Ainu work to build a sense of community in urban Japan

The Ainu, an indigenous people predominantly living in northern Japan, have a distinct language and rich cultural traditions. Although Hokkaido has the largest Ainu population, thousands also live in or around Tokyo, where they face discrimination and lack of awareness. One woman of Ainu heritage, Shimada Akemi (pictured), is working to change this.

The sound of the mukkuri resonates at the Ainu Thanksgiving Festival in 2022 in Yokohama. The traditional Ainu musical instrument is made of bamboo and can mimic the sounds of nature, including wildlife.

Click on the image to watch a video of the mukkuri performance.
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Dancers perform a pororimse ring dance, which typically marks the end of Ainu feasts.

Click on the image to watch a video of the pororimse.
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These are common scenes in Hokkaido, but are likely unfamiliar to most in a city like Yokohama.

The struggles of urban Ainu

The festival was organized by Shimada Akemi, the head of a group that aims to increase awareness of Ainu culture in the Tokyo region and connect community members with their heritage through language and traditions.

Shimada was born into an Ainu family in Hokkaido. At 20, she moved to Kawasaki, a city between Yokohama and Tokyo, to work for an electronics manufacturer.

Shimada Akemi at age 18.

Shimada recalls what it was like adjusting to urban life. "There are many Ainu living in Hokkaido and many people there are quick to discriminate against us as Ainu," she explains. "Here in the city, we are often seen as foreigners or half-Japanese. When I first experienced that, I thought maybe it's preferable in a strange way."

Shimada soon realized that the discrimination was rooted in an ignorance of Ainu culture. Someone told her people would say things to their Ainu acquaintances like, "What do you people eat?" and "Why don't you go back to your own country?" Shimada says such barbs have driven many Ainu to conceal their heritage.

Shimada was no exception. She attempted to hide her Ainu identity whenever possible. She says that's so common in her community that some parents don't even tell their children they're Ainu. Shimada has friends who only learned about their true heritage later in life.

Some of Shimada's relatives have tattoos around their mouths, which are a mark of adulthood for Ainu women.

Shimada says only about 100 of the thousands of Ainu in the Tokyo area are engaged in Ainu cultural activities or try to raise awareness about their heritage.

In 2008, the Japanese government expressed its intention to promote policies based on the recognition that the Ainu are an indigenous people. But lacking any legal bearing, the declaration failed to result in measures to enhance their status or increase awareness and respect among the larger population. Consequently, the issues faced by the Ainu remained unresolved and the struggle continued.

A life-changing experience

Shimada drew inspiration from another nation with a strong indigenous heritage — one more than 9,000 kilometers away in the southern hemisphere — New Zealand.

In 2012, Shimada met Te Ururoa Flavell, a former leader of the Maori Party who was visiting Japan. She told him about the challenges faced by Ainu people and how impressed she was with the way in which Maori people have been able to assert their rights.

She said she wanted to take young Ainu to New Zealand to meet members of the Maori community and learn from them. Flavell responded by arranging a month-long exchange program.

"I think the discussion with Akemi, and how she talked about the plight that Ainu people face, how she presented herself, moved us to say, 'We want to help you,'" he notes. "You've got to decolonize people's minds about their own culture and about who they are and what's happened to them. You have to tell them about their history because then people will move."

Te Ururoa Flavell and Shimada Akemi.

The following year, Shimada traveled to New Zealand with a group of young Ainu and visited marae, traditional Maori meeting houses. Located throughout the country, marae are gathering places for Maori communities. They host celebrations, rituals, discussions on current issues and, in some cases, serve as sporting venues or canteens.

Group photo of Ainu and Maori people in front of marae

Each marae is named after an ancestor, creating an emotional bridge with the past. This idea resonated with Shimada, as did the role the meeting houses play in bringing the community together.

"When you are within a marae, you don't say anything bad about people," she explains. "The marae is where you meet and talk openly about things. You can hold essential conversations about how to conduct yourselves and how to move forward," says Shimada. "We Ainu need similar spaces."

Shimada named her organization Casi An Kar Group, which means "forts of our own" in the Ainu language.

Passing on a legacy

Flavell says it's important to have a living language to maintain cultural vitality and hand down this heritage through the generations.

"If you don't have any more speakers of Ainu language, it's over because people can't even communicate in their own language, and the language is the carrier of the culture," he warns. "That's why we Maori have so much emphasis on learning our language, because we know that you cannot understand the culture without having your language to see into your culture. As soon as the ones who carry the culture — the older ones — die off, then that whole culture is gone."

'As a true human being'

The festival in Yokohama is a step toward the creation of a space resembling a marae in Japan.The main obstacle is cost, and the event — now in its tenth year — serves as a means to raise both awareness and funds.

Last year, about 100 people attended. The three-hour celebration was a tribute to those who have worked to strengthen the sense of community among Ainu and to increase awareness among the wider population. It also featured a friendship performance by a group of Maori living in Japan.

Performance by a Maori group at the Ainu Thanksgiving Festival

Shimada gave a rendition of an Ainu-language song from the 1960s, written by an Ainu living in the Tokyo area about struggling with city life.

Some in the audience said it was their first time to experience an Ainu performance. For others, the festival was a chance to reconnect with old friends in the community.

Afterward, Shimada said she always knew it would be a long struggle. But she added that she is determined to keep working to provide a richer experience of Ainu culture in the city for both members of the community and the wider population.

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