Tokyo’s thriving Ainu community keeps traditional culture alive


By Andy Sharp


Tokyo’s thriving Ainu community keeps traditional culture aliveMina Sakai, the leader of the Ainu Rebels, a dynamic music ensemble of young Ainu performers. PHOTO BY KOHJI SHIIKI


They are rough, hairy forest barbarians who hunt deer and catch salmon with primitive tools. They speak an alien tongue that no one even knows how to write. When one of their women get married, they make them tattoo their lips.

Though extreme, this is the view many “pure” Japanese hold of their cousins to the north — the Ainu. Japan’s native peoples may have once conformed to this stereotype, but don’t be surprised if one of your colleagues, neighbors — or even the besuited, clean-shaven gent lining up every morning for the 8:39 express to Shibuya — is of Ainu descent.

The majority of Ainu remain in Hokkaido — a 2006 government survey put their numbers on Japan’s northern island at 23,782 — and estimates in greater Tokyo range from 2,500 to 10,000. The true figure, however, could be much higher, as many Ainu lack the self-assurance to acknowledge their identity.

“The thing that hurt most about being Ainu was the self-loathing — I was negative about myself and thought I was ugly,” says Mina Sakai, the leader of the Ainu Rebels, a dynamic music ensemble of young Ainu performers.

Sakai, 26, was born in Obihiro, Hokkaido, to a Japanese mother and Ainu father. She says it took many years to come to terms with her identity and deal with the discrimination she faced in her hometown.

“There was strong prejudice against Ainu, especially in Obihiro, and I hid the fact that I was Ainu,” she tells an interviewer at the Ainu Culture Center, located a few blocks from Tokyo Station. “For example, when I went shopping, people accused me of shoplifting. Whenever I got into an argument with someone and they called me ‘Ainu,’ I wasn’t able to say anything back.”

While Sakai believes the situation has improved, she tells of a friend in Hokkaido who was turned down for a job because the interviewer took a dislike to her appearance. Ainu tend to be strongly built, taller then the average Japanese, with Caucasian features and more pronounced facial and body hair. Such discrimination has also been known to nip burgeoning young love in the bud. Indeed, as Sakai’s elder brother, Atsushi, also a Rebel, raps in one song: “One day my girlfriend told me over the phone, ‘Ainu people are creepy.’”

Despite having experienced discrimination due to her mixed parentage, Sakai embraces her Ainu identity. She likens the Japanese majority’s view of native peoples to the situation in the United States.

“Black people are seen as blacks. Even ‘halves,’ such as Tiger Woods, are seen as black,” she says. Sakai talks of two encounters — both of which occurred overseas — that emboldened her sense of Ainu identity.

“I visited a group of indigenous people on a high school trip to Canada,” she says. “They and their songs were cool and left a deep impression. They had such positive energy. This was when I realized I had a choice… I could be like them, there’s no shame in being an Ainu.”

The second encounter was in 2003, when she met her husband, Lonnie, a half-Chinese American born and raised in Japan, on an exchange tour to Australia that involved a Kanto Ainu group and Australian aborigines.

“When I met Lonnie, he told me that I was fine just as I was,” Sakai says. “This freed me from any negative feelings I had.”

When the pair wed in Tokyo in April 2005, Sakai used black lipstick to recreate the traditional Ainu mouth tattoo — her way of reclaiming a sense of Ainu beauty and tradition that had been outlawed by the Japanese government.

Ainu culture established around 12 or 13th century

It is believed that Ainu culture was established across Hokkaido, then known as Ezo, around the 12th or 13th century. The Ainu were hunter-gatherers who had their way of life decimated by the gradual migration of Wajin, as “mainland” Japanese were known. According to a government census, the number of Ainu in Hokkaido dropped from 26,256 in 1807 to 16,272 in 1873. It’s easy to figure out why.

When the Tokugawa shogunate took control of Ezo in the mid-1850s, the government attempted to pacify the Ainu by offering them trade and protection while assimilating them into the larger Japanese culture. The Ainu were forced to change their hairstyles and clothes, were banned from wearing earrings and tattoos, and were prohibited from religious customs such as performing the ceremony to return the spirits of bears — sacred in the Ainu religion — to the world of the kamuy (gods). Many Ainu were forced to work, essentially as slaves, for Wajin, resulting in the breakup of families and the introduction of smallpox, measles, cholera and tuberculosis into their community.

In 1869, the new Meiji government renamed Ezo as Hokkaido and unilaterally incorporated it into Japan. It banned the Ainu language, took Ainu land away, and prohibited salmon fishing and deer hunting. The enactment of the ironically named Hokkaido Former Aborigine Protection Law in 1899 removed even more land and further impoverished the Ainu.

In the first decades of the 20th century, some Ainu started to take a stand against the Wajin by calling for independence. Over the next half-century, various projects to redress disparities and preserve Ainu culture improved the lives of Japan’s indigenous peoples.

Despite these gains, Ainu continued to suffer from a prevailing ignorance. In 1986, Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone infamously remarked, “Japan is a racially homogenous nation, and there is no discrimination against ethnic minorities with Japanese citizenship.” This comment infuriated and politicized many Ainu. In 1994, an activist named Shigeru Kayano became the first Ainu to win a seat in the Diet. Kayano pushed Ainu issues — even posing parliamentary questions in his native language — leading to the enactment of a law promoting aboriginal culture.

In September 2007, the UN General Assembly passed the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, prompting the government, which feared international criticism ahead of the G-8 summit in Hokkaido last July, to pass a resolution recognizing the Ainu as an indigenous people of Japan.

To coincide with the gathering of political leaders, Sakai helped organize the Indigenous Peoples’ Summit in Ainu Mosir 2008, an event attended by aborigines from around the world. In addition to celebrating traditional culture with music and dance, the proceedings had a serious side. Participants demanded the government grant the Ainu rights of self-determination and control over natural resources. They also called for educational improvements, including the adoption of the Ainu tongue as an official language of Japan and the creation of history textbooks from Ainu perspectives. Most significantly, they demanded a formal apology for past wrongs.

But is the message getting across to the politicians in Nagatacho?

Hiroshi Imazu is a lower house lawmaker from the ruling Liberal Democratic Party who led a bipartisan group to draft the resolution recognizing the Ainu. Yet despite his pro-aborigine stance, he rejects out of hand the notion of an apology.

“Japan’s situation is different to that of Australia or America,” Imazu told Metropolis in an interview at his Diet office. “I don’t think an apology is necessary and I think the Diet resolution is enough to show our feelings [toward the Ainu people].”

Survives through music and dance

Ainu culture lives most vibrantly through its music and dance. Epic yukar deity songs are performed at religious ceremonies and have been passed down from generation to generation. Unique Ainu musical instruments include the tonkori, a zither with five strings made from a species of nettle, or whale, deer or reindeer tendons, and the mukkuri, a type of Jew’s harp. Ainu dance can be playful or spiritual, and is usually only performed by women.

Sakai and her brother helped found the Ainu Rebels in the summer of 2006 to have some fun studying their native culture, but the band evolved into a performance group fusing traditional song and dance with rock and hip-hop.

While some elders disapprove of the Rebels, accusing them of debasing traditional culture, most are supportive, seeing, as Sakai does, how they are not just keeping the culture alive, but taking it to a new audience.

“It’d be a bit dull if it was just traditional music, but we get through to young people by playing club events,” she says.

Other well-known Ainu artists include Oki, a tonkori player who leads the psychedic-tinged Dub Ainu Band, and the Ainu Art Project, a network of dancers, singers and storytellers that was a precursor to the Ainu Rebels.

The Rebels themselves have until now concentrated on live shows, but a CD is in the pipeline for release later this year. Almost all of their songs are in Ainu, with Japanese only used to rap their message home.

“Make an Ainu movie for us! Please document our voices for future generations!”

This plea from Shizue Ukaji, a huci, or female Ainu elder, got the reels spinning for “Tokyo Ainu,” a documentary set for release in early 2010. The movie is directed by Hiroshi Moriya, a former TBS documentary maker who has produced films on indigenous peoples in such far-flung locales as Siberia and the Amazon. Made without narration, the film lets the vivaciou

Ainu of Tokyo tell of their own travails and aspirations. English subtitles are planned in the hope that the movie might generate interest on the overseas film festival circuit.

A highlight of the film is the Charanke Matsuri, a celebration of Okinawan and Ainu music, dance and culture held every November in Nakano. The festival is organized by the Ainu Utari Renraku-kai, one of several Ainu communities in Tokyo, a group centered on the Rera Cise restaurant.

Maoki Sato, head of the film’s production committee, hopes the movie will increase awareness among Wajin that Ainu are living among them. He also points to a lost way of life.

“Ainu have a different culture and civilization to Wajin,” Sato said. “They get what they need from nature and share it among the community, giving to the old and needy.”

The undoubted star of the film, however, is an Ainu elder whose only need is to preserve the traditions of his people in these modern times.

Haruzo Urakawa, 70, is a bull of a man who has worked the fields since he was out of diapers. Brought up on a Hokkaido farm, Urakawa, the younger brother of Ukaji, has held, among other roles, the chairmanship of the Kanto Utari Association. Such is his status in the Ainu community that the film was originally going to be titled Haruzo, an Ainu.

The assiduous Urakawa (pictured below left) has singlehandedly constructed three cise — traditional Ainu homes with thatched roofs—in the Kanto region. He leveled the land to build his third such home, dubbed Kamuy Mintara (“Playground of the Gods”), as a venue for Ainu cultural exchange in Kimitsu, Chiba Prefecture.

Kamuy Mintara is a place of peace, bedecked with deerskin rugs, wooden effigies of bears, salmon-skin shoes, inau prayer wands, and mounted deer and pheasant — all symbolizing the Ainu’s sustainable, spiritually focused coexistence with nature.

“So much could be lost if I didn’t do what I’m doing,” Urakawa says. “I hope that people will come to stay at Kamuy Mintara to help out with the facility and the land.”

With his long wispy beard and hands as big as a bear’s paws, Urakawa, who still wrestles in sumo tournaments, could almost be the bear god that stands guard out front.

This doyen of the Ainu people stubbornly refuses to fit into a society in which he sees much wrong. Like Sakai, he too is a bit of a rebel.

This story originally appeared in Metropolis magazine (

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