HANNO, Saitama Pref. - Mina Sakai wanted to improve the status of her people and their self-esteem in a way that would also entertain ordinary people, not through a bookish history lecture that might lull them to sleep.
Over the past year, the 24-year-old Ainu woman from Obihiro, Hokkaido, has succeeded in an unconventional way in boosting public interest in the indigenous people, who are often subject to discrimination in what some people still tend to think of as an ethnically homogeneous society. She performs traditional Ainu dances and music mixed with rock and hip-hop.
At a concert in mid-November, Sakai and other members of the Ainu Rebels, who were often picked on at school because of their different physical appearance, performed in front of about 200 second-year students from Hanno High School in Saitama Prefecture, which invited the 16-member group as part of its human rights study program.
Sakai formed the Ainu Rebels in August 2006 along with her older brother, Atsushi, 27, and some Ainu friends who are in their 20s and 30s and now live in the Tokyo metropolitan area, having moved down from Hokkaido, the indigenous home of the Ainu.
Like many other Ainu activists, Sakai first used political means to advocate Ainu rights, including taking part in the U.N. working group on indigenous populations.
But she strongly felt that “something was missing.”
Sakai found that “something” when she talked to Shizue Ukaji, a well-known Ainu activist and artist, who encouraged her to express the Ainu culture together with her young peers.
Self-expression through dance is something Sakai excels at and Ukaji’s suggestion sounded right to her.
“I believe that entertainment can help us easily cross any boundaries between people, and I want people to first learn about the positive aspects of the Ainu, before such negative ones as discrimination and prejudice that are often associated with our people,” she said.
As Sakai wished, the Ainu Rebels have succeeded in drawing attention to the Ainu with their creative and entertaining performances while giving audiences an opportunity to think about the social issues affecting the ethnic minority.
“I didn’t know that the Ainu suffered so much discrimination. I was shocked” to hear the members’ childhood stories, said Shiho Yamashita, a Hanno High School student.
Sakai told the students: “Every time my schoolmates called me names about how I look, I cried ‘Why was I born to an Ainu?’ “
She cut her eyebrows and wore glasses in the hope of blending into the Japanese community, as well-defined facial features and thicker body hair are believed to be distinctive physical characteristics of the Ainu.
Tsubasa Okitsu, 27, of the Ainu Rebels, also from Obihiro, said: “Imagine that you cannot be proud of your origin. It’s hard, isn’t it? I felt I was completely denied and became a gloomy kid with low self-esteem.”
In her freshman year of high school in 1998, Sakai saw a ray of light in her future. In a program organized by a regional Ainu organization, she visited Canada and interacted with indigenous tribes in British Columbia and Alberta. She was fascinated by their lively, empowering dancing.
“From their expressions, I could tell how proud they were of themselves, their ethnicity and their origin,” she said. “I realized that our people could also live that way.”
She gradually recovered her self-respect and has become interested in knowing more about her own culture, language and roots, from which she had distanced herself since her childhood.
Now she also attends an Ainu language course in Tokyo. The Ainu Rebels sing in their ancient language, but none can speak it because their ancestors were not allowed to pass it on under the past assimilation policy of the government.
Since moving to Tokyo in 2001, Sakai has also learned at university about the social structures that have caused discrimination.
She works as a temporary staffer but hopes to make a living from her Ainu- and entertainment-related activities.
Having given several performances since last year and winning much applause, other Ainu Rebels have also regained their self-esteem.
“Looking back on my school years, I never thought I would be able to say out loud ‘I am an Ainu,’ ” said Megumi Murakami, 23, from Makubetsu, Hokkaido.
The Ainu Rebels sometimes receive criticism as well — from conservative Ainu folk who say, “This is not the Ainu. Don’t destroy our traditions.”
But Sakai is not about to give up.
“I believe this is the Ainu culture we want to express. And I would like to show Japanese and our ancestors that such young Ainu people exist in this society,” she said.