The Ainu's modern struggle learning politics to survive.

AuthorHohmann, Skye
PositionAinu Mosir

Ainu Mosir is a country of sweeping vistas: forested slopes reach up to steaming volcanic peaks, waterfalls plunge down rugged mountains, and plains stretch to the horizon. Its forests team with wildlife. Migratory cranes overwinter in coastal marshes, foxes wander the hills, and the deeper wilderness is the habitat of the brown bear. Tourists flock here in winter for skiing and hot springs, and in summer for hiking and clear air.


Ainu Mosir is known to most by another name: Hokkaido. The northernmost of Japan's main islands, it is also the last remaining homeland of Japan's indigenous people, the Ainu.

Hokkaido is not a rich land. Outside cities and tourist destinations, the houses are small, shabby clapboard buildings. Nibutani, a little-known and less-visited backwater near the southeastern coast, is, for Japan, noticeably poor: the train runs infrequently from the gritty port town of Tomakomai through a rocky scrubland dotted with run-down factories before passing into an even emptier stretch of farmland. Few guidebooks include the area, and those that do merely glance over the town, mentioning the high proportion of Ainu living here and recommending the museum and cultural center. None suggests that Nibutani is currently at the nexus of a change that reaches far beyond the borders of Hokkaido.

Astute Gambit

I traveled to Nibutani in early July to witness what was, for some, the culmination of a long struggle, and for others, the beginning of a search for identity: the hosting of an international Indigenous Peoples Summit, days before the 2008 Group of Eight (G8) Summit at the nearby resort of Toyako. Organizing the summit and officially welcoming both indigenous and G8 delegates to their ancestral homeland was an ambitious gambit by the Ainu that played a large part in spurring the Japanese government to grant them indigenous status.

The Ainu have been called a dying race, and by official count there are only 25,000 Ainu in Japan. However, it may be more accurate to say that the Ainu are just finding their feet. Ainu elder Saki Toyama puts it this way: "The Japanese government and all of Japan must recognize that the Ainu people are still here, and that we are stronger than ever." Being granted indigenous status is a huge step in a country that was, until 1997, officially monoethnic, and the numbers of self-proclaimed Ainu in Japan could jump as the stigma once associated with this so-called "primitive" race fades.

Hosting the first of what many hope will become the annual Indigenous People's Summit was an astute political move. Kamuisanihi Kibata was instrumental in organizing the summit, which brought together indigenous peoples from all over the world, including well-known activists such as Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, chairperson of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues; La Donna Harris, founder of Americans for Indian Opportunity; and Magne Ove Varsi, executive director of Galdu Resource Centre for the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, to talk about indigenous rights worldwide and the Ainu struggle in particular. When I asked Kibata why they chose now to host the Indigenous People's Summit, he told me: "This is a good time. Today the wind is blowing; while the wind is blowing we had to enact a...

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