“Those who have put out the people’s eyes reproach them of their blindness’‘ — John Milton (1608-74)

It’s certainly an eye-opening photograph: Sakuzaemon Kodama, professor of anatomy in the medical department of Hokkaido University in the 1930s, surrounded by shelfloads of skulls, racks of swords and other artifacts.

However, the fact that these are the skulls of Ainu people — many of whom were not long dead when Kodama helped himself to their craniums — makes the archive picture all the more arresting.

Those human remains, the fruits of numerous Kodama-led excavations of Ainu burial sites on their indigenous lands in Hokkaido, southern Sakhalin and the Kurile Islands, were — along with the grave goods interred with the deceased — ostensibly collected for study purposes “in the pursuit of science.”

The remains were mostly exhumed from village graves during the 1930s — a time when belief in the Social-Darwinist paradigm of “survival of the fittest” was particularly strong. This enabled academics to override Ainu people’s objections without compunction under the cloak of scientific research.

This led to some particularly gruesome abuses. In an article in 1935 in the archaeological journal Dolmen, Yoshikiyo Koganei, one of Kodama’s predecessors, described secret nighttime excavations of Ainu graves in which recently buried bodies were washed clean of flesh and skin in nearby streams.

Kodama’s academic legacy may be tarnished by the scale of his skull-collecting, but he wasn’t unique in what he was doing. Although his university’s collection of Ainu remains is certainly Japan’s largest, many other former Imperial universities have Ainu skeletons in their cupboards, too.

However, in examining the recent furor over similar abuses of the Yanomami people in the Amazon, University of California anthropologist Nancy Scheper-Hughes questions “What has made scientists pursuing their professional, personal or even sexual goals so inhumane?” Writing in the journal Anthropology Today in February 2001, she said, “The answer is science itself, which tends to dehumanize its subjects (as well as its practitioners), and to turn human communities into experimental laboratories in the field.”

Fortunately, some of the academic excesses of the past have since been partially rectified. In 1987, Hokkaido University’s collection of 1,004 Ainu skulls and other skeletal remains became the subject of negotiations with the Ainu Association of Hokkaido regarding their storage and repatriation.

These issues were largely resolved with the construction of a charnel house on university grounds and the return, to date, of 35 remains to various locations around Hokkaido. The remains of the 969 Ainu still held by the medical faculty are still available for repatriation to any branch of the AAH that applies. In addition, it was stipulated that any research on the remaining bones requires official AAH approval, with research reports also being submitted to the AAH and made available for all those concerned to read.

In an interview, Masahiko Watanabe, the medical school’s current professor of anatomy, said that the charnel house “was built by the university to apologize for the wrongdoings of predecessors.” In addition, he said, “We consider the bones as being technically owned by the AAH; the university merely looks after them.”

As to further research, Watanabe explained that no further applications have been made, as university members are “nervous about studying the remaining bones for fear of upsetting Ainu people further” — a concern now common among Japanese scholars interested in contemporary Ainu research.

Despite the resolution of the issue of the human remains, the thorny one of the grave goods remains.

In “Ainu: Historical and Anthropological Studies,” the 1970 book written in English for an international readership, that was to be Kodama’s last major work before he died that year at age 75, he described numerous excavations at specific grave sites. He noted how “daily necessities, accessories, swords, bows, etc. were found as their grave goods.” As these were buried with the deceased to be sent along to the next world with them, men were typically interred with bows, arrows, harpoons, pipes and swords, while needles, scissors, looms and glass-bead necklaces were found with the bodies of women.

Although such items were collected along with human remains by the university’s teams led by Kodama, their present whereabouts remain a mystery. Despite Hokkaido University being their most likely custodian, during the 1987 negotiations no mention was made of grave goods — and Watanabe insists “the university has none in its possession.”

Instead, the professor believes that in Kodama’s time academics tended to regard such excavated items as their personal property. Hence, he speculates that “perhaps the grave goods became part of Kodama’s larger collection.” Here, Watanabe is referring to the so-called Kodama Collection — one of the leading collections of its kind in Japan. Comprising more than 7,000 Ainu-related items, Kodama reportedly amassed the collection through purchases from antique shops around Hokkaido over a span of 40 years — purchases for which there are hardly any records.

After Kodama’s death, much of his collection was divided between the Hakodate City Museum and the Ainu Museum in Shiraoi, with the remainder retained by his family. Hence it seems likely that the grave goods are still in Hokkaido and, although their exact whereabouts are unknown. However, the AAH’s Vice Secretary General, Yukio Sato, confirmed recently that “they are still an issue.”

Koji Deriha, curator of the Historical Museum of Hokkaido, echoed Watanabe’s speculation that the grave goods likely became part of Kodama’s personal collection. However, contrary to Watanabe’s assertion, he said, “There are rumors that Hokkaido University still secretly possesses a small amount of Ainu artifacts, possibly obtained from graves.” Despite being confident that he could identify items that had been buried for a significant period of time, he said that items from graves that had been opened after only a few days would be indistinguishable from other artifacts.

Such questions are not unique to the Ainu, or to Japan. In fact the indigenous ownership and control of cultural property is one of the major issues considered by the U.N. Working Group on Indigenous Populations that meets annually in Geneva. In 1991, a report on the negotiations over the Ainu skeletal remains submitted to the working group by the AAH demanded respect for the graves and holy places of indigenous peoples and the return of Ainu cultural relics from museums in America and Europe, to where they were taken by missionaries and scholars. One delegation observed that the Ainu negotiations could serve as a model for other indigenous peoples facing similar problems.

How times have changed. In her 1942 book, “Petticoat Vagabond in Ainu land and up and down Eastern Asia,” American travel writer Neill James wrote about meeting “many noted Ainu researchers” — including Kodama — in the early 1940s. Despite their wide range of interests in Ainu people, she noted that not one of them ever asked the Ainu, “What can I do to improve your lot in life?”

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