Courtney Powell (Victoria University of Wellington)
The Ainu people have a long history of fighting for recognition of the rights and indigeneity. The northernmost island of Japan, Hokkaidō, was colonised by the Japanese and Ainu rights to their land, culture and language have been continuously denied by a policy of expected assimilation. This would lead to attempts by Japanese to commodify and assert control over Ainu cultural practices. It took until June 2008 for the Japanese Government to pass a resolution that recognised the Ainu as the indigenous people of Hokkaidō. Prior to this, Japan promoted itself as an ethnically homogenous nation and Ainu were commonly accepted to have been assimilated completely into Japanese society. But they had not.
Scholars have examined the various resistance efforts Ainu have employed to these expectations. Richard Siddle's seminal work Race, Resistance and the Ainu of Japan remains influential and relevant to this day. ann-elise lewallen's work on Ainu women and their traditions have been of particular importance in considering intersectional feminist and indigenous histories. Their work in exploring Ainu histories, along with the increasing number of Ainu scholars, have shaped how Ainu history is understood, theorised and remembered. This has most recently included works that consider cultural engagement as a form of resistance; when the demand for assimilation was so overwhelming, simply participating in cultural practices, speaking the language, and eating traditional food is s form of protest. The development of publications and institutions centred on Ainu culture in the late-twentieth century has been particularly influential in the political and cultural gains that Ainu have made in the twenty-first century.
The Ainu cultural revitalisation movement from the 1970s initiated the emergence of groups and establishments made by Ainu, for Ainu. These efforts have enabled Ainu to embrace their traditions and gain a sense of cultural pride. Literary works and publications were especially important in laying the foundations for future endeavours that would encapsulate Ainu language programs and broadcasts. Language revitalisation programs in the 1980s were integral to intergenerational knowledge transmission and maintaining the vitality of the language. From the 1990s, these efforts would move beyond Hokkaidō and other practices such as cooking traditional meals would be introduced to a larger audience. These were integral steps which would see more Ainu spaces open, increasing recognition not just for Ainu as a people, but allow the impacts of assimilation to slowly be undone.
The independent Ainu newspaper, Anutari Ainu (We Humans) was a significant cultural development in the 1970s. It was reportedly made in response to turmoil during this period which saw Japanese activists protesting on behalf of Ainu through violent means. Ainu used alternative, peaceful methods in order to assert their cultural rights and discuss issues relevant to them. Anutari Ainu was published throughout from 1973 until 1976, spearheaded by primarily young, Ainu women. It was led by Dobashi Yoshimi née Hiramura and was contributed by several prominent Ainu figures such as Sasaki Masao. The publication was written in Japanese, arguably utilising the tools that had been an integral part of their subordination, to resist further marginalisation by encouraging Ainu cultural revitalisation. The paper published a wide variety of content from journalistic articles to poetry and prose. Young Ainu authors could promote their voices and it established a platform where they could explore their heritage.
In its first issue, Anutari Ainu discussed the matter of Ainu language revival. It is evident that the plight of the Ainu language, increasingly only spoken and understood by those of the older generations and failing to be passed on, was a pressing cultural issue. The article brought this matter to attention, but it would be until the 1980s that this would begin to be resolved. It was believed by this time that only 40 elderly Ainu could speak the language. But in 1983, the first Ainu-medium school was built. Ainu activist Kayano Shigeru established the Nibutani Ainu Language School, and this was quickly followed by others in Asahikawa (1987), Urakawa and Kushiro (1989). More were built across Hokkiadō in the 1990s. This was not the only integral language-related development of the period. In 1989 a radio-based Ainu language course was established in Hokkaidō on Sapporo Radio. It was expected to be a complementary program and continues to be broadcast today. However, it was only accessible to Ainu who lived in Hokkaidō, unfortunately out of reach for Ainu in the diaspora. However, the attempts to revitalise and thus maintain the Ainu language brought new advancements that bolstered the cultural revitalisation movement.
Despite the reach of the radio and language school remaining limited to those in Hokkaidō, Ainu in the diaspora would make their own communities and find other ways to engage with their traditions. Ainu increasingly began to move out of Hokkaidō and find work in cities like Tōkyō, in the largest island Honshū. An important place for these "urban Ainu" living in Tōkyō, was Rera Cise (House of Wind). Established in 1994, the restaurant was built by the local Ainu Association in Rera and was the first Ainu-cuisine restaurant to be established in Tōkyō. It showcased not only traditional food, but also food Ainu created after the Meiji period. This demonstrates not only the longevity of certain elements of Ainu traditions, but also the fluidity of culture and how that can change over time. The oldest cultural forms does not necessarily make it the most authentic, and cultural longevity is achieved by adapting and giving meaning to new practices. Rera Cise enabled Ainu of all generations to find comfort and community, engaging with their people and sharing food with all of Tōkyō.
These achievements were not only significant steps during their time, but their effects have rippled outwards into other endeavours. Language revitalisation continued with the non-profit association Urespa bringing together Ainu and Japanese students to learn the Ainu language and cultural practices together from 2010. Most significantly, the National Ainu Museum, Upopoy, opened in 2020. It was the culmination of 11 years of work to bring about a "symbolic space for ethnic harmony." It continues the mission that much of the publications and institutions of the 1970s–1990s strove to achieve, preventing the decline of Ainu language and practices, and promoting cross-cultural learning.
The fight for the wider recognition of Ainu is still not over, but the cultural revival movement over the past 50 years has changed the social and political landscape for Ainu. Their contemporary inclusion in the larger Japanese narrative is evident with their inclusion in the Tōkyō 2020 Olympics, despite initially being omitted from the opening ceremony. Ainu activists and scholars continue their work into today, unceasing in their endeavour to continue to maintain awareness and cultural pride for the next generations.
"アイヌ語ラジオ講座." STVラジオ. https://www.stv.jp/radio/ainugo/index.html.
"About Upopoy." Upopoy National Ainu Museum and Park. https://ainu-upopoy.jp/en/about/.
Lewallen, Ann-Elise. “Hands That Never Rest: Ainu Women, Cultural Revival, and Indigenous Politics in Japan.” PhD, University of Michigan, 2006.
Sala, Gary C. “Protest and the Ainu of Hokkaido.” Japan Interpreter 10, no. 1 (1975): 44–65.
Siddle, Richard. Race, Resistance, and the Ainu of Japan. London; New York: Routledge, 1996.
Smith, James. “Aborigines ‘Rising Up, Though a Little Late’ : Japan’s Ainu Discover New Pride in Their Heritage.” Los Angeles Times. November 1, 1987. https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-1987-11-01-mn-17706-story.html.
Uzawa, Kanako. “Everyday Acts of Resurgence and Diasporic Indigeneity among the Ainu of Tokyo.” In Indigenous Efflorescence, edited by Gerald Roche, Hiroshi Maruyama, and Åsa Virdi Kroik, 179–204. Beyond Revitalisation in Sapmi and Ainu Mosir. ANU Press, 2018.
 Richard Siddle, Race, Resistance, and the Ainu of Japan, Sheffield Centre for Japanese Studies/Routledge Series (London; New York: Routledge, 1996).
 Ann-Elise Lewallen, “Hands That Never Rest: Ainu Women, Cultural Revival, and Indigenous Politics in Japan.” (PhD, University of Michigan, 2006).
 Gary C. Sala, “Protest and the Ainu of Hokkaido,” Japan Interpreter 10, no. 1 (1975): 62.
 James Smith, “Aborigines ‘Rising Up, Though a Little Late’ : Japan’s Ainu Discover New Pride in Their Heritage,” Los Angeles Times, November 1, 1987, https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-1987-11-01-mn-17706-story.html.
 "アイヌ語ラジオ講座," STVラジオ, https://www.stv.jp/radio/ainugo/index.html.
 Kanako Uzawa, “Everyday Acts of Resurgence and Diasporic Indigeneity among the Ainu of Tokyo,” in Indigenous Efflorescence, ed. Gerald Roche, Hiroshi Maruyama, and Åsa Virdi Kroik, Beyond Revitalisation in Sapmi and Ainu Mosir (ANU Press, 2018), 194.
 "About Upopoy," Upopoy National Ainu Museum and Park, https://ainu-upopoy.jp/en/about/.