Photo album chronicles daily lives of Ainu living in Tokyo

by Keiji Hirano

Kyodo News

A record of the daily lives of Ainu living in the Tokyo metropolitan area has been published as a photo collection.

Around 160 photos in “Ainu, at times Japanese” depict Ainu who are involved in traditional religious exercises, dancing and singing, and marriage ceremonies despite being far from their hometowns, mainly in Hokkaido.

“I have repeatedly visited Hokkaido to photograph Ainu as I considered it their home,” said Makiko Ui, a Tokyo-based freelance photographer who shot the pictures between 1992 and 2008. “But I was surprised to know it is estimated that at least 5,000 Ainu live in and around Tokyo.

“I wanted to know and report on how my Ainu neighbors lead their lives,” Ui, 49, added.

The original version of the photo album was published in 2001, but the enlarged and revised edition also includes her latest photos, featuring young Ainu, including tots, who are trying to inherit and hand on their ethnic culture in their own ways.

Among them is Mina Sakai, who leads an entertainment group called Ainu Rebels that performs traditional Ainu dances and music mixed with contemporary work.

“The publication of the new photo book will be a good opportunity for the public to learn of the existence of Ainu in the metropolitan area,” Sakai, 26, said. “And we, as cultural envoys, must be the ones who present modern-day Ainu.”

The photo collection also shows a little boy wearing traditional clothes and performing a traditional sword dance with his father.

The new photos also include a shot of a Tokyo rally in May last year, at which Ainu demanded the government give them indigenous status. In response, the government eventually recognized in June last year that the Ainu are an “indigenous people that have their own language and religious and cultural identity.”

Ui also shot photos of a funeral of a female Ainu activist, one of which shows Ainu women performing a traditional dance for her.

“Some of the Ainu in my photo book said they are ‘Japanese, at times Ainu,’ but I stick to the current title as the Ainu did not become Japanese through their own will, but rather have been burdened with being Japanese,” she said, referring to the past assimilation policy imposed on them by the government.

“Some people in my photo album declined to reveal their Ainu blood and some left Hokkaido with unpleasant memories, but now they live by identifying themselves as Ainu following exchanges with other Ainu in the new lands,” she added.

Ui, a lecturer at Musashino Art University in Tokyo, is now shooting portraits of 100 Ainu, who have led their lives without strongly publicizing their ethnic identity. “I want to show through the series of portraits that Ainu live nationwide as our ordinary neighbors.”