Our Land Was a Forest
A conversation with the great Shigeru Kayano, the man who saved Japan's indigenous Ainu people's language and culture from oblivion.
In my recent TFP conversation with Joy Harjo, America’s first Native American poet laureate, she spoke eloquently of how the United States “will continue to falter until everyone’s voice has a place. No matter how difficult the stories, they’re all essential now. So many stories have been repressed because they don’t uphold a certain idea of culture—for instance, indigenous peoples and our lack of visibility in almost every area of American life.”
Sadly, the same could be said of indigenous people on every continent, from North and South America to Europe, Asia, Australia and Africa.
Nowhere are Harjo’s words truer than in Japan, a country where the indigenous Ainu people—along with their stories, language, traditions and way of life—were brutally and systematically stamped out by those who arrived later from the Korean Peninsula.
The attempted eradication of the Ainu culture was so thorough, in fact, that most people outside of Japan are unaware of the Ainu’s existence, or that their language and many of their stories, songs and traditions were preserved by one man—Shigeru Kayano, the first Ainu member of the Japanese parliament (1994-98).
I had the honor of interviewing Kayano in 1995 shortly after he had taken his seat in Japan’s lower house of parliament. Once in office, he made preserving Ainu culture and having the government recognize the Ainu as Japan’s indigenous people his highest priority.
After leaving office, he continued those efforts while working to keep the Ainu culture and its oral traditions alive through the creation of Ainu language schools, as well as publishing more than 100 books on the Ainu people, their history and culture, including his own translations of Ainu folktales, prayers and poems.
Kayano died in 2006 just before his 80th birthday, and just two years before the Japanese government officially recognized the Ainu as the indigenous people of Japan. Yet, in Japan today, there’s no doubt that he was the driving force behind that long-awaited decision, and the broader acceptance of the Ainu people’s rich history and culture in Northern Japan.
I’ll never forget the day my friend, fellow journalist, and translator, Osamu Sawaji, and I interviewed Kayano over a quarter-century ago. He was 69 at the time and still fighting to save his people’s language and traditions. We met in the heart of his native land, a small village still known by its Ainu name, Nibutani, where he was born and raised.
It was early spring, but the nearby lakes and river were still frozen. The largest snowflakes I’d ever seen were floating through the clear Hokkaido air. Kayano greeted us warmly, with a smile and a handshake. He was happy to talk of his people, their many traditions and stories—and why they should never be forgotten.
Our Land Was a Forest
FROM THE ARCHIVES
By Michael Judge
It is hard to imagine him anywhere else but here: seated in his den, surrounded by books, manuscripts and various reminders of his people. It has just begun to snow; and he seems reluctant to disturb the quiet: “I was born and raised not far from here on the banks of the Saru River. What is now called Hokkaido was once called Ainumoshir (the peaceful land of the Ainu). This is the land of my people. This is my home.”
Shigeru Kayano has devoted his life to preserving the Ainu language and culture and regaining what he sees as the Ainu's inalienable rights as the indigenous people of Hokkaido (the northernmost of Japan's four main islands). Over the past 40 years, Kayano, now 69, has made more than 20 trips overseas, meeting with the leaders of other indigenous peoples and sharing Ainu culture and history with the world. He is the author of over 30 books related to the Ainu—including the first comprehensive dictionary of the Ainu language—and is the curator of The Ainu Culture Museum, which he founded in his home town of Nibutani, Hokkaido in 1972.
In the forward to Kayano's memoirs (Our Land Was a Forest, Westview Press, 1994), scholar Hane Mikiso describes Kayano's life as a “testimonial to the ethos, beliefs, and aspirations of his people.” But it wasn't until last August, when Kayano became a member of Japan's House of Councilors, that his message began to reach the mass of Japanese.
After serving five terms on the Biratori-cho Town Council in Hokkaido, Kayano was asked by the Social Democratic Party of Japan (SDPJ) to run for a seat in the 1992 Upper House elections. Viewing it as an opportunity to serve as a voice for the Ainu, Kayano accepted, and began campaigning for office. “As a candidate, I walked all over Japan,” says Kayano. “The farther west I got from Tokyo, the less people seemed to know about the Ainu. Some people asked me if the Ainu had the right to vote; others, if Ainu could run for public office. Their lack of knowledge concerning the Ainu was frustrating, but understandable. The Japanese government has historically evaded Ainu issues. The Ministry of Education, for example, seldom authorizes textbooks that contain references to the Ainu.”
The SDPJ won 10 seats in the 1992 House of Councilors election. Kayano was the 11th candidate on the SDPJ ticket and was denied a seat in the Upper House. Last August, however, Kayano became the first Ainu member of the House of Councilors when he was called upon to fill a seat left vacant by the death of Eiichi Matsumoto, a fellow SDPJ member.
Since taking office, Kayano has worked tirelessly preparing legislation that recognizes the Ainu as an indigenous people. “Politicians aren't interested in the Ainu,” says Kayano, “because as an electoral constituency, Ainu are insignificant. Politicians ignore the Ainu because they don't want to confront the reality of the Japanese invasion of Hokkaido. They know about the Ainu; they just don't care."
AN INDIGENOUS PEOPLE
The Ainu are culturally, ethnically, and linguistically distinct from the Japanese. At present, the majority of Ainu live in Hokkaido, although at least a small number live in southern Sakhalin in what is now Russian territory. During much of the Edo Period (1603-1868) many of their ancestors also resided in northern Honshu (the largest of Japan's four main islands), in the southern Kuril Islands, along the Amur River, and in southern Kamchatka.
The Sapporo-based Ainu Association of Hokkaido currently has 57 branches and about 25,000 members. All members openly identify themselves as Ainu. Kayano estimates, however, that there are just as many Ainu in Hokkaido who do not belong to the Association. Thus, of the 5.7 million residents of Hokkaido, as many as 50,000 may be of Ainu descent.
The Ainu of Hokkaido once numbered between 170,000 and 180,000, and there are as many as 50,000 places on the island that bear unmistakable Ainu names. Traditionally hunters, fishers, and gatherers, the Ainu possess no system of writing, but they have a rich oral tradition including songs, epic poems, and stories with formalized expression in prose and poetry. The Ainu language, however, is no longer in daily use, and few living persons have actually spoken Ainu as their primary language.
The Japanese started to arrive in Hokkaido around the beginning of the 15th century. It wasn't until the beginning of the Meiji Period (1868-1912), however, that Japan mounted an organized invasion of Hokkaido. Using native Ainu tribesmen as guides, Japanese surveyors mapped the island and rendered Ainu names for mountains, rivers, marshes, and headlands into Japanese. “After walking the length and breadth of Hokkaido,” says Kayano, “the Japanese invaders concluded that the island was ‘uninhabited' and 'ownerless.' They denied the Ainu even the most basic rights.”
Although the Ainu resisted the incursion, they were eventually forced into small corners of land. Under the 1899 Hokkaido Former Natives' Protection Law, the Japanese government put restrictions on hunting and fishing and “granted” land in Hokkaido to the Ainu for the purpose of farming. The law, which is still in effect today, has played a major role in the Japanese government's official policy of assimilating the Ainu through compulsory education and the barring of traditional livelihoods. “The law was a way of 'alleviating' what was seen by the Japanese as the desperate plight of the Ainu people of Hokkaido,” explains Kayano. “As far as the Ainu are concerned, the law has done little besides make the Japanese invasion official.”
AN AINU CHILDHOOD
Kayano was born the third son of Seitaro and Hatsume Kaizawa on June 15, 1923, in what was then the village of Nibutani. He was raised in a traditional Ainu-style house with a pole frame and a roof of thatched reeds. The household consisted of nine members: his grandmother, his parents, an older sister, two elder brothers, himself, and two younger brothers. As was the tradition in Ainu homes, there was an apeoi (sunken hearth) in the center of the 40-square-meter house around which everyday activities such as carving and weaving took place. It was there, by the warmth of the fire, that Kayano's grandmother related Ainu folk tales called uwepekere and epic poems on the Ainu gods called kamuy yokar. Both uwepekere and kamuy yokar reflect the Ainu's respect for nature and their belief in the existence of a spiritual world composed of the essence of all former earthly beings and inanimate objects. Kayano remembers them vividly: “There was a great variety of stories, interwoven with practical bits of wisdom: One must not arbitrarily cut down trees; one must not pollute running water; even birds and beasts will remember kindnesses and return favors." Kayano's grandmother died in 1945 at the age of 95, but not before she had taught him to speak fluent Ainu and to take pride in the ancestry of his people.
Before Kayano entered elementary school, an incident occurred that served to galvanize his identity as an Ainu: his father was arrested for catching salmon, a traditional Ainu occupation banned by the 1899 Hokkaido Former Natives' Protection Law. “My father was dragged away for doing what his people had done for generations," explains Kayano. Salmon and venison were Ainu staples until the Japanese came." Kayano's father had lost his right eye while serving in the Japanese army. As he was being taken away from his family, tears fell from the empty socket. Says Kayano, "The tears my father shed that day to me now symbolize the Ainu people's mortification.”
At the age of 12, Kayano quit school and went to work as a logger to help support his family. Wages were low and many of the workers fell ill due to exposure and malnutrition. In his mid-twenties, after years of back-breaking work, Kayano was elected the leader of his group of 50 loggers.
Toward the end of WWII, Kayano—like his father before him—was drafted into the Japanese military. He went back to logging after the war, but he could not ignore what was happening to the culture of his people. “I noticed researchers turning up in Nibutani. They would eat our food and sleep in our homes and—as soon as they had finished "researching" our culture—they would leave. If they happened upon some unusual Ainu artifacts, they would take them with them. I watched without comment for several years. By 1952, however, I'd decided that I'd had enough and so began collecting Ainu artifacts myself."
HOPE FOR THE FUTURE
Over the next 20 years, Kayano became known throughout the community for his efforts to preserve the Ainu culture.
In 1972, Kayano opened The Ainu Culture Museum to display his collection of over 160 Ainu artifacts. As his collection grew, he sold pieces to the local government of Biratori-cho, which in 1991 built a ¥360 million ($3.8 million) facility to house them. In addition to the artifacts provided by Kayano, The Nibutani Ainu Culture Museum contains numerous interactive exhibits and instructive videos on the culture and language of the Ainu people.
On the political front, however, the struggle is far from over. Since taking office, Kayano has been working to replace the 1899 Hokkaido Former Natives' Protection Law with one drafted in 1984 by the Ainu Association of Hokkaido. The new law would require, among other things, that the government recognize the Ainu as the indigenous people of Hokkaido, assist in the preservation of the Ainu culture and language, and establish a fund to increase their self-reliance, and guarantee them a certain number of seats in local and national assemblies. "I hope to have the law in place by the time my term ends," says Kayano. “This is no time for pessimism; it is time for Japan to open its eyes and see."
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