Japan’s Indigenous Ainu community don’t want a theme park – they want their rights

Japan's Indigenous Ainu community don't want a theme park – they want their rights

Fumio Kimura, in Biratori, next to the place where the remains of 34 Ainu have just been returned.

(Carmen Grau)

The brightly lit signs on the Hokkaido motorway in northern Japan do not inform the driver about the traffic. They are, rather, advertising Upopoy, a new tourist complex, and the Ainu National Museum. “Let’s sing together for ethnic harmony” is the motto the Japanese government has stamped on the 20-billion-yen project (€164 million, US$192 million) to revive the culture of the Ainu people, one of the archipelago’s minorities. The project showcases the heritage of the Indigenous people originally inhabiting the islands of Hokkaido, Kuril and Sakhalin. Young Ainu women dance to the tune of tradition and a controversial memorial overlooking the Pacific Ocean has been erected to honour Ainu ancestors. Japanese school buses pull in one after the other and tickets to visit the complex sell out fast. A few years ago, a manga sparked a craze for all things Ainu and now they have become an attraction.

But a generation of Ainu leaders is not happy. They don’t want a theme park, they want to recover their rights as a native people. “It has no soul,” 87-year-old artist Shizue Ukaji says of the complex. “If the Japanese government wants to use the term ‘ethnic harmony’ it is requested that the government make a formal apology to us Ainu for the historical injustices imposed on us,” she protests. For them, the Ainu Policy Promotion Act passed in 2019 is devoid of rights and the Japanese government continues to exploit them as a tourism resource.

Seventy-eight-year-old Satoshi Hatakeyama, president of the Ainu Association of Monbetsu, has been campaigning since 2009 to win back his ancestors’ right to fish. He wants to ‘welcome the salmon’ every autumn, a ritual called Kamuy-chep-nomi, without having to face a police investigation for doing so, as was the case in 2019. Sixty seven-year-old Ryoko Tahara, president of the Ainu Women’s Association, decries the double discrimination they have suffered for generations, as Indigenous people and as women, be it at school or when looking for a job or to get married. She was born in a village that no longer exists. People would insult them and throw stones at them. She grew up thinking that being Indigenous meant being inferior.

“We have been hiding our whole lives, out of fear, and our history has not been told,” she tells Equal Times. She is working towards changing that, by reviving Ainu culinary traditions.

“They have used us, throughout history, and they continue to do so,” says 71-year-old Fumio Kimura, vice president of the Ainu Association of Biratori. Kimura wants the Ainu remains that were excavated without permission to be returned to their land. “Our history is one of forced displacement, even of our dead. My grandparents were forced to leave their place of origin to work on Japanese imperial farms, and when they were no longer needed, they had to move again,” he explains.

The Ainu people have been living in the shadows for 150 years, since their territories were occupied, at the end of the 19th century, to satisfy the expansionist ambitions of the Meiji-era government, after centuries of coexistence and trading relations. Their collision with Japanese colonialism resulted in a painful process of assimilation that has wiped out communities, names and words. The Ainu were stripped of their livelihoods, with the prohibition of their traditional hunting and fishing activities. The women were married off to Japanese men. They were forced into agriculture, and were pushed into poverty. Scientists used them, and their dead, as research subjects.

These Ainu leaders are conscious that their ancestral knowledge is endangered. “They are wiping us out, within 30 years we’ll all be Japanese,” laments Kimura. But they have not forgotten the past and are well aware of their rights under the 2007 United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP). They are recovering their history and studying Ainu – a lost language, with no more than a handful of native speakers left – through recordings, songs and oral literature. They are also the voice of their people at the United Nations, where they denounce Japan’s lack of commitment to their rights.

“This is the last chance for their struggle. Young people, Japanese or Ainu, are moving away from politics. They’re not interested in human rights,” says Hiroshi Maruyama, head of the Centre for Environment and Minority Policy Studies (CEMiPoS), devoted to the rights of the Ainu people. For this Japanese expert on the environment and Indigenous policies, “there is no Ainu perspective to Upopoy. It is cultural commodification. It was announced after [Tokyo won the bid to host] the Olympic Games, to attract tourism and to feign respect for minorities. Japanese nationalism espousing one race, one language and one nation is still firmly in place”.

Government associations have been promoting Ainu culture for decades, as well as managing public aid for education and to tackle poverty. The Ainu Association of Hokkaido, for example, has taken part in key decisions such as legislative processes or the opening of the Upopoy complex. But 80 per cent of Ainu do not feel represented by the organisation and view it with suspicion, a sentiment confirmed by many of the Ainu people consulted by Equal Times. One explanation for this distrust is perhaps the fact that Japan did not recognise them as an Indigenous people until 2008.

The dead that are owed to them

How many Ainu are there today? No one knows exactly. The official figure in Hokkaido was 13,000 in 2017. Added to this are the thousands of Ainu living in and around Tokyo, those who have relinquished their roots after a century and a half of fervent assimilation policies and those who are hiding their origins to avoid further discrimination. And how many are living in the diaspora is not known. But what they do have a good estimate of is the number of dead that are owed to them, and they do not tire of repeating it: around 1,600, which they are calling on the government and the 12 Japanese universities involved in ransacking Ainu graves from the late 1880s to 1972 to return to them.

Kimura recites by heart the names of all the scientists who took part in what they call ‘the grave robbing’. He is the last community leader, ekasi, to have contributed to the repatriation of remains. He was born in Biratori, a small municipality of 5,300 inhabitants, predominantly Ainu, in eastern Hokkaido. His fight began not long ago. In 2015, he came across a monument commemorating a “former Aboriginal school” in Niikappucho Anesaru (near Biratori). He says he felt a lightning bolt in his head: “The god of lightning, Kanna Kamuy, woke up the activist in me and I decided to fight to restore the Ainu people’s dignity.”

In 2016, Kimura founded an association to deal with the study of human remains, together with 30 other people. In 2018, following official government guidance, they requested the return of the remains belonging to their community and they succeeded. In October, the remains of 34 Ainu (six identified) were returned from the universities of Hokkaido, Tokyo and Niigata for burial. “We are born of the soil and to the soil we must return.” We are the only community that has managed this without having to go to court,” he says, referring to the arduous bureaucratic and legal path other Ainu leaders started down in 1980 in a bid to have their ancestors repatriated. The legal battle led to the prosecution of Hokkaido University, but it was not until 2016 that they secured the repatriation of the first remains. The university, built on a former Ainu enclave, has kept the remains of more than 1,000 Ainu in a repository outside the campus for decades.

In 2019, these remains began their journey to the new Upopoy memorial. Kimura was outraged when he learned that there was no written testimony and the repository could not be visited: “Why are they celebrating a building to house the remains of our ancestors and families if they won’t let us in?”

They requested access from the government in Tokyo but were given technical excuses. After insisting for months, they will soon be given access. But this is not the final outcome they are seeking: “They only see us as research subjects. We ask them if studies are still underway but they won’t give us a clear response. They must be returned to their land, and the country has to support us, as it says in Article 12 of the declaration. We want an apology. We are the victims.”

For days, Kimura called the Japanese Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism (in charge of Upopoy) to insist on a plaque. They finally mounted it in October, but experts from CEMiPoS consider the text to be deceptive, given its ambiguity in terms of the historical liabilities: “In some instances, the wishes of the Ainu may not have been considered when these remains were excavated and collected,” the plaque states. Kimura insists: “Japan is responsible for returning the remains. I will not stop until the day I die.” Other Ainu prefer not to look back. It is a painful matter, a taboo. “Some have asked me to leave it be. I hope that one day I will be understood,” he admits.

The last Ainu stronghold

Nibutani is a sacred valley, proud of its roots. Ainu and Japanese people live together, in one of the few parts of Hokkaido where being Ainu means being a majority. According to their own count, as there are no official figures, 80 per cent of the 500 people living in the valley (located in the municipality of Biratori) are Ainu. It is here that a legend was born, Shigeru Kayano (1926-2006), the first Indigenous political leader, a self-taught man who researched his culture, revived traditions and wrote several books. He became a local council representative, then set himself the task of changing history and reached the Japanese parliament. The memory of him is alive and strong. There is no one in the community who does not refer to him. He helped one villager to build his house. He taught another to work with wood. He founded a local museum. He taught the Ainu language. His son continues to teach in the community library. Half the children study it, as do many adults.

His grandson, Kimihiro Kayano, runs a guest house where the Ainu’s identity and language are kept alive: “My grandfather has been a great influence. We are in a majority here and that makes us strong. For young people, being an Ainu is easier now, even though there is still hate speech on the internet”.

Sitting alongside him is Rie Kayano, who sings and writes songs in the Ainu language. Acclaimed local artist Toru Kaizawa also has his studio and shop in the valley.

This piece of paradise was transformed in 1993, when the government built a dam on the Saru River, flanked by sacred mountains and at the heart of the Ainu community. Sociologist Masumi Tanaka points to some isolated ruins and explains that the valley is a unique part of Hokkaido, “but it has not been sufficiently valued”. The Ainu have long been forced to abandon their rituals, in the same way as they had to leave behind their fishing and hunting traditions. To compensate them for the dam, they built a cultural complex with museums and kotan, a village with traditional Ainu dwellings for artisans to show visitors their materials and unique crafts.

The complex is run with public money and the new Ainu law injects additional funds. According to figures from the Japanese Cabinet Office, JPY2.17 billion (€17 million, US$21 million) will be invested in cultural, reforestation and tourism programmes in the municipality of Biratori over five years. The measures include fishing activities, but these will once again be subject to strict regulation: only 20 people will be allowed to fish for ritual purposes and they will only be allowed to fish 50 salmon from September to November. Hunting is not even mentioned. Ancestral knowledge is being turned into a business and tourist activity – a day-to-day reality, and a livelihood, for many Indigenous peoples in today’s world.

This article has been translated from Spanish.