THE FIFTH ISSUE OF FIHRM-AP - Living as an Ainu — Grandma’s Wisdom & A Message from the Museum
Specializing in regional Ainu culture (Mukawa, Hokkaido), Akemi worked as a research and curatorial fellow at the National Ainu Museum and currently designs and runs experiential learning programs at UPOPOY: National Ainu Museum and Park as part of the institution’s mission to revive Ainu culture. As an expert on Ainu culture, Akemi Oshino introduces visitors to Ainu culture and traditional performances and is also the leader of Kotan, a traditional Ainu village. Not only is Akemi accomplished in traditional Ainu performing arts, she is also a certified instructor of Esashi Oiwake, Japanese folk songs.
About UPOPOY: National Ainu Museum and Park
UPOPOY: National Ainu Museum and Park, was created on the basis of respect for indigenous peoples, with the aim to build a diverse and prosperous community without discrimination. Established in 2020, it is a national center for learning and promoting Ainu history and culture, as well as a hub for Ainu heritage, cultural revival, and creativity. UPOPOY includes the National Ainu Museum, National Ainu Park, and the Memorial Site. The National Ainu Park also functions as an open-air museum, allowing visitors to experience Ainu culture first-hand with facilities like the Cultural Exchange Hall, Workshop, Craft Studio, and the Kotan (traditional Ainu village). Visitors can participate in experiential learning programs that showcase the history, culture, clothing, food, living spaces, performing arts, and craftsmanship of the Ainu people.
Shiraoi, Hokkaido, where UPOPOY is currently located, is a place that has long served as a site for the Ainu people to promote their own culture – a history that can be traced back to 150 years ago. In the 1960s, the site was rebuilt as Poroto Kotan to serve as a cultural site for tourists, and then established as the Ainu Museum, a private organization, in 1984. The privately owned Ainu Museum closed in 2018, and its operating body, the Ainu Museum Foundation, subsequently merged with the government-founded Foundation for Research and Promotion of Ainu Culture. UPOPOY, under the current organizational structure, was established as a national center in 2020.
Living as an Ainu — Grandma’s Wisdom & A Message from the Museum
I was born in 1985 in Mukawa, a place in the south of Hokkaido, where I also grew up. My mother was Ainu, but my father was not. I have an older sister and older brother, as well as a twin sister.
The home in which I was born and raised sits upon the land where my mother’s ancestors have always resided. As twins, we were influenced by our maternal grandmother from a very young age and were deeply influenced by the Ainu culture that has always existed here in Mukawa.
We embarked on a journey to learn more about our culture together, and my twin sister and I experienced, as one, both the joy and hardship of being Ainu. My twin sister is an indispensable part of the title, “Living as an Ainu.”
As a cultural specialist for the Foundation for Ainu Culture, I work at UPOPOY: National Ainu Museum and Park. UPOPOY is a cultural institution located in Shiraoi, Hokkaido, and it is the first national cultural institution dedicated to the Indigenous Peoples of Japan, Ainu.
The mission of UPOPOY is to serve as a base to “revitalize and expand the Ainu culture,” and UPOPOY itself is “a symbol of the building of a forward-looking, vibrant society with a rich, diverse culture in which indigenous people are treated with respect and dignity, without discrimination.” The National Ainu Museum and the National Ainu Park are the core facilities of UPOPOY. The National Ainu Park functions as an open-air museum, allowing visitors to experience Ainu culture first-hand with facilities like the Cultural Exchange Hall, Workshop, Craft Studio, and the traditional village, Kotan. Visitors can participate in experiential learning programs that showcase the history, culture, clothing, food, living spaces, performing arts, and craftsmanship of the Ainu people.
UPOPOY opened to the public in 2020. After years of dedicated efforts, the Ainu were formally recognized as “indigenous people” under Japanese law in 2019. Although UPOPOY is a national center that has been in operation for three years now, Shiraoi used to be home to the privately owned Ainu Museum, which was run by the Ainu themselves, also fondly called Poroto Kotan, named after Lake Poroto in front of the museum (Kotan means “community” or “village” in Ainu). Among many museums and cultural sites in Hokkaido celebrating and introducing Ainu culture, Shiraoi was chosen as the site for building a national establishment. In 2018, a merger occurred with the governmental organization (the Foundation for Research and Promotion of Ainu Culture) and the private organization (the Ainu Museum Foundation), forming the system under which UPOPOY operates today.
I began working for the Ainu Museum Foundation in April of 2013, before the merger. My current responsibilities at UPOPOY is at the traditional Kotan, which allows visitors to experience traditional Ainu life. There, I am in charge of explaining the details of Ainu life and culture, as well as traditional performing arts, to visitors of the museum and park.
Map of UPOPOY: National Ainu Museum and Park © The Foundation for Ainu Culture/Photo Illustration
A traditional Kotan area
The National Ainu Museum and the Permanent Exhibition Room © National Ainu Museum
The National Ainu Museum and the Permanent Exhibition Room © National Ainu Museum
Living as an Ainu – How It All Began
I was motivated to recreate and introduce Ainu culture by my grandmother. My father passed away when I was five and from then on, we lived with my grandmother for a very long time.
My grandmother was born in 1926, and before the age of seven, she lived in traditional Ainu cise houses (cise means “home” in Ainu). Different regions build their cise with different materials, and my grandmother lived in a cise made of straw. My grandmother’s parents, or my great-grandparents, both spoke Ainu at home every day, so my grandmother naturally remembered the Ainu language.
During the time we spent with our grandmother, she taught me and my twin sister some of the simple Ainu language, songs, and dances that she remembered. She also taught us many other things, such as the adversity she experienced first-hand as an Ainu, the Ainu outlook on life she inherited from her parents, and more.
My grandma (who passed away in 2022) and I Photo: Provided by the author
Traditional cise (Ainu houses) recreated at UPOPOY. Photo: Provided by the author
Living as an Ainu – Our Heritage
When we learned to dance and sing from our grandmother, she passed on the Ainu culture she had inherited. For example, the Ainu refers to all of nature as “kamuy.” Kamuy is a deified figure, a concept that encompasses not only the good, but also the bad. For example, fire is called ape huci kamuy in Ainu, and we consider it an elegant and dignified elderly woman who stays by our side. You must pray to ape huci kamuy when you want something, and ape huci kamuy will convey the prayers of humans to the other kamuy.
Some style of story-telling that are told through singing or chanting, known as oral literature, are called in Ainu, “yukar.” The yukar our grandmother told us, which ape huci kamuy is the main character, were inherited from her grandmother. Our grandmother told us that our ancestors learned wisdom and morals from the hundreds of different yukar that was passed down through the generations.
All the animals, plants, oceans, water, mountains – everything in nature – are considered kamuy. Bad kamuy called “payoka kamuy” brings disease, like the modern-day Coronavirus that caused a pandemic across the world. Our grandmother also taught us the prayers and dance that are used to ward off diseases.
We have since then introduced many stories, lullabies and songs on many occasions such as the events dedicated to promoting and revitalizing Ainu culture. The lyrics in Ainu, the meaning of the lyrics, and the ways of expression were all passed down to us by strict instruction from our grandmother.
In addition to the songs and the stories, our grandmother also cherished her “tamasay,” a necklace worn by Ainu women on special occasions. Our grandmother said the tamasay was given to her in her twenties, a gift from her ninety-year-old great-aunt. My twin sister and I inherited the treasured heirloom, and it is now on display at UPOPOY. You can see the tamasay in the interactive exhibit, Tempa Tempa, which is located in the Permanent Exhibition Room at the National Ainu Museum.
The author’s heirloom tamasay can be found in the Tempa Tempa interactive exhibit. © National Ainu Museum
The interactive exhibit, Tempa Tempa ©National Ainu Museum
Living as an Ainu – Preserving our Culture
The Ainu Museum that I started working for in 2013 was an earlier incarnation, now succeeded by UPOPOY. About sixty years ago, the Ainu Museum was a tourist attraction operated by Ainu in Shiraoi on the same land upon which UPOPOY now sits. Shiraoi is very much like Mukawa where I grew up – both areas have always been deeply connected to Ainu culture. The Ainu Museum preserved and promoted local Shiraoi Ainu culture for a very long time.
The first time I visited Poroto Kotan, I was around nine or ten. I was brought to Poroto Kotan by my grandmother and her elder sister, who, as preservers of Mukawa Ainu culture, often contributed to researches of Ainu language and traditional stories that was conducted at the Ainu Museum. They often brought me and my twin sister along, and I can recall visiting twice a year in my childhood.
When our grandmother and her elder sister were working inside the museum, my twin sister and I were mesmerized by the songs and dances of the open-air performances. We were especially enamored with the sound of an instrument called “mukkur.” Mukkur is a mouth harp instrument that can be made from several different materials. The mukkur that was played in Shiraoi was made from bamboo, and there were no set rules on how to play it. Different players would be able to produce different types of sounds. Not only did we get to look at the mukkur, museum staff members also taught us how to use it.
I was also fascinated by circle dances and the dances that mimic birds. Although the Mukawa Ainu also had our own circle dances and bird dances, but to me and my twin sister, the dances they did at Poroto Kotan were particularly “cool.” Ainu Museum employees back then were very much like the employees now at UPOPOY, and these men and women, young and old, would treat us with gentle kindness just the same.
One of the people that we found “especially cool” as a child back then, is now the executive director of UPOPOY. She excels at singing and dancing, yet is capable of calmly introducing Ainu culture to visitors. My twin sister and I idolized her when we were young. After we were introduced to the culture at Poroto Kotan, we were even more motivated to learn about Mukawa Ainu cultural performances and often shared our experiences with each other.
The frequent visits to Poroto Kotan inspired us and gave rise to our dream of working here when we grew up. We often participated in local events to promote Ainu culture in middle school and high school and during college, we received a formal education on the history and language of Ainu culture and were qualified as curators. Although we entered professions unrelated to Ainu culture after graduating, we continued to actively participate in the promotion and revitalization of Ainu culture. Finally, in 2013, we began to officially work at Poroto Kotan.
At university, I gained an overall understanding and basic knowledge about Ainu culture. For example, we first began to formally learn the Ainu language in college, and compared what we learned to the Ainu that our grandmother spoke. We felt that there was more to explore and began to learn the Ainu dialect spoken in Mukawa. I really felt that our college education gave us a thorough training in the fundamentals.
But now, the Ainu identity that my twin sister and I share comes from living with our grandmother. When we were young, our grandmother imparted her values and wisdom about nature through the ins and outs of everyday life. We learned a basic overview of Ainu culture in university, but we got the details of Ainu culture through our family life (the Mukawa Ainu culture that was practiced at home).
I think the most compelling reason for working at the museum comes from the desire to share the Ainu culture that I learned from my grandmother with many other people – the Ainu culture that I inherited. I also want to preserve, promote, and raise awareness for the Mukawa Ainu culture where my roots lie. I want to share the songs, dance, and performing arts that I specialize in, and make it my profession and work.
Although it is all considered part of Ainu culture, Ainu in different regions speak different Ainu dialects and build their homes with different materials. We cannot encompass everything with a simple reference to “Ainu culture,” and this is what makes Ainu culture so profound and fascinating. Of course, we can explore these differences from the literature, but once I came to work at Shiraoi, I also learned a lot about the unique Shiraoi Ainu culture from my colleagues, which inspired me to take an interest in the “Ainu culture that is unique to that place.” It also prompted me to contemplate my own region, and it enhanced my own Ainu identity.
Living as an Ainu–What the Future Holds
The cise that were rebuilt at UPOPOY are now mainly used as places for museum specialists to share with visitors the details of Ainu life now and in the past, as well as introduce them to Ainu performing arts and other aspects of culture. In the conversations that we have with visitors, one question comes up almost every day, “Do the Ainu still exist? What sort of lives do they live now?” And although I always tell them that “I am Ainu and I live the same life as everyone else,” the misunderstanding that “the Ainu no longer exist” or “the Ainu live now as they did in the past” still prevails. Therefore, as an Ainu person who works as a specialist, my function is to help more people understand the Ainu culture passed down by my family through the generations, as well as to convey an accurate representation of the lives of modern-day Ainu.
UPOPOY welcomes not only visitors from Japan, but also many from abroad. Also, it is not only the Ainu people who work at UPOPOY, but there are colleagues who are non-Ainu and who are originally from other countries as well. The team that includes non-Ainu, Ainu, foreigners, and persons with disabilities is an epitome of the foundation upon which UPOPOY was built – a ‘symbolic space for ethnic harmony’. To fully comprehend the concept of “modern-day Ainu” is to understand that the world is home to many different ethnicities, as well as people with all kinds of identities. I shall continue to promote and share Ainu culture in the future, drawing from my own identity as a source of support, allowing myself to spend my time embodying the kind gentleness inherent within the concept of “ethnic harmony.”