I was lucky enough to be in Biratori town during my recent visit to Hokkaido. While the purpose of the visit was to give a number of talks both at Hokkaido University and at Sapporo Ainu Association, I have also been privileged to pay a visit to the Ainu community of Nibutani (in Biratori town) – the birth place of Ainu studies. I was joined by three colleagues – Hiroshi Maruyama, Daniel Prior and Masumi Tanaka. Our visit included the well-known Nibutani Dam, the construction of which was disputed (because of its potential adverse effects on the environment jeopardizing Ainu culture) at the Sapporo district court rendering a ruling for the first time recognizing the Ainu as an indigenous people. We also visited the Ainu museum in Nibutani built as a consequence of compromise between the Ainu and the administrative authority in return for the acceptance of the dam constructed. Later we were invited at the house of Koichi Kaizawa – one of the two plaintiffs of the Nibutani Dam case. While the visit to Nibutani was not my first, Koichi Kaizawa and his wife Miwako were kind enough to invite us to join the Shakushain memorial festival to be held the next day – 23rd of September.

The Shakushain festival is observed to memorialize the contribution of Shakushain in the fight for the freedom for the Ainu and their identity. The festival is organized in the Mauta Park located on top of a mountainous highland in Shizunai town by the Pacific coast, where a statue of Shakushain is placed. The place is considered as a sacred place for the Ainu. Every year in the third week of September the Ainu from all walks come to attend the festival. Shakushain is remembered for his effort to organize the second out of the three major Ainu resistance movements against the Japanese. During the end of 1660s, Shakushain had successfully been able to mobilize the different fractions of the Ainu for the purpose of starting a war against the Matsumae regime representing ethnic Japanese, who put a ban on trade with the Ainu putting the latter in an unfair treatment. While there has been a clear anger amongst the Ainu against the actions of Matsumae clan towards them, the plan of war presented by the Shakushain was regarded as madness knowing that the Ainu would not succeed in the battle. Many regarded Shakushain as a crazy man. Yet his nationalism had been generally admired by the Ainu, and they eventually joined him in the battle against Matsumae regime.

Today Shakushain is worshipped by the Ainu all across Hokkaido. Historically the Ainu had been living both in Hokkaido as well as in the mainland island in Japan – known as Honshu Island. Since early 14th century the Ainu started being pushed to Hokkaido by the ethnic Japanese. Already by 16th century most Ainu had lost their habitat in mainland Japan. Hokkaido remained to be an Ainu territory despite the dominant presence of ethnic Japanese in this whole island. Nonetheless, Ainu language and tradition had, and still have, influential role in everyday affairs in Hokkaido. Many names of the places, for example, in Hokkaido are drawn from Ainu language. The capital – Sapporo – for example, has been derived from Ainu vocabulary “Sapporape”, which means Dry River.

As a minority in Japan, the Ainu history is full of struggles. They have been historically suppressed; and have suffered from injustice and discrimination by the Japanese authority. Presenting them with their ethnic identity has historically been regarded as a shame. While many of the Ainu have been well assimilated with Japanese society, today it seems that the Ainu themselves started a cultural revitalization process including revitalization of their language. The present status of the process is the result of the developments taken place since the end of World War II, by which Japanese society has significantly transformed. This transformation allowed the Ainu to gradually practice and promote their culture.

The resistance led by Shakushain broke out with an attack on Matsumae clan resulting in killing of many Japanese, which made Matsumae to initiate a retaliation with the support of soilders brought from mainland Japan. The main battle was held in 1669. In response to most modern arms used by the Japanese soldiers, the Shakushain’s forces fought with light traditional, and handmade arms, such as arrow and bow. The Ainu forces were not able to make any real resistance. The damage suffered by the Ainu was massive having a great number of Ainu killed. Whereas the Japanese side lost only one soldier. Shakushain had to agree on  a peace deal with Matsumae clan. Both sides exchanged gifts between themselves. Even though it seemed to be a happy ending, in 1672, Shakushain, along with a number of his generals, was assassinated by the Matsumae regime.

Since then the Ainu regards him as a respected leader. However, until the end of Second World War, it was hardly possible to organize any memorial to pay respect to him. The significance of the memorial was proudly explained by Miwako, who talked about Shakushain’s resistance: “This war has great implication in Ainu history”. She also said, “It was a step backward for the Ainu identity to be recognized because of Shakushain’s defeat in the war and it further led to increased injustice and sufferings of the Ainu.” The peace deal with Matsumae was, according to her, a humiliation against Ainu identity. The Ainu had however, always been treating Shakushain as a nationalist figure, who they memorialize through this event.

It is a whole day ceremonial event full of rituals. The Ainu, not only from Hokkaido, but also from the other parts of Japan including mainland Honshu Island, come to attend the event. The attendees include not only the Ainu of all ages both male and female, but also both Japanese and foreigners who either doing research on Ainu or simply interested in Ainu culture. The ritual starts in the morning with hundreds of Ainu present, when the Ainu elites, dressed in Ainu traditional costumes, pay their respect to Shakushain. They lay traditional food, such as salmon, fruits and rice, at the bottom of Shakushain’s statue. Each representative made a libation at the offering place beneath the statue, and gave speech. High profile Japanese officials including diet members are also invited, who also perform the ritual. Thereafter, lunch is served to both elite guests and all others. Lunch dish includes traditionally grilled salmon with rice and soup cooked in Ainu style. With the lunch ended, the Ainu perform communal prayer, again with similar ritual – laying of salmon, vegetables and fruits, and drinking of soup.

In the afternoon, a show of cultural performance takes place, where this year Ainu groups from 14 locations in Hokkaido performed. The performance included both songs and traditional dances. Children, youth and elderly – all participate, where songs are mostly sung by the elders and dances are performed by the youth and children. Each of the songs has its story connected to Ainu tradition, and which is reflected in the dances performed, such as song and dance for hunting. The performance brings joy and happiness that can easily be seen from the faces of the Ainu present in the occasion. It makes an emotional bond that unites them to share their common values towards nature and their society surrounded by the nature. According to Miwako, new generation of Ainu are now more familiar with their culture and tradition than before, and “this development” she says, “has gradually occurred as Japanese society has become more liberal since the end of World War II”. “Even fifty years back from today” Miwako continues, “one could not imagine to celebrate an event to pay respect for an Ainu regarded as their hero”. Today, there are a number of Ainu associations who work for the promotion of Ainu culture. By their initiatives, among the other Ainu, the youth are particularly mobilized; given lessons on Ainu history; taught Ainu culture and its importance for the maintenance of communal identity.

  • Statue of Shakushain
  • Ainu hunting dance
  • Prayer to respect Shakushain
  • Salmons are grilled on coal
  • Ainu performance

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Friday, July 1, 2016 - 19:30