Sunday, 10 August 2008

アイヌ Ainu

アイヌ Ainu

One of my goals for going to Hokkaido was to learn more about the Ainu. I knew them a bit from the Japanese lessons in Erlangen, Germany, but my knowledge was very limited and I was eager to see and talk to them.

There no more than 20.000 - 30.000 Ainu left in Japan. Most of them dwell somewhere in Hokkaido. However they are more and more intermingling with Japanese and very few of them heed much attention for their people's custom and history. That is why the culture of the Ainu is slowly dying out together with people calling himself Ainu.

Ainu means human in the language of the Ainu. The language was almost lost, when the Japanese government forced the Ainu to speak Japanese in the Meiji Period (end of 19th century). However one Ainu man realized later in his life how precious the culture of his people is and from that point on did everything to preserve it. Apart from starting a couple of museums all over Hokkaido, he started voice recording the language, he still had learned from his parents and started teaching it to other. Because of that today there are again a few motivated Ainu, who are able to speak the language of their ancestors or at least sing in it.

Now there are several bigger settlements with Ainu comunities around Japan, but in most it is rather hard to get to speak to them in a couple of days. That is why I choose the only one town that uses Ainu for tourism, or more positive uses tourism to teach the world about Ainu: 阿寒湖 Lake Akan.

Since in Akan most shops are owned by Ainu, the museums are run by Ainu and you can see Ainu performances, it is rather hard not to meet Ainu...
For me I asked about Ainu after seeing the dance performance. Here I met Miyanaga-san from Ryukyu (Okinawa), who told me the secret tip of the Rider House.

So my next steps led me to the Rider House, which is run by the Ainu's shaman Chun-san. Chun-san warmly welcomed me, and I lodged in his house. However lucky I was to sleep in the house of the Ainu shaman, I could not understand the toothless utterances of the old man and had a tough time even understanding the most simple things.

alas I could not understand him

So my quest continued and led me to Akan's museum. Here I was finally able to find someone to talk. I arrived the Museum Of Ainu Arts (アイヌ藝術館) just at closing time. However being run by Ainu and not Japanese, the nice Ainu girl inside allowed me to have a look around and friednly waited for me. After I had seen the exhibitions, she asked me why I had come here, and I replied smiling to get to know you.

She was quite happy about me, and asked me why I know of the Ainu, and if everyone in Germany and Europe would know about them. I knew it, because I studied Japanese in University, but had to shatter her hopes about anyone else knowing them in Germany. She said "やっぱり Yappari I tought as much..." disheartedly. She told me about her people and their culture being taken away from them, without anyone in the world noticing. Even worse the world does not even know about them...

I shared her grief and asked her about herself. I thought that in nowadays Japan, although much has been lost of the Ainu culture, living as Ainu would not be so difficult anymore. She told me, I was partly right, because in earlier times Ainu were segregated from Japanese. They had to use separate schools for exmaple and were not allowed to mingle with Japenese. However they were forced to speak Japanese, and assimilate the Japanese lifestyle, giving up their own. Now they are equal before the law, and segregation has stopped officially, however she told me, when she was in school people would go away from her, and someone even pointed at her saying "Ainu" in a disgusted voice. She further told me that altough her father was already allowed to go in the same schools as Japanese, all teachers would discriminate him in class, and he had a really tough time.

Then she asked me to look into her face and shouted: "この顔を見て。日本の顔じゃないだよ ヨーロッパの顔もないだよ。 いったいどこから来たか?” "Look at this face. It is no Japanese face, neither is it European. Where on earth do I come from".
Yes the Ainu look neither very Asian, nor very European. They look very unique. As it always goes, I found no good reply to comfort her anguish then, now I would have said "I don't care where your face comes from, but you know, it is very pretty"...

I then accompanied her closing the museum and going back to the village. I think she took some comfort in me trying to share her pains. I am glad I met this girl, otherwise I never imagined that Ainu still today have a hard time living in Japan.

In the other museum (Ainu Lifestyle Museum アイヌ生活記念館) I met an old Ainu lady smiling at me, when I entered. I asked her, whether she could explain me the things exhibited her, and cleverly added that I couldn't read the signs written In Japanese in front of time. So she started explaining me the usage of the tools and how the life looked like, much better than any sign could. There was a question in the back of my head concerning their life for a long time, and I finally had the chance asking it: "I saw how the old huts of the Ainu looked like and how they lived. Now I cannot imagine who they could survice Hokkaido's harsh winters, in huts that do not even really shield out the wind, not talking of containing warmth."

She replied: "Oh you must know, todays Ainu are already very different, because most mingled with Japanese sooner or later, or simply adapted to modern life. In earlier times Ainu had much more hair on their skin, almost like the fur of a bear. Also their skin was whiter and rougher and thus more adapted to the cold temperatures."
And indeed after she said that, I noticed that some of the Ainu I met had really really much body hair, where others looked just normal.

old pictures of Ainu

My luck would continue, when Miyanga-san allowed me backstage after the concert in the evening. We talked a while and I honored his drumming skills. He then said: "Why don't you join me and my wife for an Izakaya later?" and although I usually don't drink, how could I refuse being invited by a famous Rock Star and representative of the Ryukyu kingdom.

And my luck peaked when inside the Izakaya (Japanese bar) we met a complete Ainu family, whose two children Miyanaga-san is teaching Taiko. The family was complete with father, mother, the two boys and both of their grandmothers. They asked us to joing their table and we gladly accepted.
As the night gew merrier and Miyanga-san told the parents of my interest in the Ainu, they started talking about everything. I liked best when they talked about their normal life, in which they try to contain some values of their ancestors, some rites and ways, while also not ignoring the modern age and its possibilities and comforts. They said its not always easy, but as a big family you can manage. Later a Japanese man joined the round. Miyanaga-san explained me, that he lost his home and family and has no one left. One day he straied in Akan village, and some Ainu people showed him hospitality. Later they noticed that he had some expertise in pyro techniques, and now he is managing the pyro part of the late night shows, as volunteer for free. Although he is Japanese, the Ainu community welcomed him with open arms and now fully trusts him as one of their own. He seemed really happy this evening, still showing some Japanese minorty complex, which the family countered with love and back clapping. :)

Do you remember this picture from the last post?

I promised you to reveal its secret in this post. It was built to honor of the new found friendship between a tribe of American Indians. You already know that the Ainu are trying to making cultural exchange with the Ryukyu people from Okinawa, but the previous generation of the Ainu of Akan village has done a quite courageous step. They sent a delegation of Ainu, including shaman and elder to America to meet with American Indian tribes.
They could not speak a word in English, and the Indians not a word in Japanese, and still only a moment after the Indian chieftain had seen the Ainu one, tears came out of his eyes and the two noble figures embraced each other so heartily as to brothers who were separated their whole life and at its end could meet at last...

Indeed the culture of the American Indians resembles the Ainu culture so much, it is amazing. Although their environment is so different, they developed the same beliefs of living in harmony with nature and honoring the animals around them. It really touches my heart that two kinds of people who have both suffered so hard under the rule of others, could find each other in this world and if only for the fact of realizing that they are not alone to beat this fate, break out in joy.

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