How can we say hidden in Japanese

Ainu cultureThe hidden indigenous people of Japan

"We hide. We don't want to attract attention among the Japanese. As indigenous people we have been teased and humiliated for too long. Only in our own family do we know that we are Ainu. Only then do we find our identity."

Masahiro Nomoto is an exception. He's not hiding. As director of the Ainu Museum in Shira-oi, it would be nonsense to deny your origins. But even he is very cautious about it. Unlike other ethnic minorities, his people have long been marginalized. Most of the Ainu were ashamed to be Ainu.

"My grandparents still lived as Ainu. Ainu was their mother tongue. But it was banned in 1899. At school, the children were told that Ainu were savages, their lives were primitive. Japanese, on the other hand, are civilized, they should emulate this ideal of my generation nobody speaks our language anymore. "

Museum director Masahiro Nomoto says: We Ainu are never asked. (ARD / Jürgen Hanefeld)

Ainu is a completely independent language, not related to any other. The young woman who sings a classic Ainu legend for visitors to the museum knows that she is only imitating the sound. And yet a magic can be felt during her lecture in the flickering glow of the fire around which a handful of curious people have gathered. In such a spacious hut made of wood and straw, the hunters and gatherers would have listened to the stories for hours in the evenings - about the heroic deeds of their ancestors in the fight with demons.

Dispute over the surrender of skeletons

But a group of living Ainu are also fighting powerful opponents. Three of them have been arguing with Hokkaido University about the release of the skeletons of their ancestors since 2012. The background: until 1972, archaeologists worked as grave robbers and plundered the bones of the Ainu for so-called research purposes. A real scandal, says Uwe Makino, author of a recently published specialist book on the subject. But paradoxically at the same time a reason why the plaintiffs' chances are slim in his opinion:

"The Japanese government has decided to store all Ainu bones at Japanese universities, that is over 1660, in the city of Shira-oi on Hokkaido. And a new museum is also to be built there. So if this lawsuit got through, more would probably be Lawsuits by the Ainu for the return of the bones followed and this prestige object would be in danger - immediately before the 2020 Olympic Games. "

The Ainu's bond with nature is evident in the crane dance. (ARD / Jürgen Hanefeld)

This shows the attitude of the Japanese government towards the ethnic minority in a typical way: Masahiro Nomoto laments the Ainu as part of the country's early history and as folklore, but not as a living people:

"The value of our culture and their social status are two very different things. Our museum is full of interesting exhibits that show the earlier life of the Ainu as hunters and gatherers, but the visitors do not build a bridge from the fascinating Ainu culture the people who carry them. There are many Ainu museums, but they do not support the Ainu's cause. "

According to a recent survey, 72 percent of all Ainu feel disadvantaged. They have the poorer education, the lousy jobs, and most of the children in Japan. But the information doesn't say much. They are based on the official figure of 18,000 people who belong to the official Ainu Association, half of whom live in Tokyo, the other on their home island of Hokkaido. Only they receive government support.

But many do not even belong to this association. To be a member and thus entitled to support, some find that discriminatory. Those who do not want to be branded as "Staats-Ainu" prefer not to become a member. Masahiro Nomoto also deliberately does not belong to the association. So it happens that nobody knows the actual number of the Ainu, especially since many have mixed with Japanese over the centuries.

Ainu worshiped the brown bear

Historical sources show that they were a strikingly peaceful people who caught salmon and land animals and gathered edible plants. And that the brown bear - an animal weighing up to 800 kilograms - plays an outstanding role in their culture.

"In winter, let's say a she-bear is killed, and when she has cubs, they are taken along and raised. When they get bigger and more dangerous, the fangs and claws, they are put in a cage. And there they are up to for a year, sometimes up to the second year, pampered and pampered. And then they are killed during this bear ritual. "

Iomante is the name of the festival, the course of which can now only be seen on old films. The meaning lies in the ascension of the soul of the bear, worshiped as a deity, to heaven. There she can tell how she was treated so that bears could come down to people again. Dogs, foxes and owls, which are considered to be guardian spirits by the Ainu, also belong to the pandemonium of the original inhabitants of Hokkaido.

Music and dance are classic forms of expression of the Ainu that have survived to this day. (ARD / Jürgen Hanefeld)

Their island, located between Japan and Siberia, had no metal; their beautifully ornamented garments were made from tree bark and animal skins. They traded with merchants who came from Russia or Japan, and otherwise lived in the shadow of world history. It is true that since the 15th century, the Japanese have been invading Ezo, as the island was called. But it was not until the age of nationalism, when states wanted to separate themselves from one another, that the densely forested island was annexed by Japan. Trading partners became occupiers, Ezo became Hokkaido. The island, which is as big as Austria, has only been part of Japan since 1869 and forms almost a quarter of its land area. For the Ainu this meant:

"They banned our language, cleared our land and distributed it to their farmers, and destroyed our food sources by banning us from fishing and hunting. They simply denied our entire lives."

Ethnocide on the Ainu in Japan

The Ainu were not systematically exterminated, but assimilated - that is, forced into Japanese, second-class Japanese. Uwe Makino speaks of ethnocide instead of genocide. At the same time, however, they were declared objects of study, believed to be an early Aryan race, whose bones - so literally - had to be saved for research. So it is that Ainu skeletons not only appear in Japanese collections, they can also be found in London, Saint Petersburg and Berlin:

"I was in Berlin and was able to see for myself personally. In the depot in Friedrichshagen there are about a dozen Ainu bones, including a complete skeleton, in individual cases there are also files. The most important source were Japanese doctors who studied in Berlin, and then sent bones to Berlin at the request of their academic teachers. "

Who knows that a luminary like Rudolf Virchow, the founder of modern pathology, called for grave robbery. The scientists took advantage of the naivete of the Ainu, says Masahiro Nomoto:

"We Ainu do not mark the graves of our dead. There are no cemeteries or tombstones. Only those who were there know where the graves are. The bones are also of no great importance to us. In our rituals it is much more important, our ancestors by name to be able to call on as many generations as possible. Because the oldest of our ancestors have already become gods and can protect us. "

Another misunderstanding. Even if it's outrageous that their ancestors' bones were stolen. To collect them now in a skeleton store does not show any deep knowledge either. An ossuary, says Masahiro Nomoto, is not part of our culture. But we Ainu are not asked.