“Ainu” is the “indigenous” race (that is distinctly and completely different from the Yamato Japanese race) that lived in Hokkaido, Sakhalin and Kurile Islands since the 14th century. Trade activities between the Ainu and the Wajin (or better known as Nihonjin) went on for a few centuries before conflicts broke up between the two races.
During the Meiji Restoration, with the attempt of race assimilation, the Ainu race were banned from using their language, practising their customs, and their lands were removed forcefully. This assimilation process of the Ainu led to the disappearance of its culture and language. Furthermore, the lack of historical information and background of the Ainu in Japanese history textbooks (despite Ainu being the original occupants of Hokkaido, and most of them still live in Japan) created huge controversies for several centuries. The Ainu is still being discriminated today, albeit lessened compared to the past.
The Ainu Shinpo was drafted in the 1980s, and later on officially passed as a law in 1997. Despite its limitations, the situation with Ainu got better, and Ainu was finally recognized as the indigenous race of Japan in 2007 by the UN, under the “United Nations Declaration of the Rights of the Indigenous People”. Ainu was later on recognized as an indigenous people of Japan under the Japanese constitution in 2008.
Problems and discrimination still exist today, and the responsibility of clearing the clouds lies incumbent on the Foundation of Research and Promotion of Ainu Culture (FRPAC), which has its headquarters in Hokkaido and a branch in Tokyo.
This Ainu Cultural Festival is organized by FRPAC every year, with the aim of showcasing the various art forms of Ainu, which had been prohibited for an extended period of time. It is not merely for us to learn and appreciate Ainu from an outsider’s perspective, but more importantly, for Ainu to express their own identities, and for the Japanese to understand better and more holistic the history of their own country.
There were displays of the traditional hare-gi of the Ainu, the various tools used by the Ainu to perform their rituals (the most famous one being the Iyomante, which is a festival to sacrifice a bear for the gods). Ainu embroidery is also an exceptional piece of art. An Ainu native sat outside the convention hall showing us the process and products of it.
In the hall, there was first a speech, a very passionate speech that touched the audiences’ hearts, by an Ainu, who spoke at great lengths about the situation of Ainu and how it was his dream to finally come at peace with the Japanese.
Next, there was an Ainu song performance (Inunke) by an Ainu lady, who only found out her Ainu identity when she was in her teens. She now sings to her baby daughter a lullaby in Ainu, so as to pass on the identity of Ainu to her next generations. Following that was a dance performance (Ankochiramenkoutara) performed by a group of Ainus from Hokkaido.
Be it a song, a speech or a dance, all these bring with them the unbearable memories and an inextricable part of the history between Ainu and Japan. I watched each performance attentively and felt goosebumps all over my body each time I hear an Ainu phrase. Ainu is an endangered language today, and I could not help but feel pangs of pain in my heart when I see how hard the Ainu natives try to preserve their language and culture, but to little effect.
I felt tears welling up in my eyes when I realize that many of the people in the audience sitting around me, were actually Ainu. These are the people who have been oppressed for centuries, and they were sitting there, striving to fight for their rights, and to gain back their identities. I am not Ainu; neither am I Japanese, but I just felt strongly that I had a role to play, and that is to pass on this message to more people in Japan, and around the world.
I think all cultures and languages deserve equal respect and protection, and this was why I decided to write my graduation thesis on Ainu, the indigenous race of the country that I love.