HOKKAIDO: Ainu Museum--My first lesson in Ainu culture


On my fourth morning in Hokkaido, I headed for the Ainu Museum in the town of Shiraoi, not far from the city of Noboribetsu to the southwest of Sapporo. As I approached the parking area, I could hear sounds of a musical instrument--similar to the twang that a bow makes as an arrow is released.

An Ainu woman sings traditional Ainu folk songs at the Ainu Museum in the town of Shiraoi. (Photo by Akira Kudochi)

My first stop was the resource center inside the museum. I was there for my first lesson on the history of the Ainu, the name for the indigenous people who live in Japan's Tohoku area, Hokkaido and the southern part of the Sakhalin Island, now part of Russia.

Ainu culture dates from around the 13th century, according to historical records. For centuries, Ainu traded with our neighbors, China and Russia. More to the point, they lived apart from the "wajin" Japanese who inhabited the main Honshu island.

The Ainu people have a unique culture and heritage.

But once wajin started migrating up north into Tohoku and Hokkaido, friction ensued. After a series of bloody battles, the Ainu came under wajin rule.

During the Meiji Era (1868-1912), the Japanese government set out to explore and develop Hokkaido, Japan's northern frontier. This had a devastating effect on the Ainu.

The influx of wajin endangered the very existence of the Ainu, who lived off the land by hunting and fishing.

Furthermore, successive governments from the Meiji Era onward, and through World War II, never lifted a finger to preserve Ainu culture, hastening Ainu assimilation into wajin, or mainstream Japanese culture. The people's customs and traditions, which by right should have been passed down to future generations, went unprotected.

The 20th century saw the birth of a new awareness and the rise of a movement to protect the minority culture that was on the brink of extinction.

After the end of World War II, the Ainu Association of Hokkaido was established with the aim of improving the social status of the Ainu people. Since the 1970s, there has been increased interest in preserving and transmitting Ainu ethnic culture, including dances and traditional dress.

Finally, in 1997, the "Law for the Promotion of the Ainu Culture" was enacted. This meant that the government, as a policy, would implement measures for the protection, dissemination and advocacy for the Ainu and Ainu culture.

But in reality, Japanese living outside Hokkaido for the most part remain oblivious to Ainu culture and the Ainu way of life.

In the

past, many Ainu settlements were in the Shiraoi area.

For this reason, Shiraoi was chosen as the ideal location for the Ainu Museum, as a base for the preservation and transmission of the ethnic culture. The museum is called "Poroto Kotan," which means "big lake village" in the Ainu language. The villages in Shiraoi were Poroto Kotan by location, as they were right beside the "poroto" lake. I learned that 90 percent of geographical names now used in Hokkaido are derived from the Ainu language.

I proceeded to a building with a thatched roof, a replica of a traditional Ainu house. Here, I watched a live performance of traditional Ainu dance. Mitsuharu Nomoto is an official of the Ainu Museum. Dressed in traditional Ainu costume, Nomoto asked the audience what they knew about the Ainu.

"Some people believe that there are Ainu people still living in huts with a thatched-roof, wearing traditional Ainu clothes," Nomoto said. "Now that is a misconception. No one lives like that anymore. We all live like other Japanese people. That goes for me, too. At five p.m. I'm going to get out of these clothes and go home."

His light banter loosened up the audience. There was a burst of laughter. Nomoto then continued in a serious manner: "It is true that even the people living right here in Hokkaido don't know much about the Ainu. Every year, a lot of students come visit the museum on school trips. Sometimes, even the teachers are surprised to find out that the Ainu are no longer living in huts with thatched roofs. I hope everyone who visited us today will go home a little more knowledgeable about the Ainu. It doesn't matter if it's only a little bit. It's the right facts that count."

The Ainu staff employed at the museum learn traditional dance and learn how to play musical instruments. They put on performances for the visitors as a way to inform and transmit knowledge of the Ainu culture.

A traditional Ainu dish served at the Ainu Museum in the town of Shiraoi (Photo by Akira Kudochi)

The Poroto Kotan is not all about learning. Visitors can get a taste of traditional Ainu cooking, too. Nomoto served me an Ainu meal; white rice cooked with millet, and a soup made with chunky bits of salmon, potatoes and scallions. The dishes were seasoned with salt and oil only, yet the result was anything but bland. I could savor the robust flavors of each ingredient.

A woman in traditional Ainu clothes displays a "mukkuri," a jaw harp of the Ainu. (Photo by Akira Kudochi)

Category: Ainu

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