The topic of the Ainu is something rarely discussed in Japan. They are Japan’s mysterious native people who were pushed north, oppressed, and had their language and culture legally suppressed by the Wajin (ethnic Japanese). To some, they’re an interesting, cultural curiosity rarely heard of in the outside world. While Hokkaido is known for its onsen hot springs and fresh seafood, some people know it’s the perfect destination for a look into an almost secretive part of Japan’s history.
Why Study the Ainu?
Unlike with the US and the Native Americans, Japan rarely openly discusses the history of its native people or the wrongs inflicted upon them. Ainu people do not have their own land or communities, and despite efforts to keep the language alive through radio programs, the situation is looking grim. The Meiji era legally referred to them as “former aborigines” as it outlawed their culture in an attempt to integrate them into Wajin society, and for the most part, the job’s all but finished. While Japan finally recognized the Ainu as the original inhabitants of the land in 2008, many Ainu have already lost their language and culture, left Hokkaido, and joined the rest of Japan in their move towards Tokyo.
In school, students read one or two sentences about the Ainu, and mostly just that Ainu were hunter gatherers in Hokkaido. Of the schools I’ve taught at here in Japan, students and faculty have noted that the topic of the Ainu just isn’t covered. One student showed me the single example about the Ainu in her textbook I previously described. One school was especially proud that their English textbook discussed the Ainu and Japan’s responsibility in their fate, but this is also a highly academic school with a tie to a Hokkaido based rocket scientist. Outside of that, saying the word “Ainu” in school (and most non-Hokkaido places in Japan) generally involves you having to mention Hokkaido, bears, and beards before the meaning even registers to most people.
Museums here have even denied English access to Ainu research, despite specializing in indigenous studies and having nearly every other display in at least English and Japanese, if not Chinese as well. I’ve been to the Tokyo Ainu Center several times, and while they have some reasonable tourist information and early English texts on the Ainu, the staff speaks little to no English and is mostly meant for Japanese people because, well, most Japanese still don’t know much about the topic. In general, if you want to learn about the Ainu, you have to go to Hokkaido.
The Ainu of Japan have a connection to an older culture, a world where the gods literally offer their bodies to feed human kind. However, times have changed, and the Ainu of today live in a seemingly godless modern era where their practices seem backwards and barbaric. Stripped of their ability to live in the natural world and losing their connection to an oral tradition that was outlawed until recently, modern Ainu people wrestle with a truly complex set of problems all humanity should consider: When we stop worshiping nature, how do we still show it respect? How do we keep our ancestors’ languages intact in a world that increasingly has become globalized? What is the value of our culture in a world ruled by commerce? How do we move towards a united future when the mistakes of the past are ignored or denied? Alone, these problems aren’t just that of a minority group, but the Ainu do bear the burden of these combined issues.
Despite this, the plight of the Ainu is mostly restricted to those who are at least fluent in Japanese. While searching Google can give you some information, there is still a mountain of it sitting in libraries and community centers in Japan, often gathering dust. As I was told by several people of Ainu descent, there’s almost no practical use for their culture, and reclaiming it at this point often seems impossible.
Native Japanese show little to no interest in the Ainu, with outsiders seemingly showing more than natives. This is highlighted best by my own students, who had their school trip in Sapporo but the word “Ainu” never once appeared on their event schedule. The fact that there is interest about the Ainu coming from the outside world but little English access to it is an odd problem.
Although I had a long list of contacts from both the Ainu Association of Hokkaido and even the public relations department of the Hokkaido Tourism Organization, getting information beyond simple descriptions and addresses was difficult. Experts from the museums and colleges never returned my emails, Facebook/Twitter messages, or that of my PR contacts, in English or Japanese. In short, for outsiders, learning about the Ainu in Hokkaido is difficult, especially when you consider the fact that the JR system there is quite limited.
With only about four days of free time, I decided to try to find out as much about the Ainu as possible in order to help fellow tourists get the chance to also experience Ainu history and culture. All these locations are accessible from Sapporo without having to stay anywhere over night or using a car/plane/boat, just the bus or JR system. All the locations have information in English, but as with all Ainu information, the more Japanese you can read/understand, the better your experience will be.
While there may be others in the future (such as the Hokkaido University Museum which is set to reopen in July 2016), this short list is the best I could find, even with help. You may find the Hokkaido University’s Center for Ainu and Indigenous Studies, but this is closed off to the public; even my press contacts were unable to help me get in. Being in Sapporo, people will also tell you about the Hokkaido Ainu Culture Research Center. No matter what some people (and even signs!) may tell you, it’s gone, merged with one of the museums on the following list. The travel center at the JR stations and the locals will all tell you about it if you mention your interest in the Ainu, but really, ignore them unless they mention the new location.
Now that you’re able to avoid the pitfalls I fell for, let’s get down to business.
Shiraoi’s Poroto Kotan
The Ainu museum in Shiaroi’s Poroto Kotan (which means “A Big Village”) really can’t be missed. Jasmine already covered it here on Zooming Japan, but there are some big details I want to add as someone a little more familiar with the topic. For one, this place can be a really mixed bag. Most tourists here are non-Japanese East Asians, coming from China, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, etc. The tourists speak a lot of English, but the staff mostly don’t speak much. There’s a tiny “zoo” that’s quite depressing and some lectures/shows that are mostly in Japanese with some ritual Ainu language occasionally thrown in. Most of the staff seemed Japanese, but there are some actual researchers and mixed Ainu people.
While it may come across as a tourist trap for those who just want to brag about doing something unique, those with a real interest in the Ainu won’t be disappointed. The amount of English in the (quite small) museum is enough that I was able to pick up a few words of Ainu without needing to use my Japanese skills, all from the mural at the entrance of the museum. Nearly all the displays are in English, and most of it’s quite easy to understand. It also has a lot of information I didn’t previously have access to. Since most English research into the topic comes from the late 1800s and early 1900s from male anthropologists and missionaries, topics such as pregnancy and raising children are rarely in English.
One of the curators, Mr. Itsuki Nakamura, was incredibly helpful. While he doesn’t speak the language, he does speak a healthy dose of English. Not only can you ask him questions, but he can help you with contacts, if you speak Japanese. He was able to put me in contact with a Japanese-Ainu mixed woman also working at the village who sang part of a yukar (oral story) in the Ainu language. On my own, I had to use a mix of Japanese, English, and Spanish to communicate with her, but as someone who is also mixed and seen as a bit of an outsider in his home country, it was a satisfying experience I never have been able to find anywhere else. Between the two of them, even with my limited Japanese, I was able to learn a lot about current Ainu topics, from culture loss to being a representative of a culture that is hard to grasp even by those of the blood.
The cafe there offers some Ainu food, but I got the feeling it was made more for tourists, lacking some of the more pronounced flavors you can experience in Tokyo’s Harukor. Sadly, this is the only place around Sapporo where you can try Ainu food. The gift store has some good English learning materials about Hokkaido and the Ainu that you could (potentially) also use to help you learn a bit of Japanese, plus some good edibles to bring home.
Speaking of gift shops, the museum’s gift shop is a treasure trove for Ainu enthusiasts. If you want a bear claw (not the donut), you can buy some, but they’ll cost you. It’s something I personally struggle with, but, sadly, animal trophies have always been one of the biggest ways for the Ainu to make money, so times haven’t changed. However, there’s also some fantastic books. If you understand absolutely no Japanese, there are some general culture books, children’s books, and simplified yukar written to help keep the Ainu spirit alive. If you can understand Japanese… my god. There were so many good books, including one that had really specific details about iomante, the releasing of a bear spirit… by killing a real bear that was raised as a member of an Ainu family. It’s obviously a sensitive topic, and this book details even how and where to cut the bear to remove the skin, with pictures, so you don’t need to know any kanji to understand some of its content.
Outside are several vendors who sell handmade wares. While there is some kitschy stuff, there’s also more authentic hand-made clothes, preserved meat, and yes, carvings. However, the carvings aren’t just bears, but also geometric designs in animal products, such as antlers, which is a little closer to something the Ainu would use to trade with before having to focus on tourism to keep their culture alive. Some of the vendors are also quite knowledgeable about the community, so you can have a cultural experience while shopping for some stuff that you won’t be seeing at the usual omiyage souvenir shops around Sapporo.
Be aware that the village is being bought by the government in 2020, when the museum is supposed to expand at the very least. People seem excited about this since the village is the only one near Sapporo that has real history, and it’s certainly different. While most amateur Ainu researchers hear about how respected the bear is, this village (and much of Sapporo) features Blakiston’s fish owl, the guardian god of the region. While you could certainly walk through the village and “be done” with it in about thirty minutes, taking the time to read the placards, check the books, and talk to the people takes hours, and it’s an experience that really can’t be had anywhere else around Sapporo.
The Hokkaido Museum
Remember that little museum I mentioned that’s no longer in Sapporo? Well, it merged with the Hokkaido Museum, accessible by bus from the Shin-Sapporo station. While I loved the personal feel of Shiraoi’s village, the Hokkaido Museum also has a fairly personal touch. Unlike any other museum I’ve found in Japan, this one firmly describes how the Japanese have unfairly treated the Ainu, and their World War I&II section admits more wrong doing than I’ve seen from other Japanese museums (though it’s still not perfect).
While there is a lot of information in English, it’s still got a lot in Japanese. The videos of dances and oral tales are easy enough to access at a push of a button, but other displays can be a bit more difficult to understand. Luckily, each section of the museum has several areas that try to give detailed summaries of what the various Japanese placards say. These are small essays, not a simple paragraph, so I didn’t feel like I missed out on much more than simply reading the information while standing in front of relevant displays.
One display that wasn’t translated, but simple enough to understand with intermediate Japanese, was about a fake Ainu family’s experience with the Japanese for five generations. It holds few punches, centering around a modern boy asking his grandparents about his Ainu heritage, in which they discuss the hardships of their family and the loss of various aspects of their culture, including the language. It’s a modern display that’s sensitive to the fact that the Ainu aren’t dead and gone but are forced to find their way in a world that doesn’t seem to value their culture. The summary you can read is serviceable, but sadly, the full weight of the display is lost to those with zero English skills. However, it’s still something you simply won’t find outside of Hokkaido.
The museum also places the Ainu in a historical context, having displays on the people the Ainu probably came from. Jomon, Satsumon, and Okhotsk cultures are all covered and discussed in a way that you can understand how they influenced what would become Ainu culture or the interaction with the people who became the modern Japanese.
While the displays are quite nice, the basement library has some more excellent books. Again, if you can read Japanese, the value of this library goes up a lot, but even with just English, there are many books that are very hard to get a hold of, containing information that’s difficult to get in English. One such book is “Kamuy-Yukar” by Yutaka Nakagawa. Though the actual book is in Ainu, the commentary companion booklet translated by Ryumine Katayama has questions asked by non-Ainu (including foreigners) that cover subjects rarely discussed in more academic books (such as if eggs and nuts are considered gods which, apparently, they’re not; they’re just gifts from the gods).
Update: I’ve since bought the book for myself, and the commentary is mostly summaries of yukar, which you can listen to if you get a copy that includes a CD.
In terms of museums, the displays in the Hokkaido Museum are warm and personable. You’ll want to leave at least several hours open to explore the museum and library, possibly the whole day if you want to visit the nearby historic village which, sadly, has nothing in terms of Ainu content but it still an interesting place to check out. You can get a discount ticket that covers the price of both locations, but keep in mind that the historic village is mostly outdoors.
Sapporo Pirka Kotan
I must admit that, in a way, Sapporo Pirka Kotan is perhaps the weakest place to visit on this list. Most of the displays use rather poor English with little to no explanations, and are often the same or similar to ones you can see at either of the two previously mentioned sites. It’s about a 40 minute bus ride from Sapporo, and the bus doesn’t come by too often. At the very least though, being near a onsen means you can either get in some educational time as well as onsen time, or leave someone at the onsen while you have your research time.
The village set up outside is quite scenic, rivaling the Shiraoi Kotan by trading the lake view for a forest and stream one, but my personal favorite feature of our final entry is its library. As usual, it’s best appreciated by those who can read Japanese. However, for those who speak English, there is a very special treat.
Among the other Ainu books is an English copy of Ryo Michico’s “The Ainu and the Bear: The Gift of the Cycle of Life.” The book covers iomante in a very personal and human way. It’s considered appropriate for kindergarteners, but reading it as an adult who understands the ritual makes it a gut wrenching experience. Even before reading comments by the author, the reader can see the struggle between culture and necessity, the pull of survival versus the love of an animal, and a modern adult mind trying to reconcile the mythology we tell ourselves with the concept of causing unnecessary suffering.
The museum overall normally isn’t worth the trip if you’re able to make it to either of the other two sites previously mentioned, especially if you can somehow get a copy of the book, but if you have limited time and are traveling with people who aren’t really the cultural type, Pirka Kotan is still better than most Ainu displays I’ve found outside of Hokkaido. In that sense, Pirka Kotan is probably the easiest place to recommend for those just looking to get broad information on the Ainu before really committing to the day trips nearly required for the other two locations on our list.
I hope that the information I’ve provided is useful and saves you some time (and headaches) that usually come from attempting to get this information while on your own vacation. Though the locals will be a bit surprised that you’re interested in the history of the Ainu, they’ll also appreciate it and try to help you out. Be willing to listen to them, but also understand that, as someone who explicitly visited Sapporo for learning about the Ainu, I found little information in English, and much of it was dated. At least for the next year or five, this article should be able to help you.
“3 English-Friendly, Must See Ainu Destinations Around Sapporo” is a guest post. All the information and the photos without a “Zooming Japan” watermark are provided by Laguna Levine. Therefore Zooming Japan doesn’t take any responsibility for the content.