Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Nao Somo Kuokere (The Work is Unfinished): Considering the Ainu lanugage

I did not understand the Ainu words that she spoke, but both the joy and pain that she felt was transmitted to me through the sound of her voice. The pain from hiding her identity for so many years, the joy of sharing her culture, the pain from the discrimination she endured for years, the joy of being able to acknowledge her identity, the pain from facing the possibility that her culture and her language might be lost forever if nothing is done to prevent it. A deep sadness enveloped the room as Akiko painted a picture of her life as an Ainu living in Japanese society at a seminar on “Ainu Culture in School Education” organized by the Foundation for Research and Promotion of Ainu Culture in Tokyo, Japan on January 29th, 2009.

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.

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.
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.

Recommended reading:

lewallen, ann-elise (2008) "Indigenous at last! Ainu grassroots organizing and the indigenous peoples summit in Ainu Mosir," The Asia-Pacific Journal, Vol. 48-6-08.

MORRIS-SUZUKI, T. (1999). "The Ainu: beyond the politics of coexistence," Cultural Survival Quarterly, Winter: 19-23.

SIDDLE, R. (1996). Race, resistance, and the Ainu of Japan. Sheffield Centre for Japanese Studies/Routledge series. London, Routledge.

SIDDLE, R. (2002). "An epoch-making event? The 1997 Ainu Cultural Promotion Act and its impact," Japan Forum. 14, 405-424.

WILSON, A. C. (2004). "Reclaiming our humanity: decolonization and the recovery of indigenous knowledge," in D. A. Mihesuah and A. C. Wilson (Eds.) Indigenizing the Academy: Transforming Scholarship and Empowering Communities, Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

- Jen Teeter

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

"City of Borders": Documentary takes on issues of human connection against all odds in Jerusalem

Director Yun Suh shoots on the scene of City of Borders

City of Borders is a 2009 documentary film that accompanies viewers along an intimate journey into the world of Shushan, the only gay bar in Jerusalem. Welcoming all patrons regardless of nationality or religion, the bar becomes a lifeline of support and community amidst a society where life is often defined by a daily struggle against hatred and intolerance. A daring documentary that takes on numerous complex issues with consistent sensitivity, City of Borders looks at how each individual strives for acceptance and belonging—sometimes literally risking everything in order to live with freedom and integrity.   

Director Yun Suh, who emigrated to the United States from South Korea as a child, became drawn to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict while on assignment in the region as a radio and television broadcaster. Having grown up being taught to fear the neighboring country of North Korea, and also learning from her parents about the suffering imposed by Japanese colonization, she has been able to understand the sentiments of both Israelis and Palestinians. Amidst the reality of these divisions and tensions, City of Borders offers a vision of something different: a community that comes together in order to find its common humanity. 

Kyoto Journal blogger Kimberly Hughes sat down for an in-depth chat with Yun Suh, who was recently in Tokyo for the film’s Asian premier screening at the 18th Annual Tokyo International Lesbian and Gay Film Festival.

Kimberly Hughes: The opening scene of the film, where Palestinian bar-goer Boody makes an illegal nighttime border crossing into Jerusalem from the West Bank city of Ramallah in order to reach Shushan, captures the intensity and danger of the moment while also portraying a hint of playfulness as he prepares to strut his stuff later on that night. As an opener, the scene is absolutely brilliant. Did you know straight away that this is how you would lead into the film?

Yun Suh: No. When it came time to selecting the film’s opener, it was down to two potential scenes: the border crossing, and something more traditional, such as a montage of day shots in Jerusalem that reveal the numerous borders confining the Holy City. In documentaries, you always want to hook the audience within the first four minutes, while also setting the tone for the rest of the film. I wanted to hit the ground running without delaying the film with the backstory, and so I decided to open with Boody's illegal nighttime crossing from Ramallah to Jerusalem, where he crawls through barbed wire and climbs the separation wall to reach the gay bar. This scene also provides a stark contrast with the one that follows, where Adam (an Israeli) is able to drive easily through the checkpoint and joke around with the soldiers while on his way to Shushan. 

KH: Actually, I think you are able to hook the audience within the first four seconds with this scene, not minutes!

YS: Thanks. It was important for me to create a cinematic look with this story, because I wanted to portray this community—who has been demonized as "ugly and nasty"—in a beautiful way in order to show the audience that they can find beauty in unexpected places. To do this, I shot the documentary in 24 frames-per-second rather than the usual 30, which tend to create flatter, news-like images.

KH: You seemed to do a very good job remaining “neutral” despite the extreme sensitivity surrounding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Did you have a hard time winning over the trust of any of the participants, who were afraid you might not understand or be on “their side”?

YS: Actually, I did receive criticism from some Jewish Israeli gay activists when they heard that I would have Palestinian participants appear in the documentary. Due to the strong anti-gay sentiment existing in the Palestinian community, the Israeli activists believed that I may have been compromising the safety of the Palestinians. Everyone was aware of the potential dangers, though, and participated in the documentary fully of their own will. I also took all necessary precautions, such as waiting to release the film until Boody had left Palestine for the United States. In fact, Samira (a Palestinian-Israeli lesbian who appears in the documentary) felt that this sort of concern on the part of the Jewish Israelis was actually somewhat offensive and patronizing; as if she was incapable of making her own choices.  

KH: Were there ever any moments of danger with authorities while you were making the documentary?

YS: Yes. There’s one scene where Boody's friend peels back a hole in fence a brightly lit section of the Israel-Palestine border to cross over into Jerusalem. Normally we would have taken a route that is longer and safer, but they were late for a drag performance that night at Shushan. We were caught by the Israeli Border Patrol and turned over to the Israeli police, but luckily for us, the Israeli police officer was not fluent in English. He ended up thinking that Boody was a Western tourist because of his facility with English and his tight clothes and earrings, which is an uncommon look among Palestinians. It was a close call. 

KH: The scene where Samira and her Israeli lover Ravit discuss how they have confronted issues of the occupation bleeding into their own relationship—and how they have tried to overcome this in order to base their relationship on the values of love and respect—is immensely powerful and inspiring for many reasons. Can you comment any further on this? Also, do you get a sense that there are other couples out there who are similar to this one?

YS: First of all, finding any Palestinian-Israeli couple at all—whether gay or straight—is kind of like trying to find a unicorn. With just a few exceptions, it feels like they simply don’t exist. Samira and Ravit, who have managed to come to a place of love and understanding in their own relationship despite all of the mistrust and propaganda that is out there on both sides, give an immense amount of hope.

Every country—not only Israel—must confront this question of how to approach difference. Do you continue to hate and fear it, or do you learn to respect it? Because Samira and Ravit have done the latter in Israel, their relationship truly models what their country could look like when based upon tolerance and co-existence. 

KH: Adam, an Israeli, seems to have quite conflicted views. In the scene where he is inspecting his fenced off backyard at his home on an Israeli settlement, which faces a neighboring Palestinian village, he says, “We need a wall in order to separate us from our neighbors.” When he later sees a dog crawl underneath it, however, he remarks, “Animals don’t know borders…we should learn from them.” Do you feel this is indicative of a larger tension in Israel?

YS: Definitely. Adam speaks to the contradiction that defines Israeli society: he wants peace, but he refuses to give up his privilege to achieve it. There is a tremendous amount of fear in Israel toward Palestinians, and Adam thinks that having this fence around his home and his city will protect him. He does not understand that the fence is in fact caging him in, however, because his own freedom in fact depends on that of the Palestinians. His failure to understand this connection between himself and others whom he perceives as different prevents him from being able to transcend barriers.

KH: Given these tensions, as well as the violent homophobia that is also portrayed in the documentary, Shushan seems to be the one place where people can come together and escape from the problems and dangers around them. The scene where an Israeli bar-goer chokes up while saying “I realized when I entered this bar that my previous views had all been based on hate…only here would it have been possible for me to meet and kiss a Palestinian” is immensely poignant. Do you feel that this bar is the only place where this kind of understanding can flourish? Or are there other sources of hope?

YS: Actually I think that Shushan serves as a kind of metaphor. Yes, it represents the ideal…but what I tried to do in this documentary is to show how everyone is actually engaged in their own struggle to find their own places of belonging and acceptance. I also try to end the film in a positive way, by showing how each person has somehow embarked on a new journey to maintain their full humanity in accordance with whatever personal struggles they may be facing.

KH: Was there any particular underlying theme or motivation that inspired you to make this film?

YS: Well, my hope is that after seeing the documentary, people will start to think about the matter of the mental, physical and cultural barriers that might be preventing us from having a real connection with others who are different from us. 

Having moved to the United States when I was eight years old without speaking even a word of English, I know firsthand what it feels like to be an outsider. I hope that people will start to realize that we always have something to learn from others and their particular worldview. I also think that the people appearing in the documentary are amazing teachers about how to be true to yourself, even against all odds. The purpose of City of Borders is to honor the spirit of their tremendous courage.

For more information about City of Borders and a schedule of international screenings, see the official website.  

City of Borders Director Yun Suh

- Posted by Kimberly Hughes