native peoples to the situation in the United States.

“Black people are seen as blacks. Even ‘halves,’ such as Tiger Woods, are seen as black,” she says. Sakai talks of two encounters — both of which occurred overseas — that emboldened her sense of Ainu identity.

“I visited a group of indigenous people on a high school trip to Canada,” she says. “They and their songs were cool and left a deep impression. They had such positive energy. This was when I realized I had a choice… I could be like them, there’s no shame in being an Ainu.”
The second encounter was in 2003, when she met her husband, Lonnie, a half-Chinese American born and raised in Japan, on an exchange tour to Australia that involved a Kanto Ainu group and Australian aborigines.

“When I met Lonnie, he told me that I was fine just as I was,” Sakai says. “This freed me from any negative feelings I had.”

When the pair wed in Tokyo in April 2005, Sakai used black lipstick to recreate the traditional Ainu mouth tattoo — her way of reclaiming a sense of Ainu beauty and tradition that had been outlawed by the Japanese government.

Ainu culture established around 12 or 13th century

It is believed that Ainu culture was established across Hokkaido, then known as Ezo, around the 12th or 13th century. The Ainu were hunter-gatherers who had their way of life decimated by the gradual migration of Wajin, as “mainland” Japanese were known. According to a government census, the number of Ainu in Hokkaido dropped from 26,256 in 1807 to 16,272 in 1873. It’s easy to figure out why.

When the Tokugawa shogunate took control of Ezo in the mid-1850s, the government attempted to pacify the Ainu by offering them trade and protection while assimilating them into the larger Japanese culture. The Ainu were forced to change their hairstyles and clothes, were banned from wearing earrings and tattoos, and were prohibited from religious customs such as performing the ceremony to return the spirits of bears — sacred in the Ainu religion — to the world of the kamuy (gods). Many Ainu were forced to work, essentially as slaves, for Wajin, resulting in the breakup of families and the introduction of smallpox, measles, cholera and tuberculosis into their community.

In 1869, the new Meiji government renamed Ezo as Hokkaido and unilaterally incorporated it into Japan. It banned the Ainu language, took Ainu land away, and prohibited salmon fishing and deer hunting. The enactment of the ironically named Hokkaido Former Aborigine Protection Law in 1899 removed even more land and further impoverished the Ainu.

In the first decades of the 20th century, some Ainu started to take a stand against the Wajin by calling for independence. Over the next half-century, various projects to redress disparities and preserve Ainu culture improved the lives of Japan’s indigenous peoples.

Despite these gains, Ainu continued to suffer from a prevailing ignorance. In 1986, Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone infamously remarked, “Japan is a racially homogenous nation, and there is no discrimination against ethnic minorities with Japanese citizenship.” This comment infuriated and politicized many Ainu. In 1994, an activist named Shigeru Kayano became the first Ainu to win a seat in the Diet. Kayano pushed Ainu issues — even posing parliamentary questions in his native language — leading to the enactment of a law promoting aboriginal culture.

In September 2007, the UN General Assembly passed the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, prompting the government, which feared international criticism ahead of the G-8 summit in Hokkaido last July, to pass a resolution recognizing the Ainu as an indigenous people of Japan.

To coincide with the gathering of political leaders, Sakai helped organize the Indigenous Peoples’ Summit in Ainu Mosir 2008, an event attended by aborigines from around the world. In addition to celebrating traditional culture with music and dance, the proceedings had a serious side. Participants demanded the government grant the Ainu rights of self-determination and control over natural resources. They also called for educational improvements, including the adoption of the Ainu tongue as an official language of Japan and the creation of history textbooks from Ainu perspectives. Most significantly, they demanded a formal apology for past wrongs.

But is the message getting across to the politicians in Nagatacho?

Hiroshi Imazu is a lower house lawmaker from the ruling Liberal Democratic Party who led a bipartisan group to draft the resolution recognizing the Ainu. Yet despite his pro-aborigine stance, he rejects out of hand the notion of an apology.

“Japan’s situation is different to that of Australia or America,” Imazu told Metropolis in an interview at his Diet office. “I don’t think an apology is necessary and I think the Diet resolution is enough to show our feelings [toward the Ainu people].”

Survives through music and dance

Ainu culture lives most vibrantly through its music and dance. Epic yukar deity songs are performed at religious ceremonies and have been passed down from generation to generation. Unique Ainu musical instruments include the tonkori, a zither with five strings made from a species of nettle, or whale, deer or reindeer tendons, and the mukkuri, a type of Jew’s harp. Ainu dance can be playful or spiritual, and is usually only performed by women.

Sakai and her brother helped found the Ainu Rebels in the summer of 2006 to have some fun studying their native culture, but the band evolved into a performance group fusing traditional song and dance with rock and hip-hop.

While some elders disapprove of the Rebels, accusing them of debasing traditional culture, most are supportive, seeing, as Sakai does, how they are not just keeping the culture alive, but taking it to a new audience.

“It’d be a bit dull if it was just traditional music, but we get through to young people by playing club events,” she says.

Other well-known Ainu artists include Oki, a tonkori player who leads the psychedic-tinged Dub Ainu Band, and the Ainu Art Project, a network of dancers, singers and storytellers that was a precursor to the Ainu Rebels.

The Rebels themselves have until now concentrated on live shows, but a CD is in the pipeline for release later this year. Almost all of their songs are in Ainu, with Japanese only used to rap their message home.

“Make an Ainu movie for us! Please document our voices for future generations!”

This plea from Shizue Ukaji, a huci, or female Ainu elder, got the reels spinning for “Tokyo Ainu,” a documentary set for release in early 2010. The movie is directed by Hiroshi Moriya, a former TBS documentary maker who has produced films on indigenous peoples in such far-flung locales as Siberia and the Amazon. Made without narration, the film lets the vivacious Ainu of Tokyo tell of their own travails and aspirations. English subtitles are planned in the hope that the movie might generate interest on the overseas film festival circuit.

A highlight of the film is the Charanke Matsuri, a celebration of Okinawan and Ainu music, dance and culture held every November in Nakano. The festival is organized by the Ainu Utari Renraku-kai, one of several Ainu communities in Tokyo, a group centered on the Rera Cise restaurant.

Maoki Sato, head of the film’s production committee, hopes the movie will increase awareness among Wajin that Ainu are living among them. He also points to a lost way of life.

“Ainu have a different culture and civilization to Wajin,” Sato said. “They get what they need from nature and share it among the community, giving to the old and needy.”

The undoubted star of the film, however, is an Ainu elder whose only need is to preserve the traditions of his people in these modern times.

Haruzo Urakawa, 70, is a bull of a man who has worked the fields since he was out of diapers. Brought up on a Hokkaido farm, Urakawa, the younger brother of Ukaji, has held, among other roles, the chairmanship of the Kanto Utari Association. Such is his status in the Ainu community that the film was originally going to be titled Haruzo, an Ainu.

The assiduous Urakawa (pictured below left) has singlehandedly constructed three cise — traditional Ainu homes with thatched roofs—in the Kanto region. He leveled the land to build his third such home, dubbed Kamuy Mintara (“Playground of the Gods”), as a venue for Ainu cultural exchange in Kimitsu, Chiba Prefecture.

Kamuy Mintara is a place of peace, bedecked with deerskin rugs, wooden effigies of bears, salmon-skin shoes, inau prayer wands, and mounted deer and pheasant — all symbolizing the Ainu’s sustainable, spiritually focused coexistence with nature.

“So much could be lost if I didn’t do what I’m doing,” Urakawa says. “I hope that people will come to stay at Kamuy Mintara to help out with the facility and the land.”

With his long wispy beard and hands as big as a bear’s paws, Urakawa, who still wrestles in sumo tournaments, could almost be the bear god that stands guard out front.

This doyen of the Ainu people stubbornly refuses to fit into a society in which he sees much wrong. Like Sakai, he too is a bit of a rebel.

This story originally appeared in Metropolis magazine (www.metropolis.co.jp).

  • 0

    zaichik

    It would be good to see Ainu culture come to be valued in Japan in the same way that Maori culture has come to be valued in NZ.

  • 0

    Osakadaz

    The Japanese are kidding themselves if they think the suppression of Ainu culture and theft of their lands and economic domination over the Ainu is any different to the cultural genocide suffered by indigenous folk in Australia,America or anywhere else.

  • 0

    bebert

    I wouldn't say a population of less than 50,000 is exactly thriving. But to be positive for once, hopefully JT will post an article announcing the release of their first CD.

  • 0

    Nessie

    They are rough, hairy forest barbarians who hunt deer and catch salmon with primitive tools. They speak an alien tongue that no one even knows how to write. When one of their women get married, they make them tattoo their lips. Though extreme, this is the view many “pure” Japanese hold of their cousins to the north

    Oh please give it a rest. This is ridiculous.

  • 0

    Nessie

    I wonder if any Ainu have contributed to the mitochondrial gene mapping project? It would be interesting to get an indication of how their ancestors travelled to Hokkaido.

    Well seing as how Hokkaido's been an island for a while now, my money's on boat.

    The Okhotsk was once a thriving trading area, and Ainu artifacts include items traded from mainland Asia.

  • 0

    bebert

    Though extreme, this is the view many “pure” Japanese hold of their cousins to the north

    I guess I had to add this. This is another example of a Westerner (and very likely not a Christian) taking umbrage at the Japanese sense of identity. I wonder if Mr. Sharp's people have a sense of identity that needs scrutiny. The irony is that the article celebrates the Ainu people, while taking a contemptuous view of the Japanese. Go back to Brooklyn, Mr. Sharp.

  • 0

    NeoJamal

    It would be good to see Ainu culture come to be valued in Japan in the same way that Maori culture has come to be valued in NZ.

    So you would like to see Ainu leech off hundreds of million dollars from the government and condemn themselves to a life of drink?

    They are rough, hairy forest barbarians who hunt deer and catch salmon with primitive tools. They speak an alien tongue that no one even knows how to write. When one of their women get married, they make them tattoo their lips. Though extreme, this is the view many “pure” Japanese hold of their cousins to the north

    as far as the common Japanese know, these people don't exist.

  • 0

    Nessie

    The mitochondrial DNA would help show the relationship between Ainu and continental Asian populations. I'm curious whether they're more closely related to caucasians arriving through Russia,…

    The Caucasian theory was floated for a while, in light of the light skin and hairiness, but I've read that this theory has lost ground.

    I thought the Ainu were the aboriginal inhabitants of all Japan but the genographic project seems to indicate otherwise.

    Like the Hawaiians in Hawaii and the Maori in New Zealand, the Ainu were not the first people in Hokkaido.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ainu_people

    "The origins of the Ainu have not been fully determined. They have often been considered Jōmon-jin, natives to Japan from the Jōmon period. "The Ainu lived in this place a hundred thousand years before the Children of the Sun came" is told in one of their Yukar Upopo (Ainu legends).[1]

    Ainu culture dates from around 1200 CE[2] and recent research suggests that it originated in a merger of the Okhotsk and Satsumon cultures.[3] Their economy was based on farming as well as hunting, fishing and gathering.[4]

    Full-blooded Ainu are mostly fair-skinned, with the men generally having dense hair development.[5] Many early investigators proposed a Caucasian ancestry although recent DNA tests have found no traces of Caucasian ancestry. [6]

    Genetic testing of the Ainu people has shown them to belong mainly to Y-haplogroup D.[7] The only places outside of Japan in which Y-haplogroup D is common are Tibet and the Andaman Islands in the Indian Ocean.[8] In a study by Tajima et al. (2004), two out of a sample of sixteen (or 12.5%) Ainu men were found to belong to Haplogroup C3, which is the most common Y-chromosome haplogroup among the indigenous populations of the Russian Far East and Mongolia;[7] Hammer et al. (2006) tested another sample of four Ainu men and found that one of them belonged to haplogroup C3.[9] Some researchers have speculated that this minority of Haplogroup C3 carriers among the Ainu may reflect a certain degree of unidirectional genetic influence from the Nivkhs, a traditionally nomadic people of northern Sakhalin Island and the adjacent mainland, with whom the Ainu have long-standing cultural interactions.[7] According to Tanaka et al. (2004), their mtDNA lineages mainly consist of haplogroup Y (21.6%) and haplogroup M7a (15.7%).[10] Mitochondrial DNA haplogroup Y is otherwise found mainly among Nivkhs, as well as at lower frequency among Koreans, Mongols, Tungusic peoples, Koryaks, Itelmens, and Austronesians; haplogroup M7a, on the other hand, is found elsewhere almost exclusively among Japanese, Ryukyuans, and Koreans.[11][12] A recent reevaluation of cranial traits suggests that the Ainu resemble the Okhotsk more than they do the Jōmon.[13] This agrees with the reference to the Ainu culture being a merger of Okhotsk and Satsumon cultures referenced above.

    Some have speculated that the Ainu may be descendants of a prehistoric group of humans that also produced indigenous Australian peoples. In Steve Olson's book Mapping Human History, page 133, he describes the discovery of fossils dating back 10,000 years, representing the remains of the Jōmon, a group whose facial features more closely resemble those of the indigenous peoples of New Guinea and Australia. After a new wave of immigration, probably from the Korean Peninsula some 2,300 years ago, of the Yayoi people, the Jōmon were pushed into northern Japan. Genetic data suggest that modern Japanese are descended from both the Yayoi and the Jōmon."

  • 0

    Pukey2

    I've noticed that certain famous Japanese people don't look like the typical wajin, eg Hirai Ken and Abe Hiroshi. I wonder whether they have any Ainu heritage.

  • 0

    OssanAmerica

    Excellent copy & paste job. Nothing more to say about the Ainu after that.

  • 0

    toguro

    OssanAmerica: I agree. How do you top that?

  • 0

    timeon

    the girl is hot, I wouldn't discriminate her :) any drumming circle program?

  • 0

    earthconnection

    what a fascinating story: I was particularly interested in the parallels with Australian indigenous people and their issues, particularly as i wish to travel to Hokkaido this year to present a fashion show using sustainable industrial hemp, Australian designed clothing. The designer (my friend and colleague)is well aware of indigenous issues as she speaks our local indigenous language and sings with an indigenous group, who played for the Ainu Festival 10 years ago and wishes to return and play again this year.

    I feel strongly that our Ainu friends in Japan are coming to the fore at this time, as great changes are happening on our planet, and more than ever before we need to harvest the wisdom of our indigenous people and our elders to guide us through these times.

    I look forward to seeing the film, very much.

    thankyou again for bringing it to our attention

  • 0

    OneForAll

    Yes a return to the Gods. Nature worship. Maybe even a sacrifice like the incas had...I don't think so... However, a little more wonder than science gives is welcomed. A sense of beauty and thankfulness to the creator is a good thing working as good stewards. Great to hear the Ainu song and dance. The magic.

  • 0

    oberst

    next time I date a " hairy " Japanese babe, I'll be sure to ask if she's an Ainu AFTERWARD !!

  • 0

    ThonTaddeo

    Always great to see another article about Ainu culture and present-day efforts to revive it. It's a shame that so many Ainu people are still embarrassed to reveal their ancestry, even in this multicultural age.

    But the first paragraph is a little off-putting. Nobody still thinks that way -- the primitive tools are gone; orthographies for the language have existed for over a century; the mouth tattoos have, thankfully, given way to modern beauty methods. Anyone from Tokyo who still thinks this needs to be educated!

    I remember reading about Mina Sakai right here on this site a few years ago and am anxiously awaiting the release of their CD. The author doesn't mention it, but she has the perfect name for a Japanese-Ainu child: aside from sounding perfectly normal in Japanese (and many other languages), "Mina" means "smile" in Ainu. I'm hoping that CD puts a smile of pride on the faces of Ainu kids all over the country.

  • 0

    70x4060d

    The thing that hurt most about being Ainu was the self-loathing — I was negative about myself and thought I was ugly

    That's really terrible. Look, buy me a couple two tree beers and I'll say you're beautiful.

  • 0

    70x4060d

    Sorry, I take that back. Saw some pics on Google Images. She was right about the self-loathing.

  • 0

    josebove

    The article might have mentioned the Ainu Rebels upcoming event:

    http://www.ainurebels.com/

  • 0

    OssanAmerica

    On second viewing, I now agree with timeon.

  • 0

    fuzzycoconutz

    It's a shame that the mouth tattooing has been replaced by modern beauty methods. Everyone now looks the same. Everyone wears the same clothes. The same hair. The same glasses. Nike. Adidas. Gap. The Northern Face. Edwin. Prada. Guchi. Lip stick. Eye shadow. Fake eye lashes. Blush. Diamond rings. Shirt and tie.

  • 0

    timeon

    that should hurt like hell

  • 0

    fuzzycoconutz

    no pain, no gain

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