National / Social Issues

Rare Ainu scholar wants indigenous group's women to aim high

Kyodo

Nobuko Tsuda, an ethnic Ainu woman who earned her doctoral degree this autumn at age 68, said she hopes her feat will encourage younger generations of Hokkaido’s indigenous people to aim for the top.

Tsuda, now 69, earned her doctoral degree from the Graduate University for Advanced Studies in Kanagawa Prefecture in September. Her thesis: the transition of embroidery techniques in Ainu clothing.

It is rare for an Ainu woman to get a doctoral-level education.

“It is said that the percentage of Ainu children going to higher levels of education remains low,” said Tsuda, curator at the Hokkaido Ainu Center in Sapporo. “Young Ainu people may be encouraged if they learn that an old woman such as me has a Ph.D.”

Her studies began six years ago. A lot of research on the materials and patterns in Ainu attire had already been done, but the university recognized that her thesis was unique as it focused on the techniques from a woman’s perspective.

Like most other Ainu, Tsuda, born to an Ainu father and Japanese mother, experienced discrimination at school and was excluded from group affairs.

But Tsuda, from the town of Mukawa, became determined to do something for her people.

“Since I was born an Ainu, I want to contribute to the development of Ainu culture,” she told herself.

Since joining the Ainu center in 1995, Tsuda has traveled across Hokkaido to visit elderly Ainu and learned to make traditional woven baskets using the inner bark of lime trees.

While studying the patterns on the baskets, a traditional Ainu costume stored at a national museum in Hungary was shipped to Hokkaido for display for the first time.

Tsuda said she wondered how the patterns were made and transferred before the age of paper and rulers. Having studied Ainu costumes in Japan and overseas, she discovered seamstresses would mark the fabric before using thread to embroider patterns.

Tsuda also found the patterns changed from straight to curved lines around the 18th century, when cotton threads and fabrics, which are more easily processed, became available.

“Ainu culture is profound,” Tsuda said. “The documents our ancestors left us are my textbooks.”