The Ainu: A History of Oppression

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All around the world, there is much work being done to save original cultures. Whether Native American, African, or anything in between, humanitarian efforts have been or are being made to preserve ancient, indigenous cultures. However, the plight of one group in particular has been largely overlooked. The Ainu have inhabited their native country, Japan, for hundreds of years; they are, in fact, its oldest inhabitants. They are now a small minority. The ethnicity generally thought of as Japanese, in fact, only appeared many years after the Ainu had established themselves in Japan. Throughout their history of occupation in Japan, the Japanese people have steadily oppressed the Ainu and their culture. Their once large numbers have dwindled to a scattered few, and the majority of their customs have been lost to time. The Japanese government and people adopted aggressive policies to replace the Ainu culture with their own culture, and integrate the Ainu people into Japanese society, regardless of how the Ainu felt about such matters. Furthermore, in a less tangible yet equally tyrannical manner, the Japanese have instilled a sense of embarrassment in the Ainu, have made them ashamed of their heritage and history. Prejudice against and intolerance of the Ainu continues even today. It has been ingrained in the minds of every Japanese resident that the Ainu are unimportant, so much so that no one cares or even notices when a member of the Ainu speaks out about his or her lack of rights and respect. Truly, no culture deserves such oppression, yet it has occurred, is still occurring, and likely will continue to occur in Japan with the Ainu. Though they have a unique culture rooted in Japan, the Ainu have in the past suffered because of both the Japanese government and the Japanese people, and they still face discrimination today.

As the indigenous people of Japan, the Ainu have a history and culture deeply intertwined with Japan, but as time passed, the Ainu and their ways were eroded. Far before the Japanese arrived on the islands of Japan, the Ainu had made their home there in the northern islands. They lived simple, pleasant lives, strangers to hate or discrimination. Over the years, the Ainu flourished, and their population grew. They developed distinctive canoes, clubs, and special statues called penates to honor the gods of their religion. Such items show the culture of the Ainu, and are intrinsic in discovering the history of Japan itself. The Ainu and their heritage are living tributes to Japan’s past. However, when the Japanese started to colonize Japan, they were cast aside. The culture of the Ainu in Japan extends back into history for more than ten thousand years, but today, there are only 25,000 Ainu in Japan. Originally, the Ainu were far more plentiful in number than they are presently. This rapid drop in population is not the only way that the Ainu have undergone changes since the arrival of the Japanese. Always obsessed with progressing into the future, the Japanese people cared little for the ancestral lands originally belonging to the Ainu. Much of Japan that was once solely the territory of this indigenous culture was repossessed, disregarding the special meaning that the land held with the Ainu. Before 1868, only the Ainu lived on Hokkaido and several of the smaller surrounding islands, but now, the Ainu live solely with the Japanese in small sections of Hokkaido. In ancient times, the Ainu had free reign of the islands of Japan. Recently, though, as other cultures take up land, their territory slowly diminished, and along with it their power. It appears that the culture and customs of the Ainu have gone with their land and population. Once cherished, the practices of the Ainu were all but eradicated. The language itself is hardly known. The original Ainu language, Ainugo, is known to only ten native speakers today. Their language has been forgotten, along with many other important aspects of their culture. Truly, since the Japanese first set foot on the islands of Japan, it has been bad news for the Ainu. As the Japanese flourished and spread throughout the islands, the Ainu diminished and were slowly forgotten or assimilated into Japanese culture. The population of the Ainu, their property, and their language is considered unimportant. The number and influence of the Ainu are shrinking, their culture being forgotten.

The acts of the Japanese government, however, are hard to forget; in the past, the government purposefully suppressed the Ainu and made them assimilate into Japanese society. In a time of civil rights for all people, regardless of race or gender, it may seem that any government that purposefully and forcefully suppressed one particular culture is barbaric. However, as little as a century ago, such practices were commonplace and generally not frowned upon. In accordance with the “Protection Act”, made in 1899, the Ainu were forced to assimilate with Japanese society. What the Japanese disguised as a law to protect the Ainu actually forced them to give up their identities. Behind this façade of smiles and well-wishes, the Japanese actually intended to wipe out the culture of the Ainu and replace it with a homogenous Japanese one. In truth, the only ‘protection’ that this policy instated was the protection it gave to the Japanese, ensuring once and for all that their culture would be dominant in Japan. However, some of the acts of the Japanese government are blatantly prejudiced against the Ainu. In fact, the existence of any Ainu in Japan was actually denied until quite recently. Japan defined itself as officially monoethnic until 1997. The Japanese refused to admit that an ethnicity that was not Japanese resided in their country. It is almost as though the Japanese government was ashamed of the Ainu, unwilling to admit that the Japanese were not completely dominant in Japan. The Japanese share the same name as the country of Japan and obviously felt very possessive of it, yet they denied that the vast culture which had reigned over Japan for the majority of its inhabited history still existed. As proved by several government-mandated movements against the Ainu in history, the Japanese government did not want to coexist with the Ainu.

Besides just the government, in the past the Ainu were also not accepted by the Japanese people as a whole. After all, a government usually reflects the true intentions of the people it governs. From the beginning of their occupation of Japan, the Japanese fervently disliked the Ainu and their traditions. Rather, they felt an utter disdain towards the Ainu, believing them to be a lower species or class of some sort. The Japanese people had no ethical dilemma with seizing the property of the Ainu and exploiting it for their own personal profit. After the Meiji Restoration, the Japanese commandeered lands which belonged to the Ainu in Hokkaido in order to establish farms and pastures. The lack of respect that the Japanese had for the Ainu is evident because of the fact that they had no qualms about taking land belonging to the Ainu for their own selfish gain. However, even after the majority of land had been taken from the Ainu, the Japanese people were not yet satisfied. Even though the Ainu were already seriously deprived and oppressed, the Japanese still felt that they should eliminate all remaining vestiges of the Ainu. They envisioned a Japan composed entirely of one race, one culture: the Japanese. Society encouraged the Ainu to adopt Japanese housing, clothing, food, family values, industry, and language. In effect, the Japanese wanted to eradicate the culture and customs of the Ainu and replace them with their own homogenous practices and items, assuming that the Ainu were doing everything wrong. Truly, the Japanese people considered the Ainu to be a subspecies, undeserving of their own customs. They were certainly treated as such, forced away from their homes and into a cold, discriminating society. In fact, some Japanese actually thought that the Ainu were at least partially animals, like bears at a zoo. The Japanese painted pictures depicting the Ainu as hirsute, hairy abnormalities. The Japanese did not view the Ainu as fellow, equal people, but rather as an inferior breed or subspecies. The Ainu were, in fact, treated like animals in the past after the arrival of the Japanese people. They were bullied into leaving their native lands and forced to integrate with the Japanese. The Japanese in times past did not respect the Ainu or treat them fairly.

Little has changed in over a century; there is still discrimination and disrespect for the Ainu in modern Japanese society. After all, discrimination in the past was much more prevalent than it is today; different races, religions, and genders have all faced oppression throughout history. However, unlike other groups, the Ainu have had no Civil Rights Movement, no Abolition or any other movement lobbying for their protection and the salvation of their culture. Instead, though the blatant policies of oppression might have ended, the Japanese have continued to discriminate against the Ainu. The Ainu have little to no power in Japan’s government and society, and the constant prejudice has allowed them few opportunities to get their feet in the door. The Japanese government built the Nibutani Dam without the consent of the Ainu, destroying several sacred Ainu sites and traditional lands. Even now, the Japanese government is not concerned with any of the Ainu’s traditional lands, and does not mind ignoring and exploiting the Ainu for its own progress. As in the past, the Japanese people still look down upon and discriminate against the Ainu. Perhaps slightly diluted, much of the segregation that originated with the Japanese people hundreds of years ago is still present today. The Ainu are often shunned in public in Japan and try to hide their ethnicity. Japanese society still views the Ainu as strange, foreign creatures that should not be interacted with. The depth of this discrimination is such that some Ainu try to hide their heritage from their peers. Some Ainu, however, do not hide their culture. Those that do not are often put on display like performing animals at a circus. The modern Japanese people have such little regard for the Ainu way of life that they view it as a novelty, something to see on a vacation. Japanese tourists, as well as those from all around the world, visit the Ainu to see them display their dances, crafts, and rituals displayed. The Shiraoi-No-Iomante is a sacred Ainu festival in which a baby bear is sacrificed and its spirit is thought to ascend to a higher paradise. Today, thousands flock to gawp at the festival when it is performed.  The Ainu are treated more like animals in a zoo than actual people by the Japanese, who flock to experience the quaint novelty of a culture that they nearly eradicated. Truly, the Ainu are hardly treated better in modern times than they were in the heat of discrimination in the past. Their ancestral lands are being taken over, and their protests are still ignored. Nowadays, they are either shamed into hiding their traditional heritage or forced to have them both on display for others to laugh at or mock. Clearly, the Japanese people and government today still hold little regard for the Ainu.

Indeed, almost nothing has changed throughout the years in regards to how the Ainu have been treated. Though they have a unique culture that deserves to be cherished, the Japanese government and people, both in the past and in the present, have ensured the Ainu’s suffering. The Japanese government in the past had policies not even masquerading to be in the Ainu’s favor. The Japanese people treated the Ainu in a similar manner, ostracizing them and acting as though they were not even human. This blatant, barefaced discrimination at the hands of the Japanese has continued to this day, and there is little to nothing being done as the culture of the Ainu is vanishing and its people are being integrated into Japanese society. Admittedly, the Ainu are hardly the only group that has felt the iron manacles of oppression. What separates them from other suppressed groups is that discrimination against them continues to this day. The Ainu have suffered from ill treatment by the Japanese. However, there is always hope that in the future, an effort will be made to preserve the fascinating culture of the Ainu. One day, perhaps they will finally be accepted as equal human beings in their homeland, Japan.


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