• Kyodo

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A course on Ainu culture that went beyond conventional academic studies allowed students this spring at Muroran Institute of Technology to experience directly the culture of the indigenous people of Hokkaido and its adjacent islands, university officials said.

The course, which ended in July, proved so popular that the university will now offer it at its graduate school starting in the fall, the officials said.

Rather than focusing solely on theory like conventional classes, course work included experiencing the Ainu culture, encouraging students to participate in such activities as growing millet, which used to be part of the Ainu staple diet, according to the officials.

“Learning a theory is important, but it is also important to feel their culture,” said Takashi Matsuna, assistant professor of linguistics at the university, who taught the course.

Treated as aliens by the Japanese and affected by disease and other factors, the Ainu population declined considerably in the 19th century. Due to mixed marriages with Japanese during the 20th century, people identifying themselves as Ainu fell to 24,381 by 1986.

Students looked into the history and lifestyle of the Ainu and studied the 1997 ruling in the Nibutani Dam lawsuit, which acknowledged Ainu as the indigenous people in the area around Biratoricho, Hokkaido. Students also planted crops as part of their course work. After cultivating fields on the university campus, students used crushed oyster shells and dried starfish as fertilizer in accordance with the traditional Ainu farming method.

In September, students will harvest the crops using a “pipa,” a tool made of shellfish. To thresh millet, they plan to borrow a mortar and pestle from an Ainu museum. “By learning the culture of Ainu, I want students to realize that Hokkaido, which is currently suffering from the economic recession, is a rich land,” Matsuna said.

“I hope they will use this unique experience as a clue to discover their future opportunities.”

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