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This is a past article published in Hiragana Times. Each Japanese paragraph is followed by its English translation or vise versa, and furigana are placed above each kanji to make Japanese study even easier. [Magazine Sample] [Subscription Page]

Ainu Have Made New Strides in Passing on their Culture

[From December Issue 2013]

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Ainu traditional dance

Including Sapporo, 80% of place names in Hokkaido have their origin in the Ainu language. These kind of place names show us that “the Ainu have lived in Hokkaido,” but they don’t show us how they lived, or tell us anything about their present way of life.

Ainu are an indigenous people of Japan. Wajin, or ethnic Japanese (other than Ainu), settled in Hokkaido in order to fish its waters in the Edo era (17-19th centuries) about 400 years ago. Analysis of excavated earthenware shows that Ainu already lived in and around Hokkaido some 20,000 years ago.

Ainu made their living mainly through hunting and fishing. Trading animal skins and dried fish, it’s known that they traded with what are now Russia, China and Japan’s Honshu. Free trade, however, was banned by wajin during the Edo era. During the Meiji era (19-20th centuries), Ainu culture was destroyed; the use of Japanese language was made compulsory and hunting and fishing, their main livelihood, was restricted by the infrastructure imposed by the country’s modernization policies.

Because of this history, the Japanese government has recognized the state’s responsibility to ensure the preservation of Ainu culture and has decided to build the national “Symbolic Space for Ethnic Harmony” in Shiraoi Town, Hokkaido. It’s scheduled to be completed before the Tokyo Olympics of 2020.

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Entrance to the Museum

YOSHIDA Kenji of the Comprehensive Ainu Policy Office at the Cabinet Secretariat explains the role of the building, “Ainu culture and history can be studied at this facility and memorial services for remains that have been kept at universities can be performed in this space. As well as being a place in which the spirit of the Ainu people can be housed, it is also a symbol of respect and harmony between different ethnic groups.”

The Ainu Museum, founded in 1984 and run by Ainu themselves, stands beside Lake Poroto in Shiraoi and has some 180,000 visitors a year. There you can enjoy performances of traditional dancing and music and learn about Ainu culture by trying your hand at activities like cooking or playing musical instruments.

Affiliated with a Finnish museum that introduces the culture of the indigenous Sami people of Northern Europe, the Ainu Museum has many visitors from abroad. There were eight possible sites on which to construct the Symbolic Space, however, the existence of this museum was the deciding factor in the selection of Shiraoi.

This museum has played an important role in passing on a cultural heritage to younger generations of Ainu. Today about 24,000 Ainu live in Hokkaido alone. They all reside in ordinary Japanese houses and their lifestyle is the same as that of other Japanese people. Even if they have Ainu blood, they have few opportunities to learn about their culture.

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YAMAMARU Ikuo

As there were times when Ainu were discriminated against just for being Ainu, the majority of Ainu families avoided teaching their children their culture and customs. Traditional rituals held regularly at the museum, therefore, provide precious opportunities for Ainu themselves to learn about, and practice, their culture. The museum creates jobs, too. “I’m grateful that I can pass on my culture through my work,” says YAMAMARU Ikuo, administration officer of the Ainu Museum.

Yamamaru was in his 40s when he rediscovered his Ainu heritage. “There had been a fire in a chise (house) at the museum site. I was working in construction in those days and I helped with the reconstruction. I was surprised to learn for the first time that Ainu had unique ways of choosing building locations and of building houses.” That experience led to him working for the museum. Now, alongside performing a variety of traditional rites, he’s also involved with a project to pass on cultural traditions to younger generations.

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Experiencing playing the tonkori, a traditional musical instrument

The museum has been running a “leadership training course” for six years. The course, which lasts three years, gives young people of Ainu descent an opportunity to learn about their heritage. The second class is now in its final year. Besides Shiraoi, the lakeside of Akan lake and Biratori Town in Hokkaido are also known for their kotan (Ainu villages). Each has its own unique style of traditional dancing and wood carving. The students also go to those places to get a comprehensive understanding of Ainu culture.

Yamamaru says that people need to take pride in their own culture in order to pass it on to future generations. Since things like Ainu craft works have enjoyed a revival in recent years, more and more people are now feeling that “our culture isn’t something to be discarded after all.” When they go to Tokyo to participate in events, some take the subway in ethnic clothing. He really feels that attitudes are changing.

Yamamaru says he hopes some graduates of the course will act as leaders at the Symbolic Space in order to create new traditions. He says, “Culture is a living thing, so it’s natural for it to change.” He hopes that, instead of stubbornly preserving old things, by fully understanding them, it will be possible to create something new.

Yoshida says that the Tokyo Olympics, to be held in the same year the Symbolic Space is due to be completed, “will be a good opportunity to disseminate information. I hope we can make it appealing.” The Olympics is a festival for ethnic groups. In the past, indigenous people displayed their culture at the opening ceremonies of the Sydney and Vancouver Olympics. Ainu have just taken new strides in passing on their culture. It will be the right occasion at which to let the world know about the Ainu.

Ainu means “people” in the Ainu language.

Text: ICHIMURA Masayo


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