SAPPORO — For someone who grew up ashamed of her ethnic identity, they are powerful words.
“You are beautiful just as you are. Don’t be afraid,” Mina Sakai sings to a young, enthusiastic crowd in the language of the Ainu, the indigenous people of Hokkaido.
Sakai, 25, belongs to a group of young Ainu at the forefront of a revival of ethnic pride. Rebelling against a history of institutionalized discrimination, they want greater political recognition and the rescue of a culture that has been nearly wiped out by government assimilation policies and social pressure to conform.
Sakai is a leader of the Ainu Rebels, a group of more than a dozen Ainu in their 20s and 30s who sing and dance to prerecorded music, celebrating their ethnicity in unusual fashion by mixing traditional dress, dance and language with hip-hop and rap. Call it Ainu fusion.
In one number, several young women — dressed in typical Ainu blue and purple robes and headbands with bold, geometric patterns — danced in a circle while young men brandished bows and arrows, all to a throbbing techno beat that filled the small concert hall at a recent music festival in Sapporo.
The impact of exposure to other cultures is critical to the Ainu revival, as Mina Sakai’s case demonstrates.
Her awareness came at age 16 when, on a cultural exchange trip to Canada, she was struck by the passionate way Canadian indigenous people danced and sang.
“I was shocked. They were so cool and so proud of being native Canadians,” she said. “I realized that I have a beautiful culture and strong roots. I decided that I should be a proud Ainu and express that in my life.”
This newfound pride comes as Japan is showing signs of more openly acknowledging its diversity, with ethnic Koreans as well as Okinawans becoming popular mainstream entertainers.
In June, the Diet recognized the Ainu as an indigenous people with a distinct religion, language and culture, a major shift from the mid-1980s when Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone declared that Japan was a homogenous nation with no minorities.
The Ainu, a name that means “human,” lived in the forests of Hokkaido and surrounding islands for centuries, fishing for salmon and hunting deer and worshipping the spirits of the sun, thunder, water and fire as well as plants and animals.
Many scholars believe the Ainu came from Central Asia and Siberia. About 140 years ago, Japanese settlers colonized Hokkaido. They forced the Ainu to adopt Japanese names and ways, banned their language, and made them take up the unfamiliar livelihood of farming. Disease and poverty took a huge toll.
To escape discrimination, many choose non-Ainu spouses to dilute indigenous features such as pronounced cheekbones and noses and, among the men, more facial hair than the Japanese. “They felt that backwardness had been mapped onto their bodies,” said Ann-Elise Lewallen, an American cultural anthropologist at Hokkaido University.
Official surveys say about 24,000 Ainu live in Hokkaido now, but experts think the number is several times larger, in part because many are believed to hide their identity to avoid prejudice. No figures exist for their total number in Japan.
Sakai remembers the shame she felt when shopkeepers eyed her with suspicion and classmates teased her.
Now, her Ainu Rebels and other young artists are trying to reverse the stigma with a musical celebration of Ainu features, such as the song that Sakai sang titled “E Katafu Pirka,” or “You are Beautiful.” It compares Ainu identity to rain, wind, forests and natural landscapes, which Sakai says are as beautiful as her people.
“We’re on the cusp of something exciting here,” said Lewallen, who has worked closely with the Ainu community for 10 years. “These young people are trying to overcome nasty historical baggage by creating positive self-images through music and dance.”
They’re getting an enthusiastic response from young Japanese, many of whom know little about the Ainu. Some even see ethnic differences as “cool.”
T-shirts, vests and handbags adorned with Ainu motifs — bold, curvy designs, often in deep blue, red or white — are selling well, and Ainu rock musician Oki Kano is making it big with a band featuring the “tonkori,” a sort of Ainu guitar.
In June, young Japanese performers from various ethnic backgrounds — Brazilian, Korean and Ainu among them — came together for the concert “Shake Forward” near Tokyo that was the subject of a documentary by NHK.
“Ethnicity is hip in Japan,” said John Maher, a professor of linguistics at International Christian University in Tokyo who follows minority issues.
Whether that translates into broader social acceptance of minorities remains to be seen.
“Young people are more aware of Japan’s multicultural makeup, but it’s still pretty shallow,” said Hideaki Uemura, a human rights scholar at Tokyo’s Keisen University.
The Diet’s recognition of the Ainu was in a nonbinding resolution. It created an eight-member committee to recommend further steps for the government to take, but only one member, Tadashi Kato, is Ainu.
Many Ainu doubt the government will officially apologize — as Australia and Canada did recently to their native populations for past policies — pay compensation or grant access to land for hunting or fishing.
“Japan is behind other nations in this way, even though it claims to be an advanced economic power,” said Kato, executive director of the Ainu Association of Hokkaido.
“Being indigenous can’t be cut off from issues related to the land,” he said in an interview, but added the committee would likely first study how to improve living conditions and promote education. Overall, he said, the country has little understanding of minorities.
Japanese textbooks say little about the Ainu beyond their skirmishes with the Japanese in the 1600s and 1700s. Sakai said her eastern Hokkaido school taught her nothing about her people.
The Ainu language has no written form and experts estimate only 10 to 20 native speakers are left. But there now are 14 small Ainu-language classes in Hokkaido.
Sakai renewed her childhood interest in traditional Ainu dance but was sometimes bored with it because most of the other dancers were older. After graduating from university, she decided young Ainu needed a new way to express themselves and the result was the Ainu Rebels, formed two years ago.
She hopes the group’s performances at bars, clubs, universities and festivals, so far mostly around Tokyo and Osaka, will foster self-confidence in the young generation of Ainu and inform mainstream Japanese of her culture.
The results are encouraging, she said — in fact some in her audiences are envious.
“Some people say, ‘You can have an identity as Ainu, but we Japanese don’t know what we can be proud of,’ ” Sakai said.