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Tackling taboos: Japanese university club teaches Ainu traditions

Indigenous student Mizuki Orita (2nd L) practices a traditional dance with members of the Ainu culture club Sapporo University
Indigenous student Mizuki Orita (2nd L) practices a traditional dance with members of the Ainu culture club Sapporo University - Copyright AFP Yuichi YAMAZAKI
Indigenous student Mizuki Orita (2nd L) practices a traditional dance with members of the Ainu culture club Sapporo University - Copyright AFP Yuichi YAMAZAKI
Harumi OZAWA

When Yuko Honda, a professor at Japan’s Sapporo University, tried to start a scholarship for Ainu Indigenous students and a club to celebrate their culture, she ran into fierce resistance.

“We faced a terrible backlash,” Honda, a professor of cultural studies at the university in the northern Hokkaido region, told AFP.

“The issue of the Ainu was seen as a taboo, something that should not be touched.”

That was in 2009, just a year after Japan’s parliament finally passed a resolution to recognise the Ainu as an Indigenous people, following decades of pressure.

Nearly 15 years later, the Urespa scholarship is going strong and the club has several dozen members each year, a mixture of Ainu and ethnic Japanese.

The students learn the Ainu language, dance and crafts, as well as about traditional food and hunting culture.

It’s an example of changing attitudes towards the minority, whose land was annexed by imperial Japan in 1869 and named Hokkaido, laying the groundwork for an assimilation process that disrupted centuries of tradition.

Honda is ethnically Japanese but has lived in the Ainu community of Nibutani near Sapporo, where she was a teacher.

When she started the scholarship and club at Sapporo, only an estimated 20 percent of people with Ainu heritage received a university education, and Honda hoped recipients would learn about and teach their traditions through the new group.

“In this club, we are literally growing together,” said Mizuki Orita, 20, an Ainu student majoring in history and cultural studies.

Orita grew up singing traditional Ainu songs with her siblings, but her mother and grandmother were discriminated against due to their heritage. She had similar experiences.

“I was told I stunk because I was Ainu.”

– ‘I want to stir things up’ –

Manao Kanazawa, who is ethnically Japanese, joined the club because she was curious about traditional Ainu hunting methods.

But, as the student from central Shizuoka prefecture learned how the Ainu were treated by Japan, she wondered if it was appropriate for her to be there.

An Ainu friend reassured her it was alright, “because I’m interested in the Ainu and came to learn”, the 23-year-old history and culture student said.

When Hokkaido was annexed, Ainu were forced to speak Japanese and abandon traditions, including facial tattoos for women.

Such stigma was attached to their heritage that it remains hard to know how many Ainu there are in Japan, as many prefer to conceal Indigenous origins. The last survey in Hokkaido, in 2017, put the figure at 13,000.

In 2019, Japan passed legislation financing efforts to protect Ainu culture, and the following year, the massive Upopoy National Ainu Museum and Park in Shiraoi, Hokkaido opened as a “symbolic space for ethnic harmony”.

Still, critics say the efforts are too little, too late.

Japan provides “subsidies to certain Ainu groups so people can study the culture, but doesn’t necessarily help individuals through affirmative action,” historical sociologist Eiji Oguma told AFP.

What support is provided can be controversial, with some arguing the Urespa scholarship discriminates against ethnic Japanese.

“But the Ainu people’s traditions were severed by forced assimilation,” said Honda. 

“The world for them would have been different… if their traditions had not been severed, and Ainu youth need help reconstructing what they might have had.”

To qualify for the Urespa scholarship, students must declare their Ainu heritage, which some fear doing, said Honda.

She believes the club has helped, and says Ainu students are “less scared now” to discuss their heritage, especially after holding exchanges with Indigenous counterparts in Canada and New Zealand.

Orita said she still sometimes faces mockery when introducing herself as Ainu, but now she considers it “a chance for me to talk about the Ainu”.

“I want the Ainu to lead the Indigenous movement in Japan,” she said.

“I want to stir things up and make waves.”

Written By

With 2,400 staff representing 100 different nationalities, AFP covers the world as a leading global news agency. AFP provides fast, comprehensive and verified coverage of the issues affecting our daily lives.

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