the First Inhabitants
Isett/Corbis Sygma for TIME.
REST FOR THE WEARY: A pair of elders take a break from a traditional
Ainu ceremony honoring the dead.
Despite years of prejudice, Japan's aboriginal Ainu are beginning to reclaim
their unique identity
By DONALD MACINTYRE Sapporo
The ainu of japan have long been almost invisible in a society that likes
to consider itself racially homogenous. Often they hide themselves. Yuki
Hasegawa, for instance, grew up thinking she was Japanese. Her school
textbooks said little about the Ainu, the aboriginal people of Hokkaido,
or Japan's other minoritiesKoreans, Chinese and Okinawans. She learned
Japan was racially pure; it was something political leaders boasted about.
In the mid-'80s, Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone even declared there
was no discrimination against minorities in Japan since there were no
minorities. So when Hasegawa's father told her at the age of 18 that she
was Ainu, it turned her world upside down. "I had grown up thinking there
was only one race in Japan," says Hasegawa, now 23, who works in Tokyo
at Japan's only Ainu restaurant. "I hadn't even heard of the Ainu."
Hasegawa's parents had feared their daughter would face bullying and discrimination
as an Ainu. Physically indistinguishable from Japanese, many Ainuincluding
Hasegawa's eight brothersstill prefer to hide their ethnic identity.
But Hasegawa herself is one of a small but growing number of Ainu who
are learning about their ethnicity with new pride. Younger Ainu are enrolling
in language classes to learn traditional songs and folk tales. Ainu communities
are reviving old ceremonies to honor sacred animals like salmon and bear.
While all Ainu use Japanese names, some have started adopting traditional
Ainu first names.
Ainu activists have also begun to make their voices heard. One group is
suing the Hokkaido prefectural government in a Sapporo court, accusing
it of mismanaging Ainu land for the past century. Hasegawa is part of
another group fighting for recognition of the Ainu's rights as an indigenous
people through the United Nations Human Rights Commission in Geneva. The
Ainu have started to forge bonds with indigenous groups in the United
States and other countries. The steps are small and largely symbolic,
but they have contributed to a resurgence in ethnic pride that was unimaginable
even a decade ago. "To be Ainu used to be a shameful thing," says Tatsue
Sato, chairman of the Ainu rights group Rera no Kai, or Wind Society.
"Now there are young people coming forward who are saying 'I'm proud to
That has happened none too soon for the Ainu, whose culture has been in
decline for more than a century. Traditionally hunters and fishermen,
they lived in small communities along the rivers and seashore of much
of northern Japan and the Russian far east. But as Japan industrialized
in the 19th century, the Ainu were herded onto plots of substandard farmland
and forced to adopt Japanese ways. Tokyo barred the Ainu from hunting
and fishing and banned Ainu ceremonieseven use of the Ainu language.
Smallpox and other diseases brought by Japanese settlers pouring into
Hokkaido decimated the population. Today there are as many as 110,000
Ainu, by their own estimates; Japanese officials put the number at 25,000
but count only people who declare themselves as Ainu.
As a minority in their own land, the Ainu faced discrimination and prejudice.
Japanese called them "dogs" (inu means 'dog') and treated them as second-class
citizens. Japanese settlers commonly took Ainu women as sexual slaves,
according to Dennis Johnson, author of a recent history of the ethnic
group. "The fate of the Ainu women was nothing short of tragic," Johnson
writes. Forced off their land, Ainu men had to work for Japanese fishing
and logging companies. Few Ainu rose to positions of prominence. Kenichi
Kawamura, director of Hokkaido's Ainu Memorial Museum says his father
managed to become a railway surveyor but was once almost deliberately
buried alive by his crew, who resented having to work under an Ainu. Says
Kawamura: "We were treated as uncivilized barbarians."
In the postwar years, the ban on speaking Ainu was lifted, but government
pressure to assimilate continued. Ainu faced discrimination in marriage
and employment, and children endured bullying at school. Ainu remained
oddly absent from the Japanese popular imagination as well, even though
the two groups had fought on and off for hundreds of years on the main
Japanese island of Honshu. When the Ainu registered at all, it was often
through a distorted lens of prejudice and stereotype. Japanese tourists
who visit Kawamura's museum are surprised to discover he wears shoes and
Ironically, it was Nakasone's remarks about Japan's racial purity that
helped to galvanize the Ainu. They protested the comments and started
to look for ways to make their voices heard. In 1992, an Ainu addressed
the U.N. General Assembly for the first time. Shigeru Kayano, an Ainu
who had spent years collecting cultural artifacts and recording Ainu oral
culture, won a seat in the Upper House of the Diet in 1994. In his inaugural
address he spoke Ainu, a first for Japan's parliament. Kayano led a court
battle against a dam built on Ainu land, and in a landmark 1998 ruling,
a judge in Hokkaido recognized the Ainu as an indigenous people for the
first time. While Tokyo has yet to follow suit, it no longer claims Japan
has no racial minorities.
Recognizing the Ainu as an indigenous people would raise land-rights issues
the government would rather avoid. But after intense lobbying by Kayano
and others, Tokyo officially accorded the Ainu minority status in a law
passed in 1997. Replacing the century-old and widely hated Former Aborigines
Act, the main vehicle of Japan's assimilationist policies, the legislation
was a huge step forward. But it was silent on the issue of land rights,
to the chagrin of many Ainu. And while the law did mandate the return
of money that the Hokkaido prefectural government managed on behalf of
the Ainu under the old law, many felt the $14,000 the government agreed
to pay was far too littleand doesn't compensate the Ainu for the
land they say was stolen from them. The government should pay out 2,500
times that amount to reflect inflation, or return the land, says the Ainu
museum's Kawamura, who is leading a group of two dozen Ainu plaintiffs.
Kawamura's group also wants the government to explain what exactly happened
to Ainu land expropriated by the government. The authorities insist that
they have already returned all the land but admit that relevant documents
have gone missing.
Ainu activists are also demanding the return of remains dug up from village
graves by Japanese university departments for research, mostly during
the 1930s. Hokkaido University's medical department, the biggest collector,
accumulated more than 1,000 skeletons. Each skull is tagged with the name
of the village where the person was buried. But the names of the individuals
weren't recorded, so families can't identify the remains. A mausoleum
on the university grounds in Sapporo still holds the bones of 972 Ainu.
For the past several years, a small group of Ainu have performed a traditional
memorial rite annually in front of the mausoleum and other sites, dancing
and praying and offering sake to calm the spirits of the dead. But some
Ainu believe the spirits will never find peace until they are reinterred
at their home villages, and they want the university to pay for it. The
university says it has done enough by building the mausoleum.
None of this will bring back the disappearing Ainu language, one of the
most pressing concerns for Ainu activists. Fewer than a dozen people speak
it, all of them elderly. When they pass away, it is unlikely Ainu will
survive as a living language. The classes that have sprung up in the past
decade are important but probably too lateas Hasegawa points out,
there is nobody to make up new words for such things as "mobile phone"
and "Internet." But the use of Ainu in songs, skits and stories, even
in everyday conversation, is growing, and that guarantees a future for
the language, argues John Maher, an expert on the Ainu language at Tokyo's
International Christian University. "Paradoxically, that has occurred
while the number of native speakers has been dwindling."
Are the attempts to revive Ainu culture and language too little, too late?
Not if people like Hasegawa have their way. After discovering she wasn't
an ethnic Japanese, Hasegawa embraced her new identity, meeting other
Ainu and learning traditional dance, songs and even cuisine. The restaurant
where she works serves traditional Ainu dishes of venison and salmon.
The important thing, she says, is to build on what has been achieved in
recent years: "We need to create a society where Ainu can live comfortably.
We have to increase our pride and transmit that to Japanese and to other
Ainu." That way, maybe future generations won't have to find out who they
are the hard way.
With reporting by Takashi Yokota/Sapporo
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