What Is Left of Us? The Living Story of the Ainu in Japan



Indigenous to the coastal areas and archipelagos of the Sea of Okhotsk, the Ainu have been facing Russian and Japanese colonialisms for over two centuries. In this essay and its two associated poems, Kanako Uzawa describes the ongoing political and cultural efforts to assert Ainu self-determination rights, in particular in Hokkaido.

A Story That Was Never Being Told ///

Releasing anger of the past helps us to move forward in our life journey

We dance and sing for this moment to be together

The togetherness reminds us who we are

Joy of dance

Tundra of music that runs through our body

Our moment together

Voices from the past that echoes within ourselves

Clinging on our back, trying to get back to a present time and life

Breath that comes back to a body

Rusted and cold bones filled with the smell of blood

A last drop of the blood sings to our heart

Clinging to each other

Finally, warm blood running through a body

Searching for the joy of life, which we once had and lost

Getting life back isn’t easy

Trying to remember how it was to breathe, laugh, and cry

My present life seems different from how I remember

Throughout the late 19th to 20th centuries, Ainu people were targeted as a fascinating research object within a Japanese academic landscape influenced by Western frameworks of race and Social Darwinism. Much academic colonialism was done to the Ainu in Hokkaido during this length of time by Japanese scientists. Today, collections of Ainu remains are still housed in Japanese universities.

As Richard Siddle discusses in Race, Resistance and the Ainu of Japan (1996), as Indigenous people of northern Japan, the Ainu were perceived as a “dying race” around the turn of the 20th century, becoming an accessible research object used in the development of anthropology, archaeology, and linguistics in Japan. One of the earliest areas of Ainu Studies was physical anthropology. What were described as unique physical features of the Ainu were appealing not only to the Japanese, but also to Western scholars and travelers. In European Studies on Ainu Language and Culture (1993), Joseph Kreiner states: “European scholar-visitors had earlier claimed Ainu to be distant ‘Caucasian’ brethren residing in Asia at the close of the 19th century.” While this theory did not find ground to stand on, the myth continued triggering many scholars and travelers to conduct research on the Ainu throughout the 20th century.

As a result, over a thousand Ainu skeletons were stolen for research purposes and Ainu artifacts bought and collected. They are now spread across the world, stored, or showcased at museums and universities.

In the last decade, the issue of academic colonialism on the Ainu drew more attention to the general public in Japan. The most recent repatriation of Ainu human remains in the 21st century took place in Urakawa, Hokkaido in the summer of 2016. After a court-mediated settlement, 16 Ainu human remains that had been excavated 85 years earlier for research purposes, were returned by Hokkaido University to Urakawa, Hokkaido. This event created much momentum, pushing the issue of Ainu remains to a global scale in the following year. After an investigation, it was found that 17 Ainu human remains were held in Germany. One of them was returned to the representatives of the Ainu Association of Hokkaido and the Japanese government from a German academic society in Berlin in 2017. The body had been stolen in 1879 by a German tourist in Sapporo.

In 2021, 142 years after the incident in Sapporo, the story of Ainu human remains was showcased as part of an Ainu exhibition at the Rautenstrauch-Joest Museum – Cultures of the World in Cologne, Germany. The exhibition, A Soul in Everything. Encounters with Ainu from the north of Japan, was designed in collaboration with scholars, Ainu artists, and activists with a focus on the current revival movement, the contemporary life of the Ainu, presenting material culture as well as the museum collection. What was significant about this exhibition was the Ainu presence both in the process and the display. For instance, I was one of the Ainu artists and activists who contributed an Ainu contemporary dance video, and another about Ainu human remains and identity. In addition, I provided a short text on Ainu cloth-making from the eyes and voices of Ainu women. This type of the exhibition is contrary to a colonial history where the Ainu were once showcased as living objects in Japan, the U.S., and Europe, where colonial exhibitions were referred to as human zoos. The exhibition was very well received, for many visitors it opened up further discussion on how we all can contribute to a decolonization process.

The Ainu have lived in a wide range of areas covering southern Sakhalin, the Kuril Islands, Hokkaido, and parts of northern Honshu. Changing agreements and diplomatic relations between Russia and Japan have impacted Ainu people through forced relocations, setting the stage for contemporary assumptions that Hokkaido is the only Ainu homeland. For example, in The Indigenous Ainu of Japan at the Time of the Aland Settlement (2009), Scott Harrison describes relocation of Sakhalin Ainu to Hokkaido in 1875, and that Kuril Ainu were moved to a small island unsuitable for their livelihood. In 1906, many Sakhalin Ainu were able to move back but were again forced to Hokkaido after World War II. Related hardships for Sakhalin and Kuril Ainu included adapting to new environments, forced labor, disease, as well as inadequate food and housing. Sakhalin and Kuril Ainu had distinct cultural and linguistic differences from Hokkaido Ainu.

The island previously called Ezochi was renamed as Hokkaido in 1869 by the Japanese government. In 1899, the Ainu were legally categorized by the Japanese government as former aborigines under the Hokkaido Former Aborigines Protection Act (HFAPA). The Ainu were considered as vulnerable people who needed help to become “Japanese.” This assimilation law, HFAPA, was designed to transform the Ainu into agriculturalists. This resulted in many Ainu suffering severe economic, social, and cultural hardships, until even today. Later in 1901, a segregated education system designed to ‘Japanize’ the Ainu was established under the HFAPA and the Kyūdojin Jidō Kyōiku Kitei (Regulations for the Education of Former Native Children). This resulted in a significant decline of Ainu native speakers.

In the present day, it is believed that there are no longer any native speakers of the Ainu language.

Surprisingly, the HFAPA remained until 1997 when it was replaced with the first multicultural legislation in Japan; the Ainu Cultural Promotion Act (ACPA), or in full, the Law for the Promotion of the Ainu Culture and for the Dissemination and Advocacy for the Traditions of the Ainu and the Ainu Culture. Although the repeal of HFAPA was welcomed by some, the ACPA received much criticism at the grassroots level because of its main focus on Ainu culture; it failed to recognize the right to self-determination and collective rights of the Ainu as Indigenous people of Japan.

In 2008, the Ainu were officially recognized as Indigenous people of Japan. However, many Ainu people criticized the way this decision was made, since the Japanese government did not recognize the Ainu Indigenous rights as stipulated by the U.N. Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which Japan ratified one year earlier. Nearly ten years later, in May 2019, the Act on the Promotion of Measures to Realize a Society Where the Pride of Ainu Is Respected (or Ainu Policy Promotion Act) came into force (Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications, 2021). While some Ainu people take this as a step forward, considering that this law applies nationwide as opposed to the ACPA with a focus on Hokkaido only, other Ainu groups criticized the law for falling short in not recognizing Ainu Indigenous rights according to the standards met by international law. Overall, what comes to the core issue of the Ainu political landscape is that the Japanese government has not yet apologized to the Ainu for their wrongdoings in the past.

Uzawa Funambulist
Historical and present distribution of Ainu in Japan and the Russian Federation. Data by Kanako Uzawa and Winfried K. Dallmann. Cartography by Winkfried K. Dallmann (2007).

To Be Ainu Is to be Discriminated Against ///

Tokyo lined with concrete skyscrapers

No one notices of me

There is such freedom

Keep walking without worrying about anyone

Are you also an Ainu?

You do not look like Ainu at all?

Do you know anything about the Ainu?

No, I don’t know at all

“Marry a Japanese man. That would lead you to a happier life.” These are words I received from an Ainu elder when I was 19 years old. A word that made me think about what it means to be an Ainu woman. To live as an Ainu woman was more complex than I had initially thought. Many of my Ainu female friends were afraid that their hairy legs or physical features would be noticed by other Japanese friends and colleagues. They were afraid that someone might notice that they are Ainu, and that they would be subjected to discrimination and racism. I, on the other hand, look Japanese. No one notices that I am Ainu unless I tell them so. During my teenage years, it took a long time to tell my friends that I am Ainu. It took even more courage and time to say “I am proud to be Ainu.” It required courage to say it, because I never knew how people would react, which could be either positive or negative. This Japanese mask of mine created ambivalent feelings. It is precisely because I look Japanese that I want to be recognized and acknowledged as Ainu;  there have been so many Ainu people who gave me inspiration in life. Having a Japanese mask meant that I needed to deliberately work on my presence as an Ainu woman. Having grown-up in both Japanese and Ainu cultures, I cherish both. As I grew older, I started appreciating the ambivalence I have about looking Japanese, as it gave me an opportunity to challenge my own capacity to say who I am and who I want to become.

In the 21st century, we Ainu are all intertwined with Japanese culture and language. We practice Japanese cultural practices while we also practice Ainu culture.

Many researchers come to document what is left of us; Ainu culture, language, and day-to-day practices. Many say it is urgent because we are losing our culture and language. Is it really so?

I see it differently. We may have lost much of the tradition and language under the assimilation policy. However, what cannot be taken away is our inspiration and passion for our culture and language. What we need is free space and the ability to exercise our cultural rights; self-determination is what will allow us to decide how we want to learn and develop our culture. It should be done by our own initiative and we should be key decision-makers. This is especially applicable for the management of natural resources.The Ainu’s long-standing relationship and knowledge about our land and waters need to be respected in any discussion of sustainable development and human rights. ■