Shiraoi Hokkaido Ainu's Title NO2

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Exploring Ainu’s Wisdom and Crafts in Shiraoi, Hokkaido

By Denis Plamondon

Photos by Sandra D’Sylva and Denis Plamondon

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When one thinks of Hokkaido, many images surge from the conception of Japan’s northernmost island. Notions of nature, wilderness, mountains, volcanoes, large farms, snow, ice carvings, festivals and ski resorts easily come to mind. So are major events like the Winter Olympics of Sapporo in 1972 or last year’s G8 Hokkaido Summit. If one scratches the surface a little further, one might identify the name of the indigenous people of Japan. After all, the Ainu have been living here for several thousands of years.

On the other hand, we’re probably unaware of the long history of discrimination and the chronicled inferiority complex felt by the Ainu themselves which almost led to their extinction. As a matter of fact, many stories depict the Ainu-Wajin (Japanese) relation as a stream of repulsion for a culture of lesser importance, second rate and not worth keeping. The Ainu elders even stopped teaching their native language to their children to enable them to more easily integrate into mainstream Japanese culture. The embarrassment of being Ainu seems particularly ironic when we know its meaning: Ainu means “human” or a “respectable human”. The government only recognized the rights of this great nation in 1997 with the rather ineffective Ainu Cultural Promotion Law to describe their culture as “unique”. But it takes more than an exhibition of fabrics and other crafts to preserve a culture; teaching language and transmitting values are instrumental to keep the Ainu nation alive. (Please read an insightful interview with Hasegawa Osamu ). According to a 2006 census, the Ainu population in Hokkaido accounted for 23,782 inhabitants while between 2,500 and 10,000 individuals were estimated to be living in Tokyo. This number is probably higher since many are unaware of their origin or hide their true identity. At first glance, one may get discouraged with such an outcome, but the situation has started to change for the Ainu people, like many other things in Japan.

In addition to dedicated ‘backstage’ activists, proud and talented Ainu artists are trying to promote and revitalize their culture to a new level by transcending their folklore: Oki and his Ainu Dub Band are gaining world recognition; and Ainu Rebels led by Mina Sakai are known for fusing traditional music with dance, rock and hip-hop. The international solidarity between aboriginals from around the world, who hold regular meetings every year, is no stranger to the emancipation of Ainu culture. In September 2007, the UN General Assembly passed the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and the Japanese Government finally passed a bill which recognizes the Ainu as “the indigenous people of Japan”.

Keeping Ainu Culture Alive:

On 3 October 2009, Kaha:wi, a Mohawk dance company from Canada, is performing at the Red Brick Warehouse, in Yokohama. The theater company will share the stage with Ainu Rebels in a show called: Dance with the Earth. To mark the occasion, Professor Hiroshi Nakagawa of Chiba University will give a lecture on the teachings of Ainu language. In Tokyo, the Restaurant Rera Cise (House of Wind) in Nakano is also a good place for the diffusion of Ainu culture and cuisine.

The Ainu Museum in Shiraoi:

Shiraoi is a small town located some 20 kilometers west of Noboribetsu. There are a few hotels in the area, but Ryokan Okita, just a few minutes from the JR Station, is a good recommendation if you are looking for convenient budget accommodation. The Ainu Museum actually offers more than only a museum. An interesting display of houses (cise) was erected to represent a typical Ainu village. A series of music and dance performances are scheduled every day which allows visitors a great opportunity to learn about this rich and unique culture. Lively entertainers dance around a rectangular fire in the middle of the house with typical instruments, such as a tonkori (plucked string instrument). A woman plays a mukkuri (mouth harp) with rhythms that evoke the Inuits in northern Canada. They take great care to perform correctly as it is said that most Ainu songs are sacred and are often sung to keep evils spirits away.  Performers proudly wear traditional Ainu costumes and headbands embroidered with organic patterns, also designed with the rational of protecting the wearer from evil. If you would like to learn more about Ainu patterns, please visit the superb website by Deborah Davidson, Project U-E-Peker.

Watch an interesting interview with Mina Sakai of Ainu Rebels

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Shiraoi Hokkaido Ainu's houses (Cise)

Shiraoi Hokkaido - Ainu Houses (Cise)

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Ainu's costumes and culture presentation in Shiraoi, Hokkaido

Ainu traditional wear and cultural performance - Shiraoi, Hokkaido

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Ainu's dance around a fire place in indigenous house, Shiraoi. Hokkaido

Ainu dance around a hearth in an indigenous house - Shiraoi, Hokkaido

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Women Musician playing the tonkori (plucked string instrument) in Shiraoi, Hokkaido

Musician playing the tonkori (plucked string instrument) - Shiraoi, Hokkaido

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Ainu's woman musician playing the "bombard" in Shiraoi, Hokkaido

Ainu musician playing the "mukkuri" - Shiraoi, Hokkaido

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2 women wearing Ainu's costumes with baby bed in Shiraoi, Hokkaido

Women wearing Ainu dresses singing a baby to sleep - Shiraoi, Hokkaido

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Inside an Ainu's house in Shiraoi, Hokkaido

Inside an Ainu house - Shiraoi, Hokkaido

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Fishes are being smoked in the ceiling of an Ainu's house in Shiraoi, Hokkaido

Fishes are being smoked inside Ainu house - Shiraoi, Hokkaido

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Wall patterns and tatoo on one hand in Shiraoi, Hokkaido

Wall patterns and tatoos (hand in photo) - Shiraoi, Hokkaido

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Women executing Ainu mats'work in Shiraoi, Hokkaido

Women weaving an Ainu mat - Shiraoi, Hokkaido

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