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December 24, 2009


Ainu Living in Tokyo - Getting To Know the Indigenous People of Japan

college_hasegawasan.jpg Copyright JFS

Lecturer: Osamu Hasegawa, Rera-no-kai representative and executive director of the Ainu Association of Hokkaido

Allow me to introduce myself in Ainu.

Ishikarahontomo Chupuka Kushipetsu Peniunkuru Takasukotan
Koapamaka Kurekorokat Eneokahi Hasegawa Osamu Kuneruwene
Nui Kinarokute Natsuyo Chiyo

(I am Osamu Hasegawa. I was born in the upstream village of Higashi Takasu on the central Ishikari Plain in Hokkaido. My grandmother's name is Nui and my mother's name is Chiyo.)

As there is no notation system for the Ainu language, it is written in Roman letters or Katakana in Japan. When it is written in Roman letters, the actual sounds are more accurately represented.

I was born in Asahikawa, Hokkaido, in 1948, and shortly after birth, I was put up for adoption by a Japanese family. I was not raised by my own family, and I did not have the chance to learn and inherit my mother's language, ethnic culture and spiritual beliefs, which are normally passed down from one's parents. As a result, I cannot speak Ainu. However, I was able to learn about Ainu culture through studying on my own, rather than by learning from my family. Although this is not only my issue, it is related to the situation of the Ainu in Japanese society.

Ainu as Indigenous People

The Japanese government unanimously adopted the "Resolution Seeking to Recognize the Ainu People as an Indigenous People" in both chambers of the Diet in June 2008. Nobutaka Machimura, Chief Cabinet Secretary at that time, made the announcement that Ainu are considered to be indigenous people. The Japanese government thus officially recognized Ainu as the indigenous people of Japan.

In August of the same year, discussion sessions began with experts including academics, and future measures related to the Ainu have been drafted over the course of a year, with the final report to be submitted to the national government in the near future.

In the draft report that was released recently, there was a statement regarding the lack of common knowledge related to the Ainu among Japanese citizens. Generally speaking, very little is actually known about the Ainu in Japanese society. After reading the draft report stating that Ainu culture had not received a fair evaluation because they are minority, I felt that the characterization was incorrect. The Japanese government colonized places where the Ainu traditionally lived, and positioned them as an extinct ethnic group. I believe that the lack of awareness regarding the Ainu is the result of an intentional effort.

Behind Merchants' Cultural Prosperity

I would like to briefly talk about the history of the Ainu. According to written documents, contact between the Ainu and Japan started in the time of Hideyoshi Toyotomi (around the 16th century), and has continued until today.
Until the beginning of the Meiji Era (in 1868), merchants from Ohmi (former name for Shiga Prefecture) traveled to Yezo (former name for Hokkaido) to obtain trade goods such as Yeddo spruce, fish and animals.

The industry relied on forced labor, and the Ainu were made to hunt the animals, make fertilizer from them and process these items for transport to Honshu island.

The Ainu used to have their own communities, living as hunter-gatherers in family groups, handing down their culture and developing their spiritual beliefs. However, the adult men were forced to work as laborers and were carted off in large numbers. As a result, families and communities were devastated. With so many Ainu men taken, young women, even those who had already married, were forced to live as mistresses for Japanese men.

In 1789, there was a small uprising of Ainu, known as the "Menashi-Kunashir Battle". Thirty-eight young Ainu from Menashi (now known as Rausu Town, Menashi Gun, and Shibetsu Town, Shibetsu Gun) and Kunashir Island rebelled against the forced labor conditions and abuses at the hands of the merchants from Ohmi, and they led an armed uprising. However, this uprising was put down by samurai warriors sent by the Matsumae clan of Hokkaido, and all 38 were put to death. The mound where the ears of the 38 were buried still remains in Hakodate, Hokkaido.

Advancing Assimilation

In 1869, the place known as Yezo had its name changed to Hokkaido, and many Japanese settled there in the name of developing Hokkaido. The word "development" is typically used in Japanese history; however, for the Ainu, it is more commonly considered to be an invasion, in which Japanese despoiled the Ainu's lands.

The Census Registration Act, established in 1871, was also applied to the Ainu, forcing them to use Japanese names and forbidding the use of their traditional Ainu names.

In addition, the Japanese government adopted a policy of farmland liberation that banned land owners from possessing large amounts of land, opening the land for tenant farming. The Ainu living in Hokkaido had their land taken away, and each family was assigned about 4,950 m2 of poor quality land to engage in agriculture.

Because the Ainu were traditionally hunter-gatherers, they did not have the skills or knowledge to be successful at agriculture. The Ainu, like other hunter-gatherer cultures, never had any concept of land ownership. They did not think in terms of "This is my land." or "That is my mountain." So, when the Ainu had those lands taken away by Japanese pioneers, they actually lost their habitat.

For example, if they went to the mountains to collect firewood, it would have been stealing. If they went to a river to catch salmon, it would have been poaching. Even if they were starving, they were not allowed to catch a single fish, and gathering wild vegetables in the mountains was unthinkable, as once you entered another person's land, it was considered trespassing.

This was the situation for the Ainu until around 1887. I wonder if you can imagine a situation where your family or community is broken up, you have nowhere to live and nothing to eat, you have nothing to burn for heat and your only choice is freezing to death or starving to death.

Understanding History from a Different Point of View

The Japanese government believed that they had to "protect" the Ainu in the face of such a dire situation and they established the Hokkaido Former Natives Protection Law (Hokkaido Kyu-Dojin Ho) in 1899. This turned out to be a humiliating ethnic discrimination law that actually included a derogatory term for the Ainu in the name of the law itself (kyu-dojin). The law essentially stated that the Ainu culture was extinct, forcing them to become Japanese, to engage in agriculture, to adopt Japanese culture and use the Japanese language, as well as banning the use of their mother tongue in daily conversation and the teaching of Ainu spiritual beliefs.

Traditionally, adult Ainu women would be given tattoos on their wrists, ankles and around their mouths. In Ainu, they were called Shinui, and the custom was a very important symbol of maturity among Ainu women; however, this custom was banned. For Ainu men, it was traditional to grow a beard, to grow long hair and to have ear piercings, but these customs were also banned. There are records indicating that some Ainu protested this law, particularly the shaving and hair cutting requirements, by going on hunger strike. Some of the protesters even starved themselves to death. This law was actually on the books until 1997, and was the basis for various discriminatory practices against the Ainu.

When you change your point of view, your understanding of history can also change. The history that most Japanese learn is only based on the Japanese perspective. Although there may be brief descriptions of the Ainu in some textbooks, I do not believe that it is possible to understand the Ainu culture based on such sources.

Current Situation of Ainu Living in and around Tokyo

Although there are 24,300 Ainu presently living in Hokkaido, this number is self-reported, and according to a survey conducted in 1989, there are about 2,700 Ainu in Tokyo.

The Japanese government has not conducted a true census of the Ainu, and therefore no one has an accurate number for the actual population; however, considering that there are 2,700 Ainu in Tokyo, we can estimate that there are about 5,000 Ainu in the whole Kanto area. I am the executive director of the Ainu Association of Hokkaido, and we have about 50 members. This means that I have only met 50 of the 5,000 Ainu in the Tokyo area, or in other words, I have not met 99 percent of the Ainu living in and around Tokyo. Very few Ainu actively express their identity and culture.

One of the activities of the association is a large ceremony called Tokyo-Icarpa. It has been held every summer in Shiba Park in Minato Ward since 2003. Kiyotaka Kuroda, who worked as the Hokkaido Development Commissioner (Kaitakushi in Japanese, a government office formed to develop the north of Japan in the Meiji Era), carted off 38 Ainu and placed them into the Kaitakushi Ainu School and Agricultural Experiment Station in 1872. Five of these Ainu died thinking about their homes and families. The Kaitakushi Ainu School was an educational institute that later became known as the Sapporo Agricultural College, and then Hokkaido University. Tokyo-Icarpa holds a ceremony for the Ainu who were not allowed to return to their homes and died, along with the Ainu language and customs.

Dialogue, Aiming to Redeem Dignity

Finally, I would like to refer again to the report on the discussion session with the experts. In the draft report, the term "consider the Ainu as Japanese" is used. This means that they want to position the Ainu not as a foreign ethnic group, but as the Ainu in Japan. They also use the phrase "the northern territories are Japanese endemic territories." As the northern territories are the areas where the Ainu originally lived, and the Ainu are Japanese, the areas where the Ainu lived belong to Japan. This is the meaning of the phrase.

But from my point of view, if the Ainu are considered to be indigenous people, they should also be considered another ethnic group. This is not a domestic issue. Only when the Ainu are positioned as a different ethnic group from Japanese will it be possible to truly work together in good faith. The Ainu hope to once again be able to hand down their mother tongue and culture, and to develop their own unique identity. The restoration of Ainu rights and dignity will only occur by facilitating such an environment.


Osamu Hasegawa was born in Hokkaido. After graduating from Tsurukawa Agriculture and Propagandist Religious School, located in Tokyo, he began tackling social issues while based in churches in Tottori. He currently works as a representative of the association of Ainu people Rera-no-kai and executive director of Ainu Organizations in the Tokyo metropolitan area (the Ainu Association of Hokkaido), and lives in Yamanashi Prefecture, working in the natural farming and construction industries.