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Tackling taboos: Japanese college membership teaches Ainu traditions

When Yuko Honda, a professor at Japan’s Sapporo College, tried to begin a scholarship for Ainu Indigenous college students and a membership to have fun their tradition, she bumped into fierce resistance.

“We confronted a horrible backlash,” Honda, a professor of cultural research on the college within the northern Hokkaido area, advised AFP. “The problem of the Ainu was seen as a taboo, one thing that shouldn’t be touched.”

That was in 2009, only a 12 months after Japan’s parliament lastly handed a decision to recognise the Ainu as an Indigenous individuals, following a long time of stress.

Practically 15 years later, the Urespa scholarship goes robust and the membership has a number of dozen members annually, a mix of Ainu and ethnic Japanese.

The scholars be taught the Ainu language, dance and crafts, in addition to about conventional meals and searching tradition.

It’s an instance of adjusting attitudes in direction of the minority, whose land was annexed by Imperial Japan in 1869 and named Hokkaido.

Honda is ethnically Japanese however has lived within the Ainu neighborhood of Nibutani close to Sapporo, the place she was a instructor.

When she began the scholarship and membership at Sapporo, solely an estimated 20 p.c of individuals with Ainu heritage obtained a college training, and Honda hoped recipients would study and educate their traditions by way of the brand new group. “On this membership, we are actually rising collectively,” mentioned Mizuki Orita, 20, an Ainu scholar majoring in historical past and cultural research.

Orita grew up singing conventional Ainu songs together with her siblings, however her mom and grandmother have been discriminated in opposition to resulting from their heritage. She had related experiences. “I used to be advised I stunk as a result of I used to be Ainu.”

Manao Kanazawa, who’s ethnically Japanese, joined the membership as a result of she was interested by conventional Ainu searching strategies.

However, as the scholar from central Shizuoka prefecture discovered how the Ainu have been handled by Japan, she puzzled if it was acceptable for her to be there.

An Ainu pal reassured her it was alright, “as a result of I’m within the Ainu and got here to be taught”, the 23-year-old historical past and tradition scholar mentioned. When Hokkaido was annexed, Ainu have been compelled to talk Japanese and abandon traditions, together with facial tattoos for girls.

Such stigma was connected to their heritage that it stays arduous to know what number of Ainu there are in Japan, as many choose to hide Indigenous origins. The final survey in Hokkaido, in 2017, put the determine at 13,000. In 2019, Japan handed laws financing efforts to guard Ainu tradition, and the next 12 months, the huge Upopoy Nationwide Ainu Museum and Park in Shiraoi, Hokkaido opened as a “symbolic area for ethnic concord”.

Nonetheless, critics say the efforts are too little, too late. Japan supplies “subsidies to sure Ainu teams so individuals can examine the tradition, however doesn’t essentially assist people by way of affirmative motion,” historic sociologist Eiji Oguma advised AFP. What help is supplied might be controversial, with some arguing the Urespa scholarship discriminates in opposition to ethnic Japanese. “However the Ainu individuals’s traditions have been severed by compelled assimilation,” mentioned Honda.

“The world for them would have been completely different… if their traditions had not been severed, and Ainu youth need assistance reconstructing what they may have had.”

To qualify for the Urespa scholarship, college students should declare their Ainu heritage, which some worry doing, mentioned Honda.

She believes the membership has helped, and says Ainu college students are “much less scared now” to debate their heritage, particularly after holding exchanges with Indigenous counterparts in Canada and New Zealand.

Orita mentioned she nonetheless generally faces mockery when introducing herself as Ainu, however now she considers it “an opportunity for me to speak in regards to the Ainu”. “I need the Ainu to guide the Indigenous motion in Japan,” she mentioned.

“I need to stir issues up and make waves.”

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