Japonica 2017: Ainu Heritage and Culture near Niseko
February 21, 2017

Japonica 2017: Ainu Heritage and Culture near Niseko

Foreigners to Japan may be unaware of the history and culture of the indigenous people of Northern Japan–the Ainu, although their culture, stories and history are now becoming more disseminated into the mainstream. The Niseko Japonica Festival took place in Niseko town on the weekend of 18th-19th of February. Featuring traditional Ainu dance and song and instrument performances as well as information and maps on Ainu history of the area; it was great to have such an informative event in the local area.

Luke and Charlie headed down to the Niseko Chuo Souko just near the train station in Niseko town. As the snow came down and the lights were being lit on the snow path outside, we entered the old stone building and were greeted by a range of hosts, food and beverage stalls, people playing instruments and taking photos.

We had a fun afternoon trying to play instruments, trying on Ainu clothing and learning about the history of the ainu people of the region. Below you can see one of our friendly educators showing us how to play the traditional ainu instrument the Mukkuri and then Charlie having a go as well. The Mukkuri is an idiophone made out of bamboo, similar in construction to the Jaw harp. Sound is produced by manipulating a string connected to the bamboo reed, and while the instrument is unpitched, tone manipulation can be accomplished by altering the size of one’s mouth, which serves as a resonance box during playing.


Our Ainu friend was quite good and Charlie got 10 points for effort!


In fairness it is much harder than it looks!

Local Ainu History and Culture

There are many dimensions to the history and culture of the Ainu and unfortunately tumultuous changes and oppression are part of their history. The excerpt below will give you a very brief insight into the history and culture of the Ainu people's of Hokkaido.

The Era leading up to the Ainu Culture

Before the Ainu culture was a period known as the Epi-Jomon or Satsumon culture where people in Hokkaido used earthenware and subsisted by fishing, hunting and gathering. Villages were established in river basins or near the estuaries of rivers frequented by salmon and trout. The Satsumon culture began around the seventh century and ended between the 12th and 13th Centuries.

Concurrently with the Satsumon culture, the Ohhotsk culture arose along the Sea of Okhotsk in Hokkaido. Keeping bear skulls in their dwellings bears look to have played a role in their religion. Similarly, the Ainu also enshrined bear skulls on altars outside their dwellings after performing ceremonies to send back bear spirits. The Satsumon culture was followed by the Ainu culture and the Okhotsk culture is believed to have exerted a significant influence on Ainu culture in terms of spirituality.

The Ainu History

It is believed the Ainu culture was established around the 12th-13th century. As well as making their livelihood by fishing, hunting and plant gathering they also traded with people in other areas. It is not known when the Waijin ( the name given to people who migrated to Hokkaido from Honshu- the Japanese ethnic majority) but their areas of residence spread from Mukawa in the west to Yoichi in the east. In the vicinity of what is now Hakodate, merchant ships, wholesale shops and blacksmiths were established. The Ainu were direct and indirect producers and tradesmen of articles shipped to Honshu yet as with many meetings of different cultures over the ages it wasn't without feuds.

First records indicate that following the stabbing of a young Ainu man in 1456 by a blacksmith, a father and son of Koshmain, a leading Ainu clan lead an uprising resulting in some of the Waijin mainlanders becoming feudal lords with bases referred to as castles. 12 bases dotted the south of the Oshima Peninsula yet the father and son of Koshmain captured all but two of these castles. The feud between the Waijin and the Ainu continued for nearly a century and thought to be caused by political or economic discord between Ainu and Waijin.

In 1604, Yoshihiro Kakizaki (a Waijin feudal lord) was granted a monopoly on trade in Hokkaido and places of commerce were established where mainlanders traded with the Ainu. Around 1740, with increased demand for dried Nagasaki seafood products and reduced catches of other fish, merchants and traders started to fish on their own. Looking for ways to increase their catch they brought new techniques and equipment and started using the Ainu as laborers. Essentially the Ainu went from being producers and traders to living as laboureres tied to the fishing grounds.

The Battle of Shakushain and Changing Dynamic of Ezo (Hokkaido)

A struggle between two groups of Ainu over fishing and hunting rights resulted in the battle of Shakushain. The Matsumae clan brought several battles with the Ainu to a close with surprise attacks and with the battle of Shakushain the Waijin solidified their advantage over the Ainu. In 1799, ten years after the battles on Kunashiri Island the Tokugawa shogunate gained direct rule over the whole of Ezo (Hokkaido). The shogunate conducted fair trade with the Ainu so they would not be enticed by Russia's offers of appeasement and had other clans in Honshu dispatch soldiers to Ezo. Aiming to insist to Russia that the Ainu belonged to Japan and their places of residence were Japanese territories, the shogunate appeased the Ainu through trade and protection. The shogunate forced the Ainu to look more like the mainlanders making them change their hairstyles, clothes, names, and outlawed traditional Ainu customs and manners, including earrings, tattoos, and the ceremony to send back bear spirits. This obviously disrespected and provoked the Ainu.

Incorporating into Japan

In 1869, the new Meiji Government renamed Ezo as Hokkaido, unilaterally making it part of Japan. The Ainu were incorporated into the nation and listed as "commoners" and "former aborigines" and discrimination against them continued. That same year the Ainu language and lifestyle and introduced a policy of forced Japanization. The Hokkaido government was established in 1886 and the hardships of the Ainu were further aggravated by this policy leading to the enactment of the Former Aborigine Protection Law in 1899 which granted land to be used for farming and assimilating the Ainu into Gaijin culture. Still clear ethnic discrimination remained as Ainu could only be granted much smaller parcels of land than their Waijin neighbours and often the land was unsuitable for farming. The Ainu language and culture was denied at schools and Ainu children segregated from the Waijin.

The period from 1910 to 1920 referred to as the Taisho Democracy saw a breath of social freedom and the Ainu became more vocal about discriminatory practices, demanding change.

After World War II

Following Japan's defeat in WWII the Hokkaido Ainu Association was established ( renamed the Ainu Association of Hokkaido in 1961) looking to be a proud ethnic group enhancing the Ainu's social standings. Through agricultural land reform much land had been taken away from the Ainu and sold to tenant farmers at low prices. The Ainu Association of Hokkaido was opposed to these reforms and in the 1960's environmental improvements were initiated whereby assembly halls and workshops were established in areas where many Ainu lived to redress the disparity in living standards and hardships they faced. In 1974 the Hokkaido Ainu Welfare Measures was launched incorporating measures for housing, employment, school attendance and other issues. In the 1970's activities designed to preserve and pass on the unique Ainu culture began to expand.

In 1997, in response to wide ranging campaigns centering on Ainu demands for the adoption of a new law the Hokkaido Former Aborigine Protection Law was abolished and enacted 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. The law aims to realise a society in which the ethnic pride of the Ainu people is respected and to contribute to the development of diverse cultures in the country. It has also made it the responsibility of the nation and local authorities to promote measures designed to disseminate Ainu Culture.

Globally, in September 2007 the United Nations General Assembly passed the "United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People" and in 2008 the Ainu were finally recognised by the Japanese government as indigenous people of Japan. Since this time the general public is growing more interested in the Ainu and Ainu culture.

The official figure for the number of Ainu in Japan now stands at 25,000, but unofficial estimates put it closer to 200,000, considering that the policy of forced assimilation into Japanese society means many people of Ainu descent may not even be aware of their heritage.‍

Religion, Living and Livelihood

The Ainu believed that flora and fauna, tools, natural phenomena and the like had a "ramat" or spirit. According to the Ainu, deities are beyond the power of humans, but are indispensable to our lives. Most of the flora and fauna important to Ainu livelihood have been considered "good" deities, whereas pandemics and natural disasters were considered "bad" deities that threaten daily life.

With regards to language many Ainu words have been adopted for geographic uses in the Japanese language. Unfortunately very few people today can still speak Ainu resulting from the forced adoption of the Japanese language in the Meiji period. The Ainu have handed down many stories from generation to generation. Many of the stories incorporate the wisdom of living amidst nature, methods for making use of nature and various lessons can be learned by listening to them.

The villages in which the Ainu lived were called "kotan" where anywhere from a few houses to more than ten houses would be built by rivers and the sea. Houses built in the kotan were called cise and were made of natural materials such as bark, reeds and bamboo grass. Led by village leaders, people lived by hunting, fishing and gathering plants. 

For an interesting recent article featuring photography capturing the themes of Ainu identity click here.

For more information on the Ainu culture and to visit Museums or other place of interest please see the Foundation for Research and Promotion of Ainu Culture website here.

Thanks to all involved in the Japonica festival for the enlightening experience.

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