This was the third time the Japanese government signaled a change in its policy towards the Ainu. In 1899, as Japan sought to absorb the influences of the West in the Meiji era, the government issued the Aborigine Protection Law. It wasn’t until almost a hundred years later that its approach to the Ainu changed. In 1997, after Japan was condemned for a minister’s statement describing it as a homogeneous country, the government sought to appease criticism with the Ainu Cultural Promotion Law. This recognized Ainu culture as unique and promised to promote both the culture and the rights of the people. The most recent bill, recognizing the Ainu as the indigenous people of Japan, comes after disenchantment from the Ainu community with the 1997 law which, many Ainu say, did little to ease problems of discrimination.
Although the Ainu are mostly associated with Hokkaido, Tokyo has its own Ainu community with its own history. I met Hasegawa Osamu, the head of one of five Tokyo Ainu communities in Tokyo. The community is centered around the Rera-Cise restaurant and community centre in Nakano. Upstairs at the Rera-Cise, the room has been re-designed to look like the interior of an Ainu house, and guests sit around a hearth in a room decorated with Ainu wood carvings and embroidery. Here, Hasegawa talked about Ainu history and culture, and also gave his response to the latest government declaration.
IP: I’d like to talk about Ainu history a little first. Most people associate the Ainu with Hokkaido, but they lived in other parts of Japan, didn’t they?
H: The Ainu lived in Honshu too, certainly in the Tohoku region, and because words related to the Ainu language appear in place names in many regions, it’s thought that they once lived all over Japan.
IP: The Meiji era was a time of change in Japan when it absorbed Western influences. What did this period mean for the Ainu?
H: Simply that our land, resources and culture were taken away. The traditional hunting lifestyle that is part of our culture was denied us. We were forced to change our names, speak and become Japanese.
IP: Did the Ainu fight against this policy of assimilation?
H: It was difficult to organize ourselves to fight what was happening. Our strength had been weakened a long time before this. In the past, men were often taken away to be used as slave labor and many of the women who were left behind were used by Japanese men stationed in Hokkaido away from their wives. A lot of Ainu died from venereal diseases because of this. Also, communities were broken up and Ainu were forced to move and live in unfamiliar environments which weakened them and made them vulnerable to sickness and disease.
IP: Are there records of resistance?
H: There were conflicts in earlier times: the Ainu war of Independence (Shakushain) was crushed in 1669, and in 1779, a group of Ainu rose up against the Japanese. As a result, thirty seven young men were executed and their heads sent back to Hokkaido (Kunashiri-Menashi). Eventually, the Japanese government finally acknowledged what was happening to the Ainu, that they were on the verge of dying out, so in 1899, the Meiji government’s aboriginal protection law was passed.
IP: Rather than protect, it is now widely accepted that the law sought to assimilate the Ainu into mainstream Japan through education and forcing them to farm, but it was a long time before this law was changed. Finally, in 1997, the government passed a new bill recognizing Ainu culture as unique, and promised to promote Ainu culture and rights. How did you feel about the 1997 law?
H: The purpose of the new law was to remove the last one, which was unfair and discriminatory in the eyes of the world. The government wanted to improve Japan’s international image, that’s why it acted. There were problems with it from our point of view. Firstly, the law didn’t recognize the Ainu as a separate ethnic group. Second, the definition of Ainu culture was one made by the Japanese government. In the case of the Tokyo Ainu, there was a culture center set up where people could learn about Ainu embroidery, carvings and language, but there was nothing done about the real situation of the Ainu people, who were suffering from poverty. Culture should reflect the true life of people, but this was ignored.
IP: Last year, before the indigenous people’s summit, the Japanese government finally recognized the Ainu as the indigenous people of Japan. Are you now satisfied that the Japanese government has done enough?
H: We are happy that the government has done something, but the definition of ‘indigenous’ is unclear. After the bill was passed, a government minister then said their version of ‘indigenous’ was different to the one used by the UN in their Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous peoples. We want the government to accept a version as described in the UN’s declaration, which also states what action governments should take. We would also like the Japanese government to acknowledge its history of invasion and colonization, and apologize for this…..although this seems unlikely.
IP: Is discrimination a thing of the past, or does it still exist?
H: For me, and others of my generation, there was blatant discrimination. My grandmother had a tattoo around the mouth, which was normal for Ainu women of that time, and this made her stand out as an Ainu. Now there is still discrimination in the areas of marriage, employment, and in education. For example, at school, if kids look different or are recognized as being Ainu, they often experience bullying. This may force them to drop out of school earlier than others.
IP: Do you think the Ainu are seen as victims of discrimination?
H: No, not really. I don’t think people consider it a problem if Ainu culture is recognized. If you are forced to adapt to mainstream Japanese culture, so what? Being Japanese is considered a good thing. On the surface this may seem okay, but when you look at what has happened historically, you see a very different picture.
IP: When did you come to Tokyo?
H: I first came to Tokyo in 1967 when I was nineteen. I am a representative of the Rera Ainu community. I am the fourth leader of this community, which was started in 1983 .There are five Ainu communities in the Kanto area. In total, there are about fifty of us in this community. In1985, research was carried out to find the number of Ainu living in Kanto, and the number was 2700. I actually think there are probably more like 5000 people. I think they prefer to hide the fact that they are Ainu. They may think it’s easier for them that way.
IP: How is the experience of the Tokyo Ainu different to that of those living in Hokkaido?
At this point Hasegawa takes down a picture from the wall. It shows a picture of members of a school which is the subject of a book called Road to Tokyo Ichalpa (edited and published by Tokyo Ainu History workshop).
In the Meiji era, a school called Kaitakushi Kari Gakko was set up on the grounds of Zojoji Temple in Tokyo to help the policy of colonization. The purpose of the school was mainly to train Japanese people who would be sent to Hokkaido as administrators for a school that later became Hokkaido University. There was another school attached to the main building in the same grounds where Ainu were educated as Japanese. The idea was that these people would then go on to spread Japanese culture among the Ainu in Hokkaido. In total, around thirty-eight people were forced to come and study. Their lives were very unhappy, some ran away, others died. There is a memorial for the Kaitakushi Kari Gakko in Shiba Park, but there is no mention of the Ainu on the memorial. We, the Tokyo Ainu, feel a special link to those people, so every summer since 2003, we have performed ‘Ichalpa,’ a memorial service for ancestors, at the site.
IP: What does it mean for you to be Ainu?
H: It wasn’t until I was around 40 that I was able to understand that I couldn’t ignore being Ainu. At that time, I realized I wanted to be myself and finding my identity meant going back to my past and recognizing that I was Ainu. This life that I have chosen is not an easy life but I feel this is the way I am, the way I should live. Being Ainu today is not easy. The relationship with Japanese society is sometimes difficult. Nowadays, we are often praised for our appreciation of nature, our culture, but sometimes I feel this is a kind of trap. It is easy to just accept this praise, but accepting an image created by someone else may hide what we really are. The image is attractive, but being Ainu means more than just this. I think our relationship with Japan and our history needs to be studied in a more critical way. It is important to engage in what we call ‘charanke’ (communication/discussion).
Hasegawa and the Tokyo Ainu community continue to promote awareness of Ainu culture and related issues. In recent months, to celebrate the change in the government’s position towards them, a number of conferences and festivals have been held in Tokyo. The recent ‘Charanke Matsuri’ gave local people the chance to hear first hand accounts of what it is like being the member of a minority ethnic group in Japan.
There is also a change among the attitudes of the younger generation of Ainu. In the past, trying to conceal identity might have been the norm, but now there is a growing feeling of pride in being Ainu. There is no better demonstration of this than in the popular Tokyo-based roots/rock group ‘Ainu Rebels,’ who mix the dance, music and costumes of their culture with house and rock music.
Meanwhile, the Rera-Cise is continuing to attract an ever growing number of people interested in learning about Ainu culture as well as those who, after a few tentative visits, confess that they too have Ainu roots.
165-0026 Tokyo, Nakano-ku, Arai 1-37-12
Heso Magazine is very grateful to Takehana Toshiharu of the Hokkaido University Library for his assistance in obtaining archival photos of the Ainu from the Northern Studies Collection. The Northern Studies Collection collects and reserves materials relating to northern regions, including Hokkaido, Sakhalin, the Kurile Islands, the Aleutian Islands, Alaska, Siberia and the Artic Circle.
Northern Studies Collection
060-0808 Sapporo, Kita-ku, Kita 8, Nishi 5