The Ainu: Hokkaido’s hidden indigenous people

By 21st March 2009 August 27th, 2013 Uncategorized

THE little-known Ainu, Hokkaido’s first inhabitants, for the most part remain unknown, hidden in the shadows of today’s Japan. Their existence was even categorically denied by the government until last year. However, these are an indigenous people steeped in history, and remain vastly culturally different to their Japanese neighbours. Guest reporter Angela Kennewell writes for Powderlife…

The Ainu still leave their mark on Japan – even in today’s Niseko. Tourists to Niseko would be forgiven for thinking that names of many places in the area are Japanese in origin. The truth is, many local towns and landmarks have names derived from the language of the Ainu, Hokkaido’s little-known indigenous people. Niseko, Annupuri, Kutchan, not to mention many of the local business names, all have their roots in the Ainu language. Take ‘Niseko’, for example, derived from ‘Nisekoan’, which means ‘river which runs around the bottom of a sheer cliff’ in Ainu. Mt Niseko-Annupuri, home to the Niseko United ski resorts, is intimately linked to the name of the town, as ‘Nupuri’ means ‘mountain’ in Ainu. Thus, Nisekoan-Nupuri (usually written as Niseko-Annupuri) means, ‘mountain with a river which runs around the bottom of a sheer cliff’. Kutchan means, ‘where the channel flows’, or alternatively, ‘stream of a hunting lodge’. And most mountains in the area have names with Ainu origins, including Mt Konbu, Chisenupuri and Iwaonupuri, to name a few. All over Hokkaido there are town and landmark names derived directly, or indirectly, from the language of Hokkaido’s first inhabitants.
How did the Ainu arrive in Hokkaido?
Though no one seems able to agree conclusively, the predominant theory indicates that Ainu are descended from a northern mongoloid race estimated to have migrated to Hokkaido and Russia’s Sakhalin Islands from around 300 B.C. Recent research involving DNA testing of sample groups of Ainu descendants has confirmed that the Ainu are ethnically distinct from Japanese, holding more in common, at least genetically, with the people of Tibet and Andaman Islanders of the Indian Ocean. There are thought to be only a handful of ‘pure’ Ainu remaining today, almost all of whom live in Hokkaido. A census conducted in 2006 counted just 26,782 people of Ainu descent. However, the harsh reality is that many Ainu have suffered the indignity of racism and discrimination, at times so severe that it is estimated a significant number of surviving Ainu descendants conceal their ethnic origins. It’s believed some are actually completely unaware of their heritage, due to parents and grandparents concealing their identity from them in order to protect them from discrimination.
The Ainu and their culture
The Ainu of Hokkaido and Sakhalin have a culture that is wholly their own, having lived in relative isolation for hundreds of years prior to the Japanese annexation of Hokkaido. Their customs and animist religious beliefs are quite distinctive, and their language is considered by linguists to be an ‘isolate’ – that is, a language not related to any other. Unlike Japanese, Ainu do not eat raw meat or fish, preferring to boil, roast or preserve meat for the long, harsh Hokkaido winters through smoking or drying. This author can tell you, deer stew, ‘Yuk Ohaw’, cooked in the traditional Ainu method, is a delicious experience (even though the meat is admittedly a little tough), and their very tasty potato cakes, ‘Munini-imo’, made from the flour of potatoes repeatedly frozen and thawed, is a unique and bizarre flavour sensation. It has been claimed that the flour of these potatoes can be stored for up to 20 years.
The Ainu, similar to many indigenous cultures around the world, hold the natural environment in reverence, with their animist religious beliefs perhaps the clearest indication of the importance of nature in their culture and customs. The word ‘Ainu’ means ‘human’, or more specifically, the opposite of ‘Kamuy’, meaning ‘God’. According to the Ainu, Kamuy exist in everything. All plants and creatures have the spirits of Gods in them, and all objects used in daily life also hold ‘lesser’ Gods. Traditionally, songs and dances are performed for Gods both in ceremonial occasions and also in daily life, for example when hunting, hunters would perform a unique dance and song for any creature they killed, to guide the spirit (Kamuy) of the creature safely back to the ‘Mintara’ (Home of the Gods). Perhaps the most famous of these such dances is the Bear Dance, which nowadays is regularly performed when Ainu cultural tradition is demonstrated
to tourists.

The Japanese invasion
So when, then, did the Japanese come to Hokkaido and how, or why, did they take over? Though there is evidence that Japanese and Ainu traded goods such as salmon and grains for several centuries, there was relatively little contact between the indigenous peoples of Hokkaido and their southern neighbours until late in the 15th Century. Everything changed, however, when the Japanese invaded Hokkaido, laying claim to land and dispossessing the indigenous Ainu, forcing them to submit to Japanese rule and work in near-slavery conditions in the Japanese fishing industry. On the whole, the Ainu were a peaceful people and little resistance was offered; the Japanese movement to take control of Hokkaido and Sakhalin was swift and decisive, and of the three notable battles fought between 1457 and 1789, all were won convincingly by the Japanese forces. This was followed in 1799 with the banning of Ainu language and cultural traditions, such as ceremonial songs and dances; even their clothing was considered a threat to Japanese rule, culminating in anything related to Ainu identity being strongly suppressed. While official Japanese records state that the annexation of Hokkaido formally declared in 1868 was to further the unity of the Japanese nation and defend against the Russians, the reality is that the desire to control the large tract of land so close to the Japanese mainland island of Honshu, blessed with abundant natural resources and rich fishing grounds, was as much a reason as any desire for Japanese unity.

The Ainu in the modern day
For the Ainu people specifically, 2008 marked a significant historical milestone, as the Japanese government for the first time acknowledged the Ainu as an indigenous group in Japan. For the Ainu, this is an affirmation of not just their right to cultivate and maintain Ainu language, culture and traditions, but an implicit admission by the Japanese government that they were indeed the first inhabitants of Hokkaido; a government that until 1997 had steadfastly claimed that there were no ethnic minority or indigenous groups in Japan at all, denying Ainu culture and ethnicity in its entirety.
Efforts are being made to preserve Ainu culture and traditions for future generations, with gradual softening of official attitudes sparking a revival of Ainu dance and oral tradition. Museums preserving and celebrating Ainu culture have grown to become popular tourist attractions in Hokkaido. However, the Ainu language is considered to be nearly extinct, with only 15 known native speakers surviving today. Ainu advocacy groups such as the Hokkaido Utari (comrade) Association have recently begun campaigns to teach Ainu language and culture to the current generation of Ainu youth, but with limited success. Only time will tell if their efforts will be able to revive this dying language, and keep alive an oral tradition dating back almost 1000 years.
Where can the Ainu be found today?
When the Russians (re)claimed the islands of Sakhalin, situated off the north coast of Hokkaido, at the end of World War II, all indigenous Ainu and Japanese living there were forcibly ‘repatriated’ to Hokkaido on the grounds that they had come from there originally. This was done despite there being little evidence that the Ainu living on Sakhalin had migrated there in recent times – quite the contrary, with evidence many of Sakhalin’s Ainu had lived there for centuries. While some Ainu removed from Sakhalin have returned over the past 50 years, the majority did not. As such, almost all Ainu today live in Hokkaido, predominantly in the eastern areas of Hidaka and around Akan. The tiny town of Nibutani, in the Hidaka region, is home to the majority of Hokkaido’s Ainu population, and until recently was also host to an Ainu Culture Festival. But the tourist town of Akan in eastern Hokkaido is perhaps the most well-known place tourists can go to observe and experience Ainu culture and food.

Learning more about the Ainu
Interest in Ainu culture and traditions has been growing steadily over the past two decades, with something of a renaissance beginning in just the last few years as Ainu begin to feel more comfortable about embracing their history and culture. Museums in Nopporo (on the eastern outskirts of Sapporo), Shiraoi and Nibutani attempt to preserve Ainu historical artifacts and promote further understanding of Ainu culture and history, holding regular workshops where tourists can experience Ainu handicrafts, singing and dancing. Encouragingly, a greater interest in incorporating Ainu song and dance into local events is underway, such as the Ainu-influenced Fashion in the Forest event held at Niseko Kanronomori Hotel last summer, and the Kutchan Ainu Museum Fair in January each year. If you’re really lucky you may even get to see unofficial ambassador for Ainu musical tradition, Oki Kano of the Oki Dub Ainu band, play his unique blend of western blues and Ainu instrumental folk music at a local event or festival. If you are interested in experiencing Ainu culture for yourself, why not pop into the Ainu Museum in Nopporo, easily accessible by public transport from the Shin-Sapporo Train Station in Sapporo, or head along to the Kutchan Ainu Museum Fair next January.

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