WASHINGTON — An unprecedented, in-depth exhibition on the culture of the Ainu is being held in the U.S. capital.
The exhibit is notable for the input that its subjects, the indigenous northern Japanese minority, had in its preparation themselves, said William Fitzhugh, director of the Arctic Studies Center at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History, and because it celebrates the Ainu’s present as well as their past.
Fitzhugh, who initiated the “Ainu: Spirit of a Northern People” exhibition, said the museum succeeded in presenting a balanced perspective only after obtaining cooperation from Chisato Dubreuil, an Ainu descendant who serves as cocurator of the show.
“It is organized in a way to reflect the voice of the Ainu,” Dubreuil said. “Different from a number of exhibitions of minorities in the past, it is not designed to show the culture of a minority to the majority from the viewpoint of the majority for their amusement.”
About 300 archaeological and ethnological specimens, photographs and paintings of the Ainu are being exhibited. Most of the ethnological specimens were collected in the late 19th and early 20th centuries by North Americans and Europeans, Fitzhugh said.
To present modern Ainu culture, Dubreuil included artworks by contemporary Ainu artists, including sculptor Bikky Sunazawa. Bikky means “a frog” in the Ainu language.
Dubreuil also closely consulted with other Ainu artists, elders and experts throughout the preparation process by traveling several times between the U.S. and Japan.
The museum’s director, Robert Fri, said, “The Ainu exhibition enables the Ainu to tell their own story, in collaboration with members of the museum and scholars of Japan and the United States.”
Oki Kano, a musician of mixed Ainu and Japanese blood who plays the “tonkori,” a traditional Ainu stringed instrument, said the exhibition is human-oriented. “I feel I can trace back my roots,” said Kano, who is the sculptor Sunazawa’s son.
Fitzhugh said Ainu history, which is presented as a story of loss, forced assimilation and revival, mirrors the experiences of indigenous people in many parts of the world, in particular American Indians.
Chisato Dubreuil and her husband, David, an Indian of Mohawk and Huron descent and project manager of the exhibition, said this shared experience gives the Ainu exhibition a relevance in the United States and other countries with ethnic minorities. “I wouldn’t have been able to carry out my tasks without David,” Dubreuil said.
She said she and her husband felt their esteem in their ethnicity has grown considerably since they were contacted by members of other ethnic minorities who came to know about the exhibition through the Internet (http://www.nmnh.si.edu/arctic/html/ainu.htm) or (http://www.nmnh.edu) or (http://www.si.edu)
“We feel we inspire each other and foster pride in our ethnic heritage,” she said.
Jomon roots studied>
The Ainu, or “humans” in their language, have roots reaching back more than 10,000 years. Modern biological studies suggest they descended from the Jomon Period people, who once occupied much of the Japanese archipelago, according to experts.
The Ainu differed from their Asian neighbors in language and in appearance. Their eyes are deep-set, their bodies muscular and hairy. Ainu men wore flowing beards. The women often sported tattooed lips, arms and hands.
Some scholars thought the Ainu might have represented remnants of a “lost” Caucasoid race, considering their appearance.
Driven northward by ancestors of today’s Japanese as they moved in from the Asian mainland, the Ainu took refuge in the forests of Hokkaido and the northern islands of Sakhalin and Kuril.
They evolved there as hunters, fishermen and traders, eventually dealing with Russians, Chinese and Japanese, until Japan launched its aggressive Hokkaido settlement campaign at the start of the Meiji Restoration in 1868.
Intermarriage and forced assimilation through farming and education under the 1899 Hokkaido Former Aborigine Protection Law, which denied them the right to continue their traditional practices or speak their language, drastically reduced the number of full Ainu descendants and the number who speak the language, which has no written text.
Today, only about 25,000 people claiming some Ainu ancestry live in Hokkaido, according to experts.
Their appearance made the Ainu easy targets of discrimination, Dubreuil said, noting she was bullied in school in Aomori Prefecture and labeled by classmates as a “dojin,” an derogatory name for an aborigine.
Musician Kano said discrimination against the Ainu, many of whom have a lower income and standard of education than mainstream Japanese, continues, especially in terms of marriage and employment.
Some Ainu still feel they have to conceal their ethnic identity, Kano said.
Nakasone gaffe a catalyst>
The 1970s and ’80s, however, saw movements calling for recognition of Ainu ethnicity.
Ainu were significantly boosted after 1986, when then prime minister Yasuhiro Nakasone attributed the nation’s economic success to what he called the homogeneity of the Japanese race.
Infuriating many Americans as well as Ainu, Nakasone also said the U.S. minority population was the reason behind America’s lower-than-average intelligence level.
The U.N. declaration designating 1993 as the year of aboriginal people was also an important stimulus to set a world trend toward a renaissance of ethnic culture, Dubreuil said.
“Through the exhibition, we want the public to know the Ainu is a dying race, but they exist and their culture is vital,” she said.
The U.N. declaration made even some conservative politicians in Japan begin to look at problems surrounding the Ainu in a fresh light.
On July 1, 1997, the old Protection Act was repealed and replaced by the New Ainu Cultural Promotion Law. The legislation, which guarantees the human rights of the Ainu and commits the state to helping them preserve their culture, describes its purpose as an attempt to achieve a society that respects the dignity of the Ainu as a distinct race by promoting their culture and traditions.
It is the nation’s first legislation acknowledging the existence of an ethnic minority.
However, some people term the law ambiguous because it recognizes the Ainu as an ethnic minority within Japan, while failing to answer whether they deserve rights to land and natural resources, and special rights as a distinct ethnic group to make up for more than a century of legal discrimination. Their designation as an indigenous people is not a provision of the law but of a nonbinding resolution attached to it.
Despite the law’s nature, Jiro Sasamura, chairman of the Sapporo-based Ainu Association of Hokkaido, said it is an important first step and he hopes the Ainu will be gradually understood by people worldwide.
Fostering understanding>The exhibition will play a significant role toward fostering mutual understanding, David Dubreuil said.
“It will provide people with opportunities to better understand the ethnic minority, which will open a door toward mutual respect,” he said.
One example is a ceremony involving the Ainu’s most sacred animal — the bear. The bear “iyomante” ceremony was considered the most important expression of Ainu culture — “i” means “thing,” “omante” means “sending” in Ainu.
Through the iyomante ceremony, the Ainu celebrated returning a bear’s spirit to the spirit world with prayers, gifts and invitations to return again soon. They killed and ate the bear, which they captured as a cub, after raising it as an honored guest and family member.
Many Westerners easily misinterpret the rite as a cruel and barbaric act, David Dubreuil said.
The Ainu, who believe all living and nonliving things are physical forms of spirits visiting the earthly world, treat all things with respect and care, and performed sending ceremonies for almost everything they used or killed — not just bears or fish, but trees and grass and even broken pots and tools. Doing so ensured an unbroken cycle of renewal between the earthly and spiritual worlds.
Kano said Western people can learn lessons from such attitudes about life.
The exhibition, funded mainly by the Tokyo-based Nippon Foundation, will run through Jan. 2 at the museum. It will then tour North America until the end of March 2001. So far, there is no plan to hold the exhibition in Japan.