In January I travelled to Hokkaido Japan with Masumi Tanaka as my interpreter to meet Ainu people and learn more about the Ainu culture and heritage. It was my first trip to Japan, and it truly fascinated me with the beauty of the land and people: the landscape, kind smiling people, hot springs, traditional japanese sword smithy, museums, and no matter what, their delicious and healthy food can’t be left without a mention. It was very interesting and unforgettable trip, and it left me thinking how isolated indigenous group Ainu people are, and what could we do to make the world to know more about this valuable people and their magnificent culture. The least I can do is to tell you about my experience.
Ainu are an indigenous people in Japan and Russia. Historically, they spoke the Ainu language and lived in Hokkaido, the Kuril Islands, and some parts of Sakhalin. It was not until 2008, when Japan’s parliament officially recognised the Ainu as “an indigenous people with a distinct language, religion and culture”. Nobody knows what is the real number of Ainu these days, because the assimilation was so strong that many Ainu are still hiding their real identity or don’t even know about their heritage. Officially Ainu population is around 25,000, but the unofficial number is upward of 200,000 people. Our way led from Sapporo city to Nibutani area, where the Ainu population is densiest. We also visited the Muroran University of Technology, and I gave there a lecture about Sámi people.
Even though Sámi people and Ainu people are living far away from each other, there are still many similarities between these two cultures, for example strong assimilation policy from the state, battling with their identity, fighting for their rights, and refreshening their languages and culture. It was very touching to talk to these people who had the same kind of experiences, thoughts and feelings about their identity and life in general. I told them what it is to be a Sámi in Finland and about the Sámi culture and we exchanged our knowledge and experiences with younger Ainu generation. Even if we didn’t have a common language, we could create a wonderful connection and understanding, and are going to continue our cooperation and friendship in the future, too.
One more thing in common is the tradition of animistic world view. We went to see the sacred places of the Ainu, and I really could feel the power of the land. While standing there two big eagles came and started to fly around these mountains like they would’ve liked to tell us something. It was very impressive moment. Those beautiful sacred places are now in danger due to government want to build a new dam right next to these places, and if this plan really comes true these old important praying places will be destroyed for good. One dam already exists in the town of Biratori, and it has ruined one sacred mountain of Ainu completely. It also has caused other damaging impacts to this area, for example many traditional livelihoods have come to an end in many families because rice fields are now under the water, and fish cannot follow their natural routes. It makes me sad that there are not many people who know about these Ainu sacred places, and try to save them. Mr. Koichi Kaizawa is doing a great job when he tries his everything to get people awakened: there is a wonderful heritage to save and cherish.
The whole trip was amazing, and not less because I had the kindest people around me. Thank you Masumi for translating and travelling with me, and special thanks to Mr. Hiroshi Maruyama, Mr. Takashi Matsuna and Mr. Koichi Kaizawa and his lovely family for all these unforgettable moments in Hokkaido! And for last but not the least, thank you Elina Helander-Renvall who made this trip happen for me in the first place. Japan is definitely the place to go back some day, so this is not a goodbye -it is take care, and see you again!