Hokkaido Feature

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Hokkaido's First Inhabitants

Once upon a time in Ainumosir ("human being peaceful land"), aynu (human beings) lived in kotan (villages), raising their families on a diet of ohaw (salmon, meat, or plants) and sayo (millet and other grains). They honored the god Okikurmikamu, and told yukar (epic poems) to remember the interwoven lives of human and the spirit world, particularly of bears and owls. Sometimes they traded kelp, salmon, and herring with the sisam, the neighbors north or south.

Around the 15th century life changed. The southern sisam—the Japanese—began arriving in greater numbers and building trading posts along the far south coast. As the Japanese moved north and solidified their presence on the island, the aynu—regarded as "hairy people"—became forced laborers.

In 1869 the new Meiji Government lumped Ainu together with Japanese as "commoners," and the Ainu language and lifestyle were outlawed. Forced assimilation and intermarriage nearly obliterated the culture. The Hokkaido Former Aborigine Protection Law sliced up land ownership, dispossessing many Ainu of ancestral homesteads.

But the Ainu have fought back. By the 1980s Ainu were calling for basic human rights, drawing support from indigenous groups in other countries. The United Nations made 1993 the Year of Indigenous Peoples, which bolstered their efforts, and a victory was achieved in 1994 when leading activist Kayano Shigeru of Nibutani was elected the first Ainu to Japan's Parliament. In May 1997, the national government passed belated legislation acknowledging the existence of Ainu as a minority group (a landmark event in Japan’s purportedly "homogeneous" society), requiring local and national governments to respect their dignity by promoting Ainu culture and traditions. The act stopped short of certifying Ainu as an indigenous ethnic group, due to concerns about aboriginal rights to land and natural resources.

Visitors to Hokkaido may find it hard to recognize full-blooded Ainu outside the tourist centers of Shiraoi, Nibutani, and Akan. Some 24,000 people declare themselves Ainu, although many identify as Japanese. Most Japanese have little interest in Ainu affairs, beyond buying cute wooden carvings as souvenirs. Otherwise well-informed, worldly Japanese hosts may be surprised, and a little embarrassed, by foreigners' interest in Ainu. Today, Ainu tourist parks are being revamped as cultural centers. Ainu language is taught at 14 locations, and Kayano Shoro is continuing his father's monthly Ainu radio broadcasts (FM-Pipaushi).

The best places to learn more about Ainu culture and politics are the Nibutani Ainu Culture Museum and the Kayano Shigeru Nibutani Ainu Archive; the Poroto Kotan and Ainu Museum, Shiraoi; and the Akan Ainu Kotan cultural performances.

Foundation for Research and Promotion of Ainu Culture (Presto 1.7 Bldg. 5F, Kita 1 Nishi 7, Sapporo, 060-0001. 011/271–4171. www.frpac.or.jp/english/index.html. Free. Weekdays 9–5.)

Updated: 2014-02-10

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