by Karen Shim
Published on: May 31, 2004
Type: Opinions

Northern Japan’s indigenous culture and language are being revived. But will it last?

If you haven’t heard of Ainu before, it’s probably because the language had almost disappeared. In its 1993 Red Book on Endangered Languages in Northeast Asia, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) listed Ainu among those nearly extinct. At the time, there were just tens of speakers at best, and all of them elderly. Its decline occurred throughout centuries of discrimination, oppression, forced assimilation practices and social and political control by the majority ethnic Japanese. Recent efforts however, are keeping the Ainu language and culture alive.

According to the UNESCO-sponsored Atlas of World Languages in Danger of Disappearing (1996), remaining native speakers mainly lived in the town of Nibutani on the northernmost island of Hokkaido. In Nibutani, there were about 100 speakers, and only 15 percent used Ainu daily.

The Ainu are culturally and ethnically distinct from the majority Japanese population, especially in appearance (deep-set eyes and thick wavy hair). Several theories suggest the Ainu’s origins, saying they descended from Mongoloid, Caucasian or Oceanic races, or they developed in isolation about ten thousand years ago. Today, “Ainu” refers to the indigenous people of Japan occupying Hokkaido. They held a rich oral tradition involving legends, morals, and epic hero tales called yukar that traversed generations--theirs is a language deemed unrelated to any other (today, it is officially written in an altered version of the Japanese syllabary katakana).

Ainu culture flourished in the 13th and 14th centuries. The people led a lifestyle of hunting, fishing and gathering based upon a symbiotic relationship with nature. In the Edo period (1600-1868), the shogunate government imposed trade policies favouring wajin—Japanese emigrants to Hokkaido—that threatened Ainu existence. Numbers of Ainu began to dwindle due to an onslaught of infectious diseases, forced labour practices and family divisions. A series of skirmishes ended in Japanese control of the Ainu by 1789. Forced assimilation during the Meiji era (1868-1912) saw the Ainu lose much of its land to wajin settlers along with their hunting and fishing routines in favour of farming. In 1870, the modern family registry system identified the Ainu as Japanese. The Ainu language was banned and children went to schools that only allowed Japanese to be spoken.

Critics claim the 1899 Hokkaido Aborigine Protection Act did just the opposite. Labeled “former aborigines,” the Ainu were pigeonholed into a derogatory category, driven from their own lands and left without the economic practices that traditionally supported their culture. A long history of racial oppression and discrimination brought forth shame and fear of speaking their own language. Coupled with the lack of a writing system, it is no wonder the Ainu language sits on the edge of extinction.

Local activism saw the establishment of the Ainu Association of Hokkaido in 1946 that aimed to provide higher education and build social welfare facilities for the Ainu. Finally, by 1997, the Sapporo District Court (responding to a law suit brought by the Ainu), recognized the Ainu as an indigenous people of Japan, whose distinct culture is entitled to be protected. The Diet (Congress) then passed the Act on the Encouragement of Ainu Culture and the Diffusion and Enlightenment of Knowledge on Ainu Tradition. It promotes research on Ainu culture, the study of the Ainu language and preservation of Ainu customs and traditions.

Since the 1990s, several Hokkaido institutions are facilitating the Ainu resurgence. The Ainu Museum holds traditional ceremonies, dances and folk arts. Similarly, the Foundation for Research and Promotion of Ainu Culture in the capital of Sapporo carries out the aims of the 1997 Act. It fosters the training of Ainu language instructors and offers language classes and speech contests. And in a bid to educate the general public, Sapporo Television broadcasts beginner Ainu classes over the radio.

It’s a good sign that organizations outside Hokkaido are helping the Ainu movement as well, such as the Ainu Culture Center of Tokyo. In 1999, the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC, presented the exhibit Ainu: Spirit of a Northern People, now available for viewing online.

Wikipedia Encylopedia reports that today 150,000 Japanese claim some Ainu ancestry while 50,000 are at least half Ainu. Despite efforts to spread the language, about half of the Ainu have a basic command of it, while 5-10% are passive or partial speakers and just 1-5% are fluent. The years ahead are crucial. As language and culture go hand in hand, hopefully awareness and understanding will help preserve Ainu identity.

For more information, visit:
Ainu Museum:
Foundation for Research and Promotion of Ainu Culture:
Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History:

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