10. The Ainu in Japan

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Tjeerd de Graaf
Fryske Akademie, Ljouwert

 

Originally the northern part of the Japanese main island Honshu was inhabited by Ainu people, whereas there are indications that they also lived on the southern tip of Kamchatka. Traces of the Ainu on Honshu are found in geographic names, but as a result of historical developments the Ainu also disappeared from Sakhalin and the Kurile Islands.

In the sixteenth century many Japanese immigrants began to settle on Hokkaido and to engage in large scale fishing and trading. The Japanese area (‘Wajinchi’) was located in the southern part of the island (‘Matsumae’), while the Ainu people lived in the areas called ‘Ezochi’: the rest of Hokkaido (the name of the island since 1868), ‘Karafuto’ (Sakhalin) and ‘Chishima’ (Kurile Islands). The original inhabitants southern of the islands of ‘Etorofu’ and ‘Kunashiri’ were also the Ainu.

On Hokkaido the Ainu fell completely under the control of the Japanese, who claimed these territories as part of Japan. As a result of Japanese-Russian conflict and the establishment of political boundaries, a large number of Ainu from Sakhalin had to relocate to Hokkaido. They suffered from the abrupt change in lifestyle and the prevalence of diseases, and many of them died. Later resettlements of the Ainu would follow and the result is that their number has decreased and that at present they can only be found in Japan, mainly on Hokkaido.

The modernisation of Japan caused the central government to pay serious attention to the exploration and economic development of Hokkaido. For this purpose the Hokkaido Settlement Mission (‘Kaitakushi’) was established as an administrative organisation to rule the region, and a large number of former samurai and farmers emigrated from the Japanese mainland to Hokkaido. ‘Ainu mosir’ (“the people’s land”), where the Ainu had freely hunted and gathered food, became part of the territory of Japan and was given to Japanese immigrants.

The government forced the Ainu to assimilate, and the ‘Kaitakushi’ prohibited the traditional way of hunting and fishing, and confiscated their lands. Under state-sponsored assimilation policies, discrimination and poverty relegated the Ainu to the lowest ranks of Japanese society. With the introduction of the Japanese way of life and special compulsory education, the traditional system of learning from one’s elders was broken down and the original social and cultural patterns of the Ainu population were destroyed. As a consequence, the Ainu language, together with the traditional lifestyle almost completely disappeared within a couple of generations.

According to a survey conducted in 2006 by the Hokkaido government, the Ainu population of Hokkaido then numbered 23,782 people. Many Ainu and people of mixed origin were eager to forget about their Ainu origin and until the present there are many of them who fear discrimination and prefer to hide this origin. Therefore it is rather difficult to estimate the right number of people having the Ainu ethnic background. At present, the number of Ainu living mainly in Hokkaido is estimated at between 24,000 and 50,000, but only very few of them still speak the language.

Laws and linguistic rights for the Ainu

The Ainu have lived in Hokkaido, Sakhalin, the Kurile Islands and Honshu since ancient times, and have built their own history, language and culture. When the government enforced its law in Hokkaido, it incorporated the land of the Ainu, basically confiscating their land, forcing assimilation policies, and denying the Ainu people their traditional culture. In this process, discrimination and prejudice toward the Ainu were strengthened.

In 1946, the Hokkaido Ainu Association was established with the aim to provide better education for the Ainu and to create social welfare facilities. This association is actively engaged in solving various problems experienced by the Ainu. In 1984, the Hokkaido ‘Utari Kyookai’ (Association) has conducted an active campaign to demand that the national government enact a law on the promotion of Ainu culture as soon as possible. Furthermore, various activities have been promoted to revive the Ainu language and to preserve and maintain Ainu culture, such as traditional dancing and various ceremonies.

The ‘Law on the Promotion of Ainu Culture and Facilitation of Popular Understanding of Ainu Tradition’ was passed in 1997. Regretfully, it does not mention the rights of the Ainu as an indigenous people anymore, which would allow for the provisions related to the United Nations’ ‘Declaration for the Rights of Indigenous Peoples’ (2007). However, in this law the Japanese government acknowledges for the first time the existence of a separate ethnic group inside the country and calls for respect of its culture and traditions.

The Ainu then have become an internationally recognised indigenous population. In July 1997 the Japanese government finally introduced the ‘Ainu Shinpo’ (New Ainu Law). The purpose of this new law is “to realise a society in which the ethnic pride of the Ainu people is respected and to contribute to the development of diverse cultures in the country, by the implementation of measures for the promotion of Ainu culture, the spread of knowledge related to Ainu traditions, and the education of the nation, referring to the situation of Ainu traditions and culture from which the Ainu people find their ethnic pride”. According to article 3 of this ‘Ainu Shinpo’, the national government should make efforts “to promote measures for the nurturing of those who will inherit Ainu culture, the fruitfulness of educational activities concerning Ainu traditions, and the promotion of the study of the Ainu culture”.

In 1997, after the preparations for the ‘Ainu Shinpo’ were made by the Hokkaido government, the Hokkaido Development Agency approved the establishment of the ‘Foundation for Research and Promotion of Ainu Culture’ (FRPAC) as a public service corporation. One of the tasks of the Foundation is to preserve and promote the Ainu language and traditional culture and to disseminate knowledge on Ainu traditions to the nation. The Foundation promotes comprehensive and practical research on the Ainu, the Ainu language, and material culture, and disseminates knowledge on Ainu traditions.

Teaching of the Ainu Language and Culture

The language is unique to the Ainu and forms the core of their ethnic identity. Because the number of people who use the language has been decreasing yearly due to the aging of native Ainu speakers, Ainu language education is in a very difficult state. For the improvement of Ainu language education, the FRPAC provides learning opportunities to train Ainu language instructors in cooperation with Ainu language researchers.

Ainu language classes are offered in various community centres on Hokkaido and in the ‘Ainu Culture Centre’ in Tokyo. These centres are very well equipped with modern facilities and often offer interesting expositions related to the Ainu culture. In order to disseminate the Ainu language to the general public, the FRPAC provides opportunities for many people to have contact with and to learn the Ainu language. Language textbooks are provided free of charge and special books on the Ainu history and culture are edited for primary and secondary schools. People who want to practise the language can take part in special speech contests and storytellers of traditional oral Ainu literature, such as ‘yukar’ (epics of heroes), ‘kamuy-yukar’ (stories of deities) and ‘uwepeker’ (old tales), give direct instruction to train their successors. Special attention is paid to the remnants of the Ainu language in the local culture, in particular the interpretation of geographic place.

Since the 1980s the Ainu cultural and ethnic movements have created a public awareness of Ainu heritage, and popularised Ainu culture. The purpose of teaching Ainu history and culture is to promote understanding of the Ainu and their culture, and to refute the Japanese stereotype of the Ainu as uncivilised people. The Hokkaido Board of Education and the Hokkaido University of Education have taken the lead in funding Ainu studies and education. The Hokkaido Board of Education prepared teaching materials for Ainu history and culture in 1984, and in 1992 it produced a handbook, ‘Guidelines for the Teaching of Ainu History and Culture’, for every high school in Hokkaido.  In 1987, the ‘Utari Association’ requested that the Hokkaido University of Education teach a course in Ainu history and culture, and in 1991 the five campuses of the University offered seventeen courses wholly or partially devoted to Ainu history, culture, and language. The Ainu themselves, as well as several scholars, are actively researching and writing about Ainu history, language and culture.  The 1997 ‘New Ainu Law’ provides public funds to museums, performance theaters, research centres, and community cultural centres.

Japanese students learn about Ainu history and culture as part of the social science curriculum in elementary, middle and high schools. Ainu issues first appeared in the social studies textbooks in 1961. In addition to textbook-centred instruction, elementary school students and preschoolers become familiar with Ainu culture by making handicrafts, reading folktales, and performing music and dance. Watching a documentary on the lifestyle of the Ainu can also give students a sense of Ainu culture. Since 1978, middle school textbooks have included chapters on Ainu history and cultures. A popular history textbook portrays the Ainu as the victims of Japanese exploitation and prejudice. It refers to Ainu revolts as justifiable resistance against exploitation by Japanese settlers and merchants prior to the 1868 Meiji Restoration. ‘Shakushain’, one of the leaders of the resistance, is portrayed as a hero.

More recently, in 2007, Hokkaido University opened the Centre for Ainu and Indigenous Studies (CAIS) with the aim of promoting comprehensive and interdisciplinary research activities concerning indigenous peoples with a special emphasis on Ainu. It also strives to establish networks connecting various organisations at home and abroad with the aim of promoting research programmes on Ainu and indigenous peoples.

The CAIS collaborates with the Ainu people and Ainu organisations such as the ‘Ainu Association of Hokkaido’ and the ‘Foundation for Research and Promotion of Ainu Culture’. Together with these organisations research activities and administrative matters are planned and this will serve as a bridge that connects the university with the Ainu. These activities result in symposia, public lectures, social surveys, museum exhibitions, lecture tours, ecotourism and overseas fieldwork. This will encourage widespread understanding and support among members of different ethnic groups.

An important aspect of the Centre is its emphasis on education. Currently, at Hokkaido University, the Centre offers courses that help students develop interest in and gain an accurate understanding of the Ainu people and other indigenous groups throughout the world. Furthermore, an ambitious project for developing teaching programmes and materials for junior and senior high school students in collaboration with local school teachers is being realised. Through such educational efforts, social justice will prevail in Japan, which increasingly is becoming a multi-ethnic and multicultural country.

Education for the Ainu about the Ainu is as important as education for young Japanese people. The Centre has a positive role to play in this regard. The Centre takes as its responsibility the creation of a space in which the Ainu people are able to learn about themselves in both academically and socially useful ways.

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