Many people believe the Ainu live only in Hokkaido, but that’s not true.
A documentary shown to the public at a cultural hall in Yokohama for five days earlier this month introduced the lives of Ainu in greater Tokyo who are actively promoting their culture far from their traditional northern homeland.
“We Ainu want to let other people know about the deep affection our ethnic group has for others that comes directly from our minds and from our eyes,” said Shizue Ukaji, a 77-year-old Ainu woman living in the Tokyo area who initiated the production of the film “TOKYO Ainu” and appears in it.
“It has been my dream since childhood that Ainu should shoot a film about Ainu,” she said.
The Ainu have a unique culture. For hundreds of years they lived in the Tohoku region, Hokkaido and other northern parts, including Sakhalin and the Russian-held islands northeast of Hokkaido, and for a long time they have led underprivileged lives: Under the Meiji government’s assimilation policy, they were deprived of their land and their cultural activities were restricted.
After the war, some Ainu moved from Hokkaido to the Tokyo area to work, attend school or to escape discrimination. Approximately 5,000 to 10,000 are thought to be living in the Tokyo area, according to the documentarians.
Some continue to conceal their identities to avoid discrimination and prejudice, they said.
Ukaji was one such Ainu who left, coming to live in the Tokyo area at age 23.
Born in Urakawa in southern Hokkaido, Ukaji said she couldn’t find employment in the prefecture because of discrimination.
After finding work at restaurants and cafes and eventually getting married, Ukaji said she didn’t encounter any discrimination in Tokyo herself.
But she said Ainu still can’t disclose their ethnic background, even in Tokyo, for fear of prejudice.
“Wherever we are, we could never come out to you and say ‘We are Ainu,’ ” Ukaji said. “There wouldn’t be any benefits — only negatives.”
Since she was young, Ukaji hasn’t been happy with the way some Japanese academics and writers, who boast being specialists in Ainu culture, have portrayed them.
“Since our childhood, Japanese scholars and writers who have dealt with Ainu issues have been saying the ‘Ainu people are going to become extinct,’ ” Ukaji said.
But in villages, older people still practice the Ainu culture. “I couldn’t accept psychologically” what those Japanese were saying, said Ukaji, who began pondering a film produced by and about the Ainu.
Maoki Sato, a producer at the Space Alta cultural hall in Yokohama, said Ukaji asked him to produce a film around the end of 2006. He accepted and a production committee was set up.
Because no Ainu were qualified to direct, members of the filmmaking group in early 2007 asked Hiroshi Moriya, a former TBS TV director, to head the film.
While shooting a memorial service in central Tokyo for Ainu ancestors, Moriya initially considered featuring a man who was building an Ainu cultural facility in Chiba Prefecture but decided to change tack and gather recordings and images of as many Ainu as possible in the Tokyo metropolitan area.
In the annual ceremony, names of the deceased are read out and participants pray for their ancestors’ happiness in the afterlife.
Moriya realized each departed soul had a story to tell. Many Ainu have suffered discrimination and kept asking themselves about who they actually are as a minority. But Japanese don’t hear or even try to listen to what they have to say, he said.
“It would be a more valuable film if we listened and told the story of Ainu communities in the greater Tokyo area as a whole. I felt I had to do that,” he said.
Moriya spent 3 1/2 years interviewing more than 10 Ainu in the Tokyo area, asking them about their childhood and experiences with discrimination, the reasons they moved to the metropolis and their current life, among others things.
In the documentary, many Ainu open up and talk about the prejudices they’ve faced.
One woman said a Japanese whom Ainu had taken care of would just ignore them on the street, and another said she had no wish to let her children experience the kind of discrimination she had to go through.
But many Ainu are also proud of their ethnicity.
One woman talked about how comfortable she became when she wore ethnic Ainu clothing, and another said she hopes Ainu will soon be able to identify themselves in public.
Moriya also recorded various events organized by Ainu in the Tokyo area. They included dancing and singing performances, and lessons in embroidery, woodcraft and musical instruments.
He recorded 180 hours of film, which he had to condense into just 116 minutes.
Sato said the movie cost ¥7 million to produce. The project was partially financed by donations from around 300 individuals as well as companies and organizations across the country.
Its next showing will be at the Amnesty Film Festival 2011, to be held in Tokyo in January, and it will be screened at other film festivals around the country later in the year, he said.
An English-language version is to be completed by the end of February and Sato says he plans to show the end product in Melbourne, Australia, in March.
Sato expects audiences to see that Ainu themselves are trying to establish their life and culture in the metropolitan area, far from their ancestral homeland. “They are finding it rewarding to live as Ainu. I hope people will notice that,” he said.
With the movie, Moriya said he hopes the audience will think about how they will live and interact with the Ainu. “I hope the audiences find their own message and story (in my film) and convey them to other people.”