[This article turned out really long, so if you are interested in what the picture above is all about, please scroll straight down to the bottom.]
I recently watched a beautiful movie called “Ainu Mosir”, which is on Netflix and I thoroughly recommend to learn how the Ainu people live in modern day Japan.
For those who are not familiar with this subject, the Ainu are one of the indigenous people of Japan who mainly lived/ live in the Tohoku region (the northern part of Honshu, the main island of Japan), Hokkaido, and Russian territories (Sakhalin, Kamchatka Peninsula, etc).
Wajin (和人: Ethnic Japanese) and the Ainu began having conflicts over land, natural resources, etc. a long time ago, and many Ainu were already under the Japanese rule during the Muromachi period (1336-1573).
We don’t know exactly how many Ainu people live in Japan now, but the government estimates there are around 25,000 in the entire Japan. The unofficial estimates reach over 200,000.
Most of them live in Hokkaido. According to the Ainu Association of Hokkaido, there were 16,786 Ainu people in Hokkaido in 2013.
As I grew up in the greater Tokyo area, I met only one person with an Ainu ancestry in my entire life.
He said he had an Ainu ancestry but identified himself as Japanese, not Ainu.
Many Ainu people have intermarried to ethnic Japanese, and from what I know many live as ethnic Japanese like him.
There have been discrimination towards the Ainu for centuries, so his choice was understandable to avoid unnecessary disadvantages.
I guess I am going quite sidetracked (I should be talking about the movie really…), but, dear readers, Japan has never been “mono-racial” as some of us insist.
Along with the Ainu, there are Ryukuans (Okinawans), and there had been Emishi, Kumaso, Hayato to name a few before the Wajin/ Yamato finally united Japan.
There have been intermarriages.
We have an expression “Akita Bijin” (Akita Beauty) to describe women from Akita prefecture. It’s generally said that women from Akita are beautiful (I don’t know about the men from there… 😅)
I don’t necessarily agree with this, but I wonder if this is due to the intermarriages between Yamato and Ainu/ Emishi.
Getting back to the movie, it is the first time for me to watch an Ainu movie in my life.
I am really happy to see that the Ainu culture has been gaining a lot of attention from the mainstream Japanese media due to the successful manga/ anime series “Golden Kamuy” (though I am also aware that some people have pointed out that there are cultural appropriations in the series).
Ainu Mosir really shows what it is like to be Ainu today.
Their identity, every day life, cultural survival and struggle.
The story revolves around an Ainu ceremony called Iomante, which has NOT been performed since 1975 in the Akan Lake community.
In this traditional custom, a brown bear is raised with love and care, but given as a sacrifice at the end of the ceremony.
This concept would probably put off a lot of animal lovers (like myself), but we probably need to see beyond the surface of this ceremony.
It is a reminder of the sacredness of life and thanksgiving to the nature.
In fact, the Ainu have always protected the nature and would’ve never considered profiting from exploiting the nature, say, by mass dairy farming like we do in “developed” countries.
You can watch the movie and decide what it is about.
The reason why I posted the picture from the film at the beginning was because I was really surprised that the actor was wearing a jacket from Te Wānanga o Aotearoa, a Māori-run university here in New Zealand.
I had known that the Ainu people visit New Zealand to learn from the successful cultural preservation/ language revitalization strategies of the Māori people, and I guess he acquired it through one of their exchange programmes.
I was really moved to see the connection between the Ainu and the Māori in such an unexpected place!
Iomante: Murase Yoshinori, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons