A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin, and culture, is like a tree without roots.
— Marcus Garvey (1887-1940)

In the Botanical Gardens in Sapporo there is an Ainu Museum. Reading through the visitors book there reveals a concern common to many of the foreigners who pass that way. While many commend the museum for its English-language explanations, their comments are peppered with queries like: “Where are the Ainu now?”; “How many are there?”; “What happened to them?”; “Where do they live?”; and even “What do they look like?”

As with the names many native people have invented for themselves, “Ainu” literally means “human” and is used to refer to themselves as an ethnic group. They are a group whose distinct culture emerged from the earlier Jomon culture on Hokkaido, the Kuril Islands, southern Sakhalin (Karafuto) and northern Japan — territories the Ainu refer to as “Ainu Moshir,” meaning “Land of the Ainu.”

However, to get the full answer to many of these questions, one must go back to the beginning of the 15th century, when the Japanese (Wajin) began to extend their control over these lands and to oppress the estimated 40,000 Ainu who lived there.

By the 19th century, the Tokugawa regime’s exports were heavily dependent on rice, kelp and commodities from Hokkaido (Ezo). Trade with the Ainu diminished, however, as they came to be seen as a people to be controlled and forced to labor in trading posts along the coastline. The herring they fished was in great demand as fertilizer for rice and other crops, and Ainu Moshir was gradually swallowed into the Tokugawa economic system.

Following the Meiji Restoration in 1868, on the advice of former U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Horace Capron, Kuroda Kiyotaka, the first director of the new government’s colonization office, banned many of the Ainu’s “repugnant practices” and “inferior customs.” Among these were the wearing of earrings by men and facial and body tattoos by women, most of the traditional hunting practices and funeral ceremonies, and the use of their own language. In addition, the use of Japanese family names was made compulsory.

These restrictions were enshrined in the 1899 Hokkaido Former Aborigines Protection Act, designed to forcibly assimilate and absorb the Ainu into the emperor system. While some sections were repealed in the 1930s, it was not until May 1997 that it finally disappeared from the Japanese statute book to be replaced by the Ainu Cultural Promotion Act.

However the law failed to acknowledge Ainu calls for land or resource rights, or political demands for indigenous representation in the central or local governments. In a recent essay, Ainu counselor Ryoko Tahara condemned the law as restrictive.

“Ainu culture is not limited to language or ceremonies or dance. It is Ainu life itself. Whatever happens every day within the household is Ainu culture,” she wrote.

Despite the post-war economic boom, the gap between Ainu and Wajin in lifestyle, educational and economic factors remains significant. The various general welfare measures that the Hokkaido government has attempted to implement since 1974 are considered insufficient by the Utari Kyokai (Ainu Association of Hokkaido).

For instance, a 1999 Hokkaido Prefectural Government survey reports the ratio of Ainu who enter high school is 95.2 percent, compared with the local average of 97 percent. However, only 16.1 percent go on to university, half the general average of 34.5 percent.

Also the ratio of welfare assistance among Ainu is twice the average for non-Ainu.

Tokyo Ainu Haruzo Urakawa summed up the inequality during a meeting in New England with native Americans that was sponsored by the indigenous rights group Cultural Survival.

“To a certain extent, I have been assimilated into Japanese culture,” he said. “But even if Ainu are assimilated, I’m still poor, I still cannot have the good life like other Japanese.”

While official counts of the Ainu population should always be treated with caution due to high levels of intermarriage, adoption and social prejudice, the same 1999 survey reported that 23,767 Ainu were living in Hokkaido. However, the Utari Kyokai contends the true figure is three to four times higher, and that there are between 8,000 and 10,000 Ainu in the Kanto region.

Difficulty in establishing how many Ainu there are stems from a variety of reasons. Not least of these is that some people of Ainu ancestry no longer consider themselves Ainu, even though physical differences may set them apart from Wajin. Others, due to ongoing discrimination — particularly in marriage and employment — are reluctant to officially declare themselves as Ainu, while others prefer to “pass” as Wajin in mainstream society, especially in big cities.

Indeed, the centuries of negative stereotyping of the Ainu sadly appear to have led to many internalizing a belief that all things Ainu are in some way inferior. In a sense, this is even reflected in the naming of the Utari Kyokai, whose roots are in the Hokkaido Ainu Kyokai formed in 1930 as the first organization for all Hokkaido Ainu. After a brief hiatus, this organization was revived after World War II. But in 1961 it was renamed the Utari Kyokai (“utari” literally means “our people”), due to the fact that some Ainu regarded the word Ainu as pejorative and loaded with negative connotations. There have since been a number of unsuccessful attempts to restore the original name, and the issue is still hotly debated.

Meanwhile, answering that “Where are the Ainu now?” question in the Sapporo museum’s visitors book is made even harder because many people of Ainu ancestry are simply unaware of their origins. This is because many Ainu parents hid their identity from their children, reasoning that it would protect them from discrimination. Indeed, the prejudice was so oppressively felt that some people even declared that the best thing would be for the Ainu to assimilate or simply die out.

Tragically, these “hidden” Ainu go through life largely untouched by the spiritual depth and beauty of Ainu culture, with its songs, dances, music, storytelling, and epic legends closely in harmony with the elements, nature and vastness of their surroundings.

However, cultural and political movements have been gathering momentum in the past few decades, leading to a reawakening and affirmation of Ainu culture. This has led to a stronger sense of pride, particularly among younger Ainu, who are keen to display their growing appreciation and knowledge of those traditions.

Discovering a new source of ethnic pride can result in a renewed sense of identity. In 1978, when it was announced that John Paul II was to be the first non-Italian pope in 456 years, thousands of people in the United States suddenly “came out” and proudly proclaimed their Polish roots. With more Ainu in the public spotlight, the success of a “famous” Ainu could serve to encourage a wave of “hidden” Ainu to finally acknowledge their ancestry and begin a journey of self-discovery to realize what it truly means to be “Ainu.”

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