The ainu people

the ainu people

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I don't think the situation is so cut and dry. Colonialism, imperialism, ethnic identity, nation or national identity, indigeneity, are all modern concepts, born out of and specifically applicable to particularly modern contexts. What does it mean that the archipelago was "theirs" when there was no concept of "them" (or, I should say, "us", "us Ainu") until only a couple centuries ago?

Let's summarize the history briefly. The Jomon people entered the islands at some point, many thousands of years ago. Then, around 2300-3000 years ago, a different group of people came in, the people we call Yayoi. They came not as a coordinated effort under any lord or king, not under any nationalistic or religious ideology, but simply as individuals looking for new places to live. They had no sense of a unified identity, and fought one another at the same time that they intermixed with the Jomon people. At this time, there was no sense of a "Japan" or of a Japanese people, nor of an Ainu identity, and there wouldnt be for centuries.

Jump forward to the 800s-1100s CE. Now we have an Imperial Court which claims authority over the entire archipelago, but doesnt actually wield effective control over very much area. Anyone who lives far from the Imperial center is considered less civilized, even barbarian, regardless of their ethnic makeup (an idea which didn't really exist then in a form resembling our understandings today). Anyone threatening or challenging the court's authority and seeking to live independently on the geographical peripheries of Imperial control, or beyond them, is considered within a single blurred category of barbarian/rebels, whether they are rebellious samurai or tribal peoples - peripheral people are all considered kind of sort of more or less the same category. And, yes, the Imperial Court launches campaigns against these people, but remember, not only do most of these people have no unified identity as Ainu, or as anything else, but the vast majority of people living elsewhere in the archipelago have only the vaguest sense (if that) of being Imperial subjects, would have had no sense whatsoever of a unified "us" or any opposition to a unified "them," and certainly would have played little or no role in the actual fighting or displacement.

Jump forward again to the 18-19th centuries. The Ainu identity is only just now first starting to coalesce into a recognized and unified identity, and most of the traditional customs and ways of life we mourn today are only first just starting to come into practice. The vast majority of Ainu are living on Hokkaido, and have been for many generations. They have been pushed there not by any one person's actions, not by any one government's policies, not at any one moment.

The Ainu trade and intermix with the Wajin (the "Japanese"). Some Ainu become Japanese simply by adopting the trappings of Japanese culture (hair, dress, language, food). Some Japanese do the reverse. There is a sense, perhaps for the first time, of being separate peoples, but only insofar as customs are different; there is no concept of different ethnicities, only different customs, and one can become a member of civilized society simply by adopting the right customs. This period is a bit iffy and difficult to describe properly, but I recommend you to David Howell's work. He does an excellent job of explaining how identity, ethnicity, nations, borders, were conceived of in ways very different from how we think of them today. Our categories and understandings of

the world today may seem natural and universally applicable, but they are very much creations of the modern era.

In the 19th century, for the first time, samurai authorities claim all of Hokkaido as part of their territory, in response to Western incursions. They still do not, however, actually effect actual governance over that land. They don't kick anyone off the land, or forcibly move anyone, or force anyone to change their customs. No national borders are drawn, it's more just an assertion of cultural spheres and an effort at defense.

In 1868, the Tokugawa shogunate is overthrown, and the new government implements a myriad of modernization programs, explicitly informed by or based on Western ideologies and conventions. The samurai class is abolished. The Imperial Court is nominally put back into power, but under a government that only superficially resembles in any way anything that came before. Most policies are reversed, discontinued, or dramatically altered.

Not until the 1870s do we have, for the first time ever, a Japanese nation-state in the modern sense, under a modern government, informed by modern conceptions of race, of empire, of national borders, of citizenship, of land ownership, explicitly enacting policies to force assimilation, to ban traditional language and customs, to impose its own Japanese system of governance, to deprive people of their land, and indeed to erase the Ainu identity itself. This is in no way a continuation of earlier policies, as if the Imperial Court, or any of the shogunates, or "the Japanese people" can really be considered to have possessed or followed a single continuous line of policy.

TL;DR - Here, perhaps, is the point. If you want to talk about what was done in the 1870s-1930s, that's one thing. But, if you want to focus on the gradual disappearance of the non-Wajin people from Honshu over the course of the 300s-1500s CE, a process which has more in common with the Anglo-Saxon takeover of England than with anything perpetuated in a coordinated fashion by any colonialist/imperialist government, there are some practical questions which need to be addressed.

Who do we seek reparations from? The Japanese government, which didn't exist in a form even vaguely resembling its current form until 1868, centuries after these events occurred? The Imperial Court, which indeed ordered and coordinated campaigns against the Emishi ("barbarians") in the 800s-1100s, but which is only the same Imperial Court as today by custom, by tradition, and by lineage, but not really in any meaningful way by continuity of control/authority, administrative structures, or policy positions? The Japanese people, who didn't really have any conception of being a "Japanese" "people" in the modern nationalist sense of the word until the late 19th century, or perhaps in some early modern proto-national way the 17th century at the earliest?

What exactly do we blame them for? Destroying customs that weren't even in place until centuries after the campaigns against the Emishi that we're talking about? Committing colonialist, imperialist, racist actions centuries before those concepts even existed in the West, let alone in Japan?

This is, of course, a very complicated issue, and there is no airtight way to really argue it all out, but I think you need to reconsider how long both of these peoples have lived in those islands, how dramatically and how many times over their culture, identity, governments, have changed, making neither the Ainu nor the Japanese the same people they were 200 years ago, let alone 1000 years ago.

Category: Ainu

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