A restaurant in Tokyo has been sending out a simple but poignant message for more than seven years: It’s not bad to be Ainu.
|Ainu perform a traditional ritual to thank the gods at Ainu restaurant Rera Chise in Tokyo’s Nakano Ward.|
Rera Chise, which means “House of Wind” in the Ainu language, was the first restaurant in the capital to feature the food of Hokkaido’s indigenous minority.
Located in Nakano Ward, the Ainu restaurant is the brainchild of 67-year-old Tatsue Sato and her fellow Ainu in Tokyo.
The restaurant celebrated its seventh anniversary earlier this month with a traditional ceremony in which more than 20 people clad in ethnic costumes took part to give thanks to the gods.
During the ritual, a cup of sake is offered to the gods and then solemnly passed around to each participant for a sip, in line with the words spoken by one Ainu woman: “The Ainu have lived by sharing everything.”
Sato came to Tokyo from Hokkaido on Oct. 10, 1964 — a date not easily forgotten as it coincided with the opening of the Tokyo Olympic Games, an event that served as a symbol of Japan’s resurrection from the devastation of World War II.
“I saw lots of pigeons in the sky and wondered what was going on. I did not know anything because I had never even read a newspaper,” she recalled.
Like other people from Hokkaido, which is blanketed by snow for nearly six months of the year, many Ainu came to Tokyo looking for jobs. Upon arriving in the metropolis, however, many of them — especially those of Sato’s generation and older — had a difficult time adjusting to urban life.
This was partly because most of them had never gone to school and could not speak standard Japanese very well, and partly because of an inferiority complex born from the heavy discrimination and prejudice they experienced back home, she said.
Sato said that in Hokkaido, Ainu had until recently been “treated like dogs” by the Japanese. She said prejudice toward the Ainu exists to this day, rearing its ugly head in such issues as marriage and employment.
“We suffered from terrible discrimination. But those who can’t talk among the Japanese very well can talk among ‘utari’ (Ainu) themselves. They want a place where they can speak in such a manner.
“If we had a place where we could eat Ainu food together and relax, I thought we would be able to voice what we kept bottled up inside,” Sato said.
The business is not doing badly, either. Ainu dishes, featuring such Hokkaido fares as salmon, potatoes and venison, are appreciated by many Japanese customers as well as Ainu.
Meanwhile, for people with Ainu blood, visiting the restaurant means more than just eating out. Not many Ainu are willing to acknowledge their ethnic background because “it does little good to say ‘I am Ainu,’ ” Sato said.
Over the years, however, more people have come to the restaurant and said that they, too, are Ainu, she said. “I hope (Ainu here) don’t just brood over the bad experiences they have had, but come here, share good food, and think of the happiness of being Ainu.”
Rera Chise has succeeded not only as a forum for Ainu in the Tokyo area, but also as a base for handing down the culture to younger generations — a fact witnessed by the several youths who took part in the seventh anniversary rites.
A monthly language class held at Rera Chise gives both Ainu and Japanese, young and old, an opportunity to study the Ainu language, said Sato, who has seven grandchildren and one great-grandchild.
“I am very glad to see young people come forward and learn the culture of their origins,” she said.
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