As early as the 15th century, Japanese colonizers started dispossessing the Ainu people of their ancestral homeland in Hokkaido. Received Japanese history would paint the colonization of the Ainu as a heroic and peaceful venture for economic development. This completely overlooks the hardships that the Ainu faced and still struggle with today.
Dressed in traditional Ainu kimono, Akiko portrayed her life growing up in an Ainu household with her Ainu-speaking grandmother. Fearing that Akiko would be discriminated against, her mother would peek into the window of the schoolhouse to make sure everything was alright. Akiko shared with the audience how after years of discrimination in Hokkaido she eventually fled from her native Ainu lands to blend in with Japanese society.
Many Ainu people find themselves as silent refugees within Japan, hiding their identity as an Ainu. Akiko noted that some of her family members also fear exposure as an Ainu. Japanese governmental statistics show that 300,000 people consider themselves Ainu, but if the Ainu in hiding are taken into consideration, perhaps their numbers could be up to one million.
As Akiko spoke of her people’s struggles, she also spoke of a hope that there could be a new day when the Ainu people will once again be able to tell their own story. Mutsumi, who gave a workshop on how to teach Ainu culture at elementary schools on that same day, demonstrated how children who at first declared that they hated Ainu people grew to appreciate the Ainu culture and people through her classes at elementary school. Rather than reinforcing the image of Ainu people as promoted by the government for tourism purposes such as bear carvings, she taught children Ainu songs and dances, and how to stitch and interpret the meaningful patterns found on Ainu clothing.
Groups such as the musicians who call themselves the “Ainu Rebels" have contributed greatly to the movement to reclaim their Ainu heritage. Their mission statement expresses that they “hope to transform our society into one where Ainu people can be proud to be Ainu…[by] learning traditional dancing and singing...[to] work on producing new ways of expressing our identities and culture.” Infusing traditional music with modern hip hop, the Ainu Rebels have found a way to relate to younger generations while raising awareness of the issues that Ainu people face and rejoicing in their dynamic culture.
Yesterday, I was speaking to an international student studying at Kyoto University. While he was ever careful to acknowledge that he was uncertain of the truth of the statement, he told me that he had read that there are now only 10 people that speak the Ainu language. I often hear such opinions on the status of the Ainu language. Depending on the source, there are anywhere from 5 to 1,000 speakers of Ainu at present, many of whom are impeded from speaking the language on a daily basis. There may even be more as governmental and organizational statistics are not 100% reliable.
What I believe must be taken into consideration more than the official numbers of "speakers of Ainu" are the many institutionalized obstacles that prevent young people who desire to learn Ainu from emerging to acquire and perpetuate the language. For instance, even though there is an abundance of international schools that conduct classes entirely in English throughout Japan, the Hokkaido government is resistant to adopting similar Ainu language programs in its schools. In Japan, Zainichi Koreans face a similar problem as the Japanese government will not accredit schools that do not conduct classes entirely in “standard Japanese”. Exceptions are made however for returnee Japanese students who studied in schools in English-speaking countries. Schools tailored to their needs, teaching in English, are accredited.
Some people who desire to learn the Ainu language have found ways to get around the governmental barriers. According to a February 2009 Expert Meeting on Ainu Policy there has been a significant increase in the numbers of people under 30 years old learning the Ainu language, and more and more people under 35 aspire to become teachers of the Ainu language. Of course, this does not mean that the Ainu language should be forced upon the Ainu people creating a new form of marginalization, but the option to learn the language should be made available. Use of the Ainu language must also be made economically viable.
Aspects of the Hawaiian language revitilization program that is considered to by some to be one of the world’s most successful indigenous language revitalization programs could be taken into consideration. Many comparisons can be drawn between the experiences of Ainu under Japanese colonization and the Hawaiian people under U.S. occupation. Both societies endured great strife that is often unaccounted for in the hero-colonizer account of history that tends to paint a rosy picture of how the land was conveniently “discovered” and transformed into economically viable territories. What is often missing is how colonizers murdered the indigenous population by force and by disease, usurped their autonomy, and installed restrictive governmental systems that deprived them of their land, rights, and language. Upon colonization, the Japanese government prohibited the use of the Ainu language in schools and in governmental business, as did the U.S. in respect to the Hawaiian language. Tove Skuttna-Kangas has termed this forced language shift, “linguistic genocide”:
If people are forced to shift their languages in order to gain economic benefits of the kind which are in fact bare necessities for basic survival, this is a violation of not only their economic human rights, but also their linguistic rights.
The economic and social environments the Hawai’ians and the Ainu faced had devastating impacts on their heritage and language.In Hawai’i, however, at the landmark 1978 Hawai’i State Constitutional Convention, mandates were passed that provided for the teaching of Hawaiian in public schools and that Hawaiian become the official language of Hawaii along with English. This movement gave birth to language revitalization. Inspired by the Maori language immersion preschools in New Zealand, Kōhanga Reo, the NGO ‘Aha Pūnana Leo, the Language Nest, was born. At the start of the initiative, there were less than 50 children who spoke the Hawaiian language. Now it has grown to over 11 Pūnana Leo schools that serve 2000 students annually, effectively creating a new generation of Hawaiian speakers. In a state where Hawaiian was almost completely eradicated, it is now possible to pursue a PhD completely in the Hawaiian language. I was fortunate to be able to visit this four of the language nests in March 2009.
Another groundbreaking program is the Kūpuna program, where kūpuna or elders visit schools and introduce the children to Hawaiian music, provide an oral history of life in Hawai‘i, and explain aspects of Hawaiian cosmology. The program is a step in the right direction, but the nature in which it is implemented allows for an oppressor’s view of history to dominate, as the elders are not respected by the teachers in the schools as holders of indigenous knowledge. For example, the most widely used textbook is the ill-informed, non-Hawaiian written textbook, The Hawaiians of Old. Hawaiians are depicted as brutal savages, thus providing an excuse for colonizers to dominate over the Hawaiian people in order to save them:
The Hawaiian had many wars… They fought often with each other. The chiefs seemed to enjoy fighting… But these wars were… hard on the maka‘āinana who had not even started the war… Wars were awful for most of the Hawaiians.Even though the elders are meant to portray the real version of their history, Hawaiians and non-Hawaiian students end up echoing the ideas instilled in them from the textbooks and biased non-Hawaiian teachers. As public school teacher Julie Kaomea explains, “such disrespectful use (and misuse) of Native Hawaiian elders and cultural experts serves to reinforce the unequal power dynamic between Hawaiians and non-Hawaiians, and undermines our Native right to assume authority over our Native culture.” As long as these programs are not run by Hawaiians, they will never serve the Hawaiian people’s interests.
The Japanese government portrays Ainu as a “dying race” which furthers their subordination as an inferior people. Ms. Kyono explained that one of the most shocking questions she had ever been asked was ironically during the Indigenous People’s Summit held in Ainu Mosir in July 2008, just prior to the G8 Summit in Hokkaido. One audience member asked, “Are there really any Ainu left?” That clearly demonstrates how Japanese people are still led to believe that the Ainu are gone despite the fact that they do live on.
Scholars, governmental officials, and linguists often blame the Ainu for not passing on their language to future generations. This neglects socio-historical hurdles that colonization has erected which prevent this transmission. Darrell Kipp of the Pigean Institute of the Blackfoot Nation, elaborates that it is not ignorance that caused indigenous people not to pass on their languages, but an act of love so their children could lead “normal” lives.
Finally, the key to the success of both the Ainu and Maori revitalization programs was allowing indigenous people to create programs on their own terms. At present, economic circumstances and racial discrimination prevent Ainu from embracing their language and culture. In fact, it was only just last year in July 2008 that the Japanese government even recognized the Ainu as indigenous, despite signing the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People (UNDRIP) in September 2007. In the spirit of UNDRIP, the Japanese government must step back, and allow Ainu to lead their own programs, as they see fit. Impediments to teaching the Ainu language should be eliminated so that those who wish to learn the language can do so.
Within UNDRIP there are two important articles that provide that Indigenous Peoples have the right to self-determination and thus the right to control the teaching of their language and culture:
Article 13, Paragraph 1: Indigenous peoples have the right to revitalize, use, develop and transmit for future generations their histories, languages, oral traditions, philosophies, writing systems and literatures, and to designate and retain their own names for communities, places and persons.It is about time for the Japanese government to recognize the thriving Ainu people by allowing them to fully assert independence over their education as Japan promised with the signing of UNDRIP. In the spirit of the Ainu adage, Nao Somo Kuokere- “the work is unfinished,” but can be done.
Article 14, Paragraph 1: Indigenous peoples have the right to establish and control their educational systems and institutions providing education in their own languages, in a manner appropriate to their cultural methods of teaching and learning.
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- Jen Teeter