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Archaeologist awarded for Ainu trade theory

by

Kyodo

Archaeologist Takuro Segawa has been awarded for his new theory that the Ainu, an indigenous ethnic group concentrated in Hokkaido, traded with Honshu and even Northeast Asia more closely than previously believed.

In his book “Ainu Gaku Nyumon” (“Introduction to the Study of Ainu People”), Segawa denies the fixed public image that the Ainu had little contact with Japanese in Honshu.

“Ainu people had not shut themselves up (in) Hokkaido,” said Segawa, also director of the Asahikawa City Museum in Hokkaido.

“The Ainu must have had active exchanges with people in surrounding areas and created their own culture having absorbed others,” he said in an interview.

The book in November was awarded the grand prize at the third Ancient History and Culture Award, which honors publications that help deepen public understanding of Japan’s ancient history. The award was jointly established by Mie, Nara, Wakayama, Shimane and Miyazaki prefectures.

As proof of the Ainu’s close contact with Japanese, the book argues that there were Ainu ethnic leaders wearing yoroi and kabuto samurai armor and helmets and that Ainu magic was largely affected by Onmyodo, a traditional Japanese esoteric practice based on China’s yin-yang philosophy, and Shugendo, another ancient Japanese spiritual practice.

Having researched the history and life of the Ainu for more than three decades, Segawa said he started having doubts about the conventional theory that they had lived a primitive natural life depending mainly on hunting.

The native Ainu in Hokkaido lost their land and their culture became nearly extinct after the Meiji government imposed a policy of assimilation. This continued until Japan’s defeat in World War II in 1945.

Compared with the Vikings, his book states that the Ainu even sailed close to the lower reach of the Amur River in northeastern China, seeking trade with the Ming dynasty during the 15th century. They also fought with other ethnic groups abroad.

The judges for the award commended the book, stating, “It has grasped the history of Ainu people dynamically, from a wide geographical perspective.”

A native of Sapporo, Segawa discovered the joy of excavations after joining the archaeology club in high school and decided to enter academia.

During his late 30s, he imposed on himself a rule to write one research paper a year and he has stuck to that ever since.

After publishing the book in February last year, Segawa was contacted by the Ainu Association of Hokkaido and asked to give a speech during one of its events.

“I was so proud when I received the offer,” he said, adding it dispelled his concern that his claims may provoke a backlash from the Ainu.

Japanese and Ainu are “not so far from each other,” he said, expressing hope the book will help more Japanese take an interest in the indigenous people.