Ainu Origins

One day, Yamazaki-san and I got talking about the Ainu, the indigenous people who had lived in northern Japan. He was quite impressed that I knew of the Ainu at all. Having been a Japan Studies major, I had become interested in the mysterious Ainu back in my college days. Of course, I could never find very much information on them, thanks to the Japanese government’s longstanding, persistent claim that Japan is homogenous society. It’s a view they’ve had some real success propagating, despite the fact that it’s inaccurate and discrimination still exists.

Chances are, if you’re not Japanese, you’ve never heard of the Ainu, or the Ryukyu (Okinawa’s culture), or the Burakumin, or the hibakusha, or about 3rd and 4th generation Korean-Japanese that still aren’t given Japanese citizenship. (Many times those kids don’t even know how to speak Korean.)

The story of the Ainu is analogous to America’s own Native Americans. They were nature-worshiping people with no written history, and they were essentially wiped out by the majority, Yamato Japanese. Because I’m lazy, here’s an excerpt from a paper I wrote back at UW, which I entitled, “Japanese Minorities and the Art of Invisibility”:

“The indigenous Ainu are frequently compared to Native Americans, as over the centuries the Yamato Japanese drove them back from the main island of Honshu to the northernmost island of Hokkaido, which is the only place they now reside (De Vos, Wetherall, 1974, 17). The Japanese government made policies aimed at assimilating the Ainu into the majority by the destruction of their culture. “Government policies of relocation, ‘development’ and assimilation had the ultimate goal of marginalising the Ainu, aided by a system of native education, through which the government actively discouraged Ainu language and customs” (SAHRDC, 2002). Only by destroying the language and culture of the Ainu did the Japanese government believe they could convert them into pure Yamato Japanese.”

The Yamato Japanese did such a thorough job of assimilating and/or killing off the Ainu that the culture has virtually vanished.

As Yamazaki explained to me, the names of all of the towns in Hokkaido were originally Ainu words. (Again this parallels the Native Americans, as about half of the United States use names of “Indian” origin.) Niseko, Kutchan, Hakodate, Sapporo, etc., are all names that came from the Ainu language. In the case of a city like Sapporo, kanji has long been used to write its name (札幌), so it would be easy to assume that it was normal Japanese name. In the case of Niseko, however, the name is still written in katakana (ニセコ), an acknowledgement that the word was not originally Japanese.

The name Shakotan is no exception to this rule. “Sha (シャ)” apparently means “summer” in the Ainu language, while “kotan (コタン)” means village, so essentially, Shakotan’s name means “Summer Village”. Yamazaki explained that summer is by far the most beautiful season here, and after being here for June, I think it’s safe to say that this is accurate. Having already been a bit worried about Shakotan’s crazy snowy winter, now that I know where the name comes from, I’m even more concerned. It sounds to me like even the Ainu wouldn’t venture out here in the winter!

In case you’re as fascinated by the unknown Japanese minority groups as I was, here are some of the sources that I used to write my college paper, back in the day:

George A. De Vos, W. O. W. (1974). Japan’s minorities : Burakumin, Koreans and Ainu. London, Minority Rights Group.

Murphy-Shigematsu, S. (1993). “Multiethnic Japan and the Monoethnic Myth.” MELUS 18(4): 63.

Oguma, E. (2002). A Genealogy of ‘Japanese’ Self-images. Melbourne, Trans Pacific Press.

SAHRDC. (2002, May, 2002). “Japan’s minorities yet to find their place in the sun.”   Retrieved 10 Feb, 2007, from <http://www.hrdc.net/sahrdc/hrfeatures/HRF56.htm&gt;.

Weiner, M., Ed. (1997). Japan’s minorities : the illusion of homogeneity. London, New York, Routledge.

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