Shunwa Honda, a renowned scholar of indigenous ethnic groups, emphasizes that the Japanese people need to create a stage for the nation’s indigenous Ainu, who “still suffer from not having their voices heard properly in society.”
Though he looks Caucasian and uses the pen name “Henry Stewart,” Honda identifies himself as Japanese. He has lived in the country since his teens and holds Japanese nationality.
Through his 40-year academic career, Honda’s main research focus has been the Inuits in Canada and the Aleuts of the Aleutian Islands. He has authored and coauthored countless books and academic articles on anthropology, especially on indigenous ethnic groups worldwide.
Since 1975, he has been to Canada, the Aleutian Islands and Greenland over 20 times to study the lifestyles of Inuits and Aleuts. He has camped with the Inuits in Canada’s Nunavut territory, where the temperature went as low as minus 35.
His main research theme is the Inuit fish-catching and hunting methods and techniques, and a comparative study between their traditional culture and their culture today.
“Many people still have an image of Inuits as people wearing fur, using dog sleds and living in igloos. But my Inuit friends nowadays wear leather jackets, jeans, and Reebok sneakers,” he says. “They are people who live in this present age.”
He argues that Japanese have the same misconception about the Ainu — as though the Ainu don’t live in this day and age.
“Some people make statements like, ‘Ainu lived in Hokkaido for a long time’ — as if to say the group disappeared along with the change in history,” he says.
On the contrary, Honda stresses, Ainu are a “people who live in today’s society” while at the same time preserving their long history and rich culture.
He cited the example of an exhibit on an Ainu ritual called “iwak-te” that he once saw at the Asahikawa City Museum in Asahikawa, Hokkaido. He said he was impressed with the exhibit in that it showed how the traditional ritual remains relevant to the Ainu people’s present-day lives.
Iwak-te is a ritual in which the spirits of something that has finished its role are sent off. In an old Ainu household, people kept the skull of a brown bear raised by the community on a family altar to send its souls to the kamui (god). The museum exhibit showed how baby toys can also be placed on the altar after they are no longer used.
“I think it was a remarkable accomplishment for the museum to show something from the present day — along with exhibits from the past — which explains that (the) Ainu’s history is not just about things past, but concerns their current lives,” Honda says.
Honda also pointed out that Japan, compared with other nations that have indigenous ethnic groups, took a very long time to recognize the Ainu people’s rights to preserve their culture and lifestyle.
It was only in 1997 that a 1899 act —which labeled the Ainu as former aborigines and was aimed at assimilating them into the Japanese society — was finally replaced by a new law, which called for the promotion of Ainu culture and for the dissemination and advocacy for Ainu traditions and culture.
Still, the government waited until 2008 to officially recognize the Ainu as an indigenous people, following a 2007 United Nations resolution on the rights of indigenous peoples.
Honda, 71, who recently retired as a professor for Open University of Japan, has also taught at Mejiro Gakuen Women’s Junior College (now Mejiro University College) and Showa Women’s University.
Although he specializes in the Inuit community, he says he has the responsibility as a Japanese to talk about the Ainu and how the indigenous group is positioned in Japan’s society.
“Ainu should be more compelling to us (Japanese),” Honda says. “I feel it’s important to give back to society what I have learned through my research.”
Honda laments what he sees as a shortage of Ainu who are active in the front lines of society. For example, Japan has only one associate professor of Ainu origin — Jirota Kitahara of Hokkaido University.
Such a situation, he says, continues to make it difficult for the Ainu to assert themselves.
“Ainu are unable to speak out on the Ainu issues themselves. I have to continue (my activities) until an Ainu professor can give a lecture about Ainu instead of me,” says Honda, who has given numerous lectures on the Ainu at Open University.
Honda said he first took an interest in indigenous people when he had a chance meeting as a high school student in Aomori Prefecture with Chuzaburo Tanaka, a folklore scholar and collector of used clothing, including those of Ainu.
Tanaka took him to an archaeological site in Aomori Prefecture, and Honda was immediately intrigued by the atmosphere of the site.
“I thought I should study hard. I wanted to enter university and study archaeology,” he says.
Honda entered Waseda University in 1968 after failing the entrance exam twice in a row.
Initially, his undergraduate study focus was in Japanese history, and then he took up archaeology as the subject of his master’s and doctoral studies.
He first studied archaeology with the late professor Kiyohiko Sakurai at Waseda, who was a scholar in Egyptian archaeology. Later, he switched to anthropology because “rather than archaeology, where the aim of the research is on things that people make, I became more interested in anthropology, where the aim is on people who make things, as well as their culture and society,” he says, adding, “I was no good at the actual measurements that are the quintessence of archaeology.”
Between 1976 and 1978, He took some time off from Waseda and studied at the University of Toronto in Ontario.
“I met professor William Irving from the University of Toronto when I was engaged in cultural assets research that accompanied the project to expand the Hakodate airport in 1974,” Honda says. “Professor Irving (who was also taking part in the research) asked me if I would join him in a team researching the Inuits in Canada. So I did, and I also studied at the University of Toronto.”
On the subject of his own life, Honda becomes mum when asked about his birthplace and family, and simply notes he was “moved around from one place to the other” in Canada, the United States and Mexico in his childhood. He finally settled in Japan, although he says he does not remember when and how he arrived here.
When he was young, he “never had a so-called home” and home was only a place “where I placed myself,” Honda says.
Today, he has a place he can call a home — in Hino in western Tokyo — where he lives with his Japanese wife of 44 years. The couple have two children who live separately from them.
Honda says his life has been like the flow of the river.
He cites “Kawa no Nagare no Yoni” (“Like the Flow of the River”) by the late singer Hibari Misora as his favorite song. “My life is just like the lyrics of that song,” he says, adding that he never went against the flow.
“There were some very hard times, but quite simply, I moved along the flow of the river. My research in the indigenous people also came along the flow of the river,” he says, recalling his chance encounter with the scholar Tanaka in his late teens.