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Ainu fight for return of plundered ancestral remains

Landmark case pits indigenous people of Hokkaido against local university holding lion's share of grisly trophies

by Simon Scott

Shigeru Kayano, one of the most well-known and respected Ainu figures of modern times, writes in his autobiography “Our Land Was a Forest” about the loathing he felt as a young man for the shamo (Japanese) researchers who used to visit his village and family home.

“In those days I despised scholars of Ainu culture from the bottom of my heart . . .

“Each time they came to Nibutani, they left with folk utensils. They dug up our sacred tombs and carried away our ancestral bones.

“Under the pretext of research, they took blood from villagers and, in order to examine how hairy we were, rolled up our sleeves, then lowered our collars to check our backs.”

Kayano, who died in 2006, was the first Ainu politician to sit in the Diet, where he served from 1994 to 1998. He is also believed to have been one of the last native speakers of the Ainu language.

He is remembered for his work as guardian and chronicler of the Ainu oral narrative tradition, having published numerous books of Ainu folk tales, and also for setting up Ainu language schools and a number of museums of Ainu history.

Particularly painful for Kayano were the memories of his mother subjecting herself to this so-called “scholarship” — he recalls her staggering home, weakened after having her blood taken for research purposes.

What seemed to disturb Kayano the most, though, more than the pillaging of cultural artifacts and human remains, was the dehumanizing way this research was carried out.

“There was also portrait photography. People not only were photographed from the front, the side, and an assortment of angles but induced to wear large number plates such as criminals wear in mug shots.

“Among the photos of my mother is one in which a number plate hangs from her neck,” he wrote.

The most eminent — and, in the eyes of some, notorious — of this generation of Japanese Ainu scholars is Sakuzaemon Kodama, whose legacy was discussed in an earlier Japan Times article by Tomek Bogdanowicz (“Skeletons in the academic closet,” Nov. 17, 2002).

Kodama, a professor of anatomy in the medical department of Hokkaido University in the 1930s, amassed a huge collection of more than 1,000 Ainu skulls. Although he made a major contribution to Ainu scholarship, his reputation has been seriously tarnished by accusations of grave robbery and artifact theft.

Although this “tomb raider” era of Japanese archaeology and anthropology has long since passed, the scars left behind are far from healed, and the issue of the return of ancestral remains is at the forefront of the Ainu’s present-day struggles.

Based on a yearlong survey, the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology revealed earlier this year that the bones of over 1,600 Ainu are still being stored at 11 universities across the country.

These remains were taken from grave sites primarily in Hokkaido, but also from Sakhalin and the Kuril Islands (both now part of Russia), between 1873 and 2011, for the purpose of carrying out studies on the skulls.

At the center of the controversy is Hokkaido University, which is holding the majority of the remains — those of 1,027 individuals. A lawsuit has been filed against the university by a group of Ainu from the Kineusu kotan, seeking to have their ancestor’s bones returned. “Kotan” means both village and tribe in the Ainu language and was the central unit of social organization in traditional Ainu society.

The plaintiffs originate from Kineusu, a historic Ainu village on the southeastern coast of Hokkaido, and are demanding the return, on the basis of tribal affiliation, of remains taken from their kotan.

According to lawyer Morihiro Ichikawa, who is representing the group, this is a landmark case for Japan in terms of indigenous rights.

“This is the first case where the Ainu people have argued for their aboriginal title to be recognized in a Japanese court, and also the first time they have demanded the return of their ancestors’ skulls and bones,” he says. “So far, the Japanese courts have never handled Ainu rights cases.”

Under Japan’s Civil Code, human remains can only be transferred to an individual who is a direct descendant or proven blood relative of the deceased, Morihiro explains. “We are arguing that the bones of the kotan’s members belong to the whole kotan as a tribe, not to an individual. Indeed, the Ainu didn’t individually manage the bones after burials.”

As Hokkaido University is a state institution, it stands on the same side as the Japanese government, and so far it has refused to recognize the idea of aboriginal title, Morihiro says.

In the past, Hokkaido University has returned some remains — between 1985 and 2001 35 skulls were transferred to five branches of the Ainu Association of Hokkaido — but, according to Morihiro, the university didn’t bother trying to find out who the bones belonged to.

“It means Hokkaido University did not care about who owns those bones,” he says.

Morihiro also believes the university’s position has hardened in recent years, making it more difficult for Ainu who want their ancestors’ remains returned.

“Hokkaido University now insists the individual Ainu must prove ownership of the bones — I think that is impossible. I do not know its reasons, but I guess Hokkaido University wants to carry out DNA research on these bones.”

The circumstances by which the universities came into possession of the Ainu remains are murky, in part because of the time that has elapsed since most of the exhumations occurred — 140 years in some cases.

Apart from a few first-hand accounts, such as those of Kayano, very little in the way of reliable records exists detailing the circumstances surrounding the removal of the remains.

Ainu argue there is evidence that in at least some cases bones were stolen, but it also seems likely, considering the poverty in which the Ainu lived at that time, that in other cases money may have changed hands.

Hokkaido University Vice-President Takashi Mikami refutes the claim that remains were stolen and says they have found “no documents that suggest grave robbery.”

He does, however, acknowledge that the university could have done a better job of looking after the bones.

“There were problems in the way we managed the remains,” he admits.

The careless management of the Ainu bones, not just by Hokkaido University but by most of the other colleges involved, is a key obstacle blocking the return of the remains, says the president of the Ainu Association of Hokkaido, Tadashi Kato.

“During the collection of these remains for research, many of the bones from different people were mixed together. Skulls were separated from bodies and also burial items were separated from the remains, making it impossible to know who the bones belong to,” he says. “This is very upsetting for us.”

Kato calls the taking of the Ainu remains a “serious human rights issue” and says he wants to see all the bones returned as soon as possible.

Unlike in contemporary Japanese Buddhist ceremonies, where cremation is the norm, traditionally Ainu have always buried the dead and, according to Kato, this is a way to ensure their “spirit remains connected to the family.”

This closeness felt between the Ainu and their deceased loved ones is vividly illustrated by some of the observations of early Ainu scholar Neil Gordon Munro in his classic book “Ainu Creed and Cult.”

Munro, a Scottish doctor who lived among the Ainu in Nibutani in the early 1900s, wrote of young, lactating mothers who would “press out their milk on the grave of a baby.”

He also talks of a rite called uko-ni-charapa (“together opening out”), which was performed when a pregnant woman died: “The abdomen was cut with a sickle to allow the soul of the infant to escape. In the north, I am reliably informed, it was pierced with a needle.”

The Ainu also have a long-established tradition of conducting ritual memorial ceremonies for their deceased ancestors at various times throughout the year. These outdoor ceremonies, called icharupa, are performed to console the spirits of the ancestors. Tonoto, or sacred sake, is sprinkled over the ground and offerings of food, such as rice or sweets, are also made.

“As soon as possible, we want the remains of our ancestors returned so we can perform icharupa,” says Kato. “I believe the most important thing is to comfort the souls of our ancestors.”

The importance of these ancient rites to the Ainu of today reflects a sad truth: that these ceremonies are some of the last vestiges of their traditional culture that, through practice, can still be kept alive.

The traditional Ainu way of living off the land in harmony with the cycles of nature is now gone forever, killed off not just by generations of domination by the wajin (non-Ainu Japanese) majority but also by the creeping hand of modernization.

Author Yukie Chiri, in the preface to her work “Ainu Shin’yoshu,” the first transcription by an ethnic Ainu of folk stories from the ancient oral narrative tradition of kamui yukar, expresses this deep love and reverence the Ainu had for their homeland of Hokkaido.

“Inland in winter to push through the deep snow blanketing the fields and forests and, without a thought for the cold congealing heaven and earth, to cross mountain after mountain to hunt bear; on the sea in summer, to float small, leaf-shaped boats upon green waves swept by cool breezes and, with the song of the white gulls for company, to fish the whole day long . . . ah, what a pleasant life that must be! A realm of peace!”

Writing in back in 1922, Chiri was speaking not of her own existence, but how she imagined life to have been for her ancestors.

In her own life, which was tragically short — she died of heart complications at 19 years old, literally days after she finished writing the “Ainu Shin’yoshu” — Chiri had already witnessed the beginning of the modernization of Hokkaido and the decline of her people.

“In a twinkling the natural landscape as it had been since the ancient past has vanished; what has become of the folk who joyfully made their living in its fields and mountains?

“The few of us fellow kinspeople who remain simply stare wide-eyed, astonished by the state of the world as it continues to advance,” she wrote.

“Our eyes are filled with anxiety, burn with discontent, and are so dimmed that they cannot make out the way ahead . . .

“We are a pitiful sight. A dying people. . . .

“That is our name. What a sad name we bear!”


The Ainu: persecuted, ‘assimilated’ people of Japan’s far north

The Ainu are the indigenous people of Japan’s northern island of Hokkaido, and the disputed territories of Sakhalin and the Kuril Islands in Russia’s Far East.

They are a distinct ethnic group to the Yamato Japanese and have lighter skin, more body hair and rounder eyes, giving them a more European appearance, although recent DNA research suggests they are not actually Caucasian but of “proto-mongoloid” genetic stock.

The Ainu were an ancient hunter-gatherer society with their own distinct language, culture, and a religion based on natural phenomena — although it is believed, sadly, that there are now almost no native Ainu speakers still living.

Until the 18th century, the Ainu lived in relative isolation in Hokkaido and maintained an independent society to the Japanese, although extensive interactions through trade, and some conflict, did occur.

Then, after the Meiji Restoration of 1868, Hokkaido was formally annexed by the Japanese and in 1899 the Hokkaido Former Aborigines Protection Act was passed.

This law marked the beginning of the end of traditional Ainu culture and society and led to forced assimilation of the Ainu into mainstream Japanese life and the loss of customary hunting and fishing rights.

It wasn’t until 2008 that the Diet finally passed a resolution formally recognizing the Ainu as an indigenous people of Japan.

Estimates of the current Ainu population of Japan range between 25,000 and 200,000.

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