Japan Recognizes Indigenous Group

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Ainu community leader Aku Sawai. i

Ainu community leader Aku Sawai uses a ritual bowl and stick in prayers to the god of the hearth. He played a key role in lobbying Japan's parliament to pass a resolution recognizing the Ainu as indigenous people. Anthony Kuhn/NPR hide caption

toggle caption Anthony Kuhn/NPR
Ainu community leader Aku Sawai.

Ainu community leader Aku Sawai uses a ritual bowl and stick in prayers to the god of the hearth. He played a key role in lobbying Japan's parliament to pass a resolution recognizing the Ainu as indigenous people.

Anthony Kuhn/NPR

The Ainu are an indigenous people who have recently been recognized by the Japanese government. The group has come a long way since the Japanese government tried to assimilate it by force. The Ainu are now seen as a model of man living in harmony with nature.


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Robert Siegel.

At the recent G8 Summit in the northern island of Japan, Hokkaido, one local indigenous group was presented as a model of living in harmony with nature. The group is the Ainu people - the minority that the Japanese government once tried to force to assimilate. The Ainu recently won official recognition from the Japanese parliament.

As NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports, they now hope to revive their disappearing culture.

Mr. AKU SAWAI (Ainu Community Leader): (Singing) (Speaking foreign language)

ANTHONY KUHN: Last night, a bear fell in love with me, sings Ainu community leader Aku Sawai. The bear came down to my hut and walked around it several times. Sawai is stout and bearded and a bit bear-like himself. Dressed in a traditional Ainu robe, he welcomes visitors into a chise, or traditional thatched hut, at the Pirka Kotan Ainu Cultural Center in the suburbs of Sapporo.

Mr. SAWAI: (Singing) (Speaking foreign language)

KUHN: Sawai sits on the floor near the hearth that is at the center of every chise. He stirs a bowl of sake and prays to the god of fire in the hearth who, in turn, communicates with the spirits of bears, owls, deer, snakes and salmon at an altar outside the window.

Chief among these is the bear spirit. The Ainu's biggest ritual, the iyomande, involves raising a bear cub for more than a year. Sawai remembers how, as a child, he used to walk the baby bear on a leash.

Mr. SAWAI: (Speaking foreign language)

KUHN: Even as a baby, the bear was very powerful. When it found a tree it liked, it would climb up faster than a cat. I often tie the leash around my body. And sometimes, I'd suddenly find myself hanging from the tree on which the bear had hoisted me.

The Ainu finally kill and eat the bear, sending his soul back to the abode of the gods in a spirit of respect. Some Japanese see the ritual as barbaric, and it hasn't been performed in a decade. This is an example of the decline of Ainu culture, which started more than a century ago.

In 1869, as the U.S. Cavalry battled Native Americans on the Great Plains, Japan's Meiji government began colonizing the northern island of Hokkaido. Aku Sawai says they confiscated Ainu lands, flooded them with settlers from the main island of Honshu, and forced the Ainu to assimilate.

Mr. SAWAI: (Speaking foreign language)

KUHN: We were deprived of our rights - our right to wear our traditional clothes. And our identity as an indigenous people were taken away. There's no longer anyone who speaks the Ainu language fluently.

Professor Hideaki Uemura is an expert on indigenous people at Keisen University in Tokyo. He says that the policy of assimilating the Ainu was a tool of colonization and empire building.

Professor HIDEAKI UEMURA (International Human Rights Law, Keisen University): (Japanese spoken)

KUHN: During the Meiji restoration in modernization period, he says, the Japanese government created a myth that the empire was made up entirely of the Yamato people, who were under the leadership of the emperor.

Uemura says that today, this myth is incompatible with a Japan that is otherwise modernized and integrated with the global economy.

(Soundbite of archived audio)

KUHN: Today, many younger Ainu know of their language in culture only from recordings, like this one at the cultural center. After years of lobbying by Sawai and other community leaders, Japan's parliament finally passed a resolution last month officially recognizing the Ainu as an indigenous people. Sawai dismisses critics who say the resolution is just cosmetic. He says it's just the beginning of the Ainu reclaiming their heritage. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: Japan's parliament passed the resolution in June.]

Ms. SAWAI: (Speaking foreign language)

KUHN: We want our original lands back. Our population is small so we don't need much land. We can take it not from the people of Hokkaido, but from public lands that were confiscated from us. We also need fishing and forestry rights.

There are officially around 24,000 Ainu left in Hokkaido. But experts say many more Ainu have concealed their ethnicity out of fear of discrimination. Sawai is hopeful that these Ainu will once again take pride in their identity. He adds that Ainu culture has much to offer everyone.

Mr. SAWAI: (Speaking foreign language)

KUHN: I think our spiritual culture can benefit the earth. It might hold the key for us to live more harmonious lives. After all, we can't build a bridge and move to the moon. We have only one earth, and we must protect it.

Japan clearly timed the parliamentary resolution to come ahead of its hosting the G8 Summit in Hokkaido as well as a summit of indigenous peoples just before the G8.

As symbols of Japan's environmental consciousness, the Ainu are far more attractive and colorful than, say, a Toyota Prius.

Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Sapporo, Japan.

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Correction Aug. 15, 2008

The story said, "Japan’s parliament finally passed a resolution last month officially recognizing the Ainu as an indigenous people" The resolution was passed in June.



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