Shiraoi: Where the first arrows of the last war fell

Shiraoi consists of a large old Honjin, or yadoya, where the daimiyo and his train used to lodge in the old days, and about eleven Japanese houses, most of which are sake shops—a fact which supplies an explanation of the squalor of the Aino village of fifty-two houses, which is on the shore at a respectful distance. … The Aino houses are much smaller, poorer, and dirtier than those of Biratori. I went into a number of them, and conversed with the people, many of whom understand Japanese. Some of the houses looked like dens, and, as it was raining, husband, wife, and five or six naked children, all as dirty as they could be, with unkempt, elf-like locks, were huddled round the fires. … Altogether it is obvious, from many evidences in this village, that Japanese contiguity is hurtful, and that the Ainos have reaped abundantly of the disadvantages without the advantages of contact with Japanese civilisation.

Unbeaten Tracks in Japan, Isabella L. Bird (1880)

Essentially, like Japanese, Ainu are a kind of human, and so like Japanese they also get sick. Because they are without medicine, if a smallpox epidemic breaks out, they fear the disease spreading, and deserting their homes, they evade the disease deep in the mountains. When the epidemic subsides, they return to their village residences. Among mothers and children, husbands and wives, and among brothers, they nurse and look after one another, but other people, because they have been abandoned by everybody, eventually die. Even if they get better, many people die of starvation.

Ezokoku Fuzoku Ninjo no Sata [Notes on the Customs and People of Ezo], Tokunai Mogami (1791), quoted in The Conquest of Ainu Lands: Ecology and Culture in Japanese Expansion, 1590-1800, Brett L. Walker (2001)

We’ll need a couple of maps for this journey. Here’s the first.

Northeastern Asia
Let’s jettison any thoughts of Hokkaido being Japan’s northernmost island, and reposition it instead as the southernmost, and hence most hospitable, land mass of the Sea of Okhotsk, with the Kamchatka peninsula hanging like a pendant in the northeast, the jewels of the Kuril archipelago strung between it and the easternmost fringe of Hokkaido, and Sakhalin stretching from the northwesternmost tip of Hokkaido to within sight of the Eurasian mainland at the mouth of the Amur river.

Let’s abandon, too, the modern name for the island. We could instead refer to it as Ainu Mosir, the peaceful land of the humans, as the Ainu did, but let’s use the shortest of the variety of names it attracted from the Japanese for many centuries, Ezogashima (“the island of the barbarians”), Ezokoku (“the country of the barbarians”), and simply Ezo, a name that lingers on in the natural world for the subspecies of the Sika Deer, Ezo Jika, endemic to the island.

The cast (in order of appearance)

The Jomon (14,000BCE—400BCE): Post-Paleolithic inhabitants of much of the Japanese archipelago. The Jomon were sedentary producers of possibly the earliest hand-thrown pottery in the world. They are perhaps responsible for 10%-20% of the genetic capital of many Japanese today.
The Nivkh (10,000BCE—present): Late Paleolithic arrivals to Northern Sakhalin.
The Yayoi (500BCE—300CE): Wheel-potters and wet-rice farmers who swept into Japan either from eastern China or Korea or both and quickly came to subjugate the Jomon across most of the archipelago. They are responsible for most of the contemporary Japanese genetic make-up.
The Emishi (300CE?—1,300CE?): Probable descendants of the Jomon, the Emishi initially inhabited most of the Tohoku area (the northern third of Honshu). Some integrate with Japanese moving north, some retreat to the very far north of Honshu and Ezo.
The Okhotsk (500CE?—1,000CE?): The last wave of immigrants to what is now modern Japan, the Okhotsk reach Ezo from Sakhalin around 500CE and settle a swathe of northeast Ezo, as well as the Kuril archipelago. Recent DNA testing reveals they are related to the Nivkhs (northern Sakhalin and Amur river mouth) and the Ul’chi (lower Amur river). They are thought to be responsible for the Ainu bear rituals and may have also been the Ashihase and Mishihase of ancient Japanese chronicles.
The Satsumon (600CE—1,200CE): Probably Emishi/Yayoi migrants from Tohoku, the farmer Satsumon mix with and replace on Ezo a still extant Jomon culture that was more hunter-gatherer oriented. Satsumon agriculture practices are similar in many respects to those of the contemporary Japanese to the south.
The Ainu (c1,100CE—present): The Ainu develop primarily from the comingling of the Satsumon in southwest Ezo and the Okhotsk in the northeast, but also with elements of the original Jomon and, via the Satsumon the Emishi and the Japanese. Earlier known as the Watarishima (“across to the island”, i.e., Hokkaido) Emishi and the Ezo, although this may refer to a primarily Satsumon culture.

Act I

In the eighth and ninth centuries, the Japanese Heian government extends control over much of Tohoku, assimilating the Emishi that recognize its authority and pushing those that do not further north, although it is not until the early 14th century that the Emishi are finally subdued. Meanwhile, a Satsumon culture is emerging in the 6th-8th centuries in southern Ezo, informed by the Emishi (and in turn by the Japanese) and subsuming the Jomon, while at the same time the Okhotsk are moving in from the north, and sometime around the 11th-12th centuries the Satsumon and Okhotsk peoples coalesce, with the Okhotsk perhaps in the ascendant, to form what become known as the Ainu. The Satsumon never severed ties with the Japanese to the south, it seems, and traded with them extensively, so presumably this was true of the earliest Ainu, too. By the 12th century, Ezo is being used as a place of political exile, much as half a millennium later Russian Tsars were to use Sakhalin for the same purpose. The first Japanese forts and trading posts seem to have been established, on the southernmost tip of Ezo, the far southeast of the Oshima peninsula, in the 14th century, although the historical record is so fragmentary at this point that no precise dating seems to be possible. By 1456-1457, however, the Japanese (“Wajin” as they are widely known in this context), were sufficiently disruptive as to cause the first real Ainu uprising, Koshamain’s War (Kosamaynu in Ainu), which began as an argument between a Wajin blacksmith and an Ainu over a blunt knife and ended by destroying all but two of the Wajin settlements on Ezo and threatened to drive them out of Ezo altogether. In Race, Resistance, and the Ainu of Japan (1996), Richard Siddle writes:

The Wajin response to many of the Ainu attacks was to invite the leaders to peace negotiations and feasting, then cut them down during the banquet. The use of treachery (damashi uchi) is a common feature of this period, and was not seen as dishonorable among the Wajin leaders who employed it against each other in their own power struggles, but it was directly opposed to the Ainu custom of settling disputes through charanke or discussion.

In the 16th century, the Kakizaki family, initially vassals of the Ando family south across the Tsugaru straits in Aomori, at the tip of Honshu, emerge as the leaders of the Wajin in Oshima, and in 1551 the first formalized arrangement with the Ainu is reached, splitting the spoils of trade but conceding to the Wajin a small corner of southwestern Ezo, probably less than 1/50th the overall land area but marking the first cession of Ezo territory.

As the era of the warring states drew to a close in the late 16th century under the great unifiers Nobunaga Oda, Hideyoshi Toyotomi, and Ieyasu Tokugawa, internecine strife broke out within the Ando family and by the 1580s much of Tohoku was engulfed in conflict. The opportunistic Kakizakis, who were nothing if not skilled political operators, exploited this in several audiences with Hideyoshi and later Ieyasu, and in 1603, having changed their name to Matsumae and the name of their domain seat on the Oshima peninsula from Fukuyama to Matsumae, they are granted exclusive rights to trade with the Ainu, a monopoly they were to enjoy uninterrupted for the best part of two centuries.

Act II

Armed with this monopoly, trade between the Wajinchi, whose border with Ezochi gradually expanded northward and eastward, massively increased. The Wajinchi-Ezochi line was not a border in the modern nation-state sense; there were Ainu living within the Wajinchi, many Japanese villages within the Wajinchi depended on exploiting resources in neighboring Ezochi lands, and most importantly, under the Matsumae a network of trading posts was steadily built out by Matsumae vassals across the entire coastline of Ezochi; by 1739 there are 53 of these trade fiefdoms. Still other Wajin move into the interior of Ezochi, establishing camps to mine gold for example. This ambiguity in the border was mirrored by the status of the Wajinchi and the Matsumae family in the Edo state. As late as 1856, an official of the shogunate, Seisai Mukoyama, would write that the Wajinchi was “outside our country” (wagakuni no soto nari). The Matsumae were never accorded the title of daimyo, or domainal lords, and the villages of the Wajinchi were never subject to cadastral surveys by the Tokugawa state, unlike the rest of early modern Japan in the Edo era.

Trade proved to be quickly and enormously disruptive to the subsistence existence of the Ainu. Edo Japan had a ravenous appetite for everything that Ezochi could supply: although the bulk of the trade was in fisheries, the pelts of every fur-bearing mammal were highly prized, as were the tail feathers of sea eagles, for use as arrow fletches, and hawks for use in the elite sport of falconry. The relationship between the Ainu and the animals they hunted underwent profound change; whereas traditionally hunting was seen in an animistic way as releasing the kamuy gods that inhabited all living creatures and was a spiritual act, hunting became validated by the price the commoditized kill would fetch at the trading post. Foremost among the goods being traded the other way were rice, sake, and tobacco. Ainu cereal agriculture, predominantly undertaken by women, was disrupted by the need to work the fisheries, and the Ainu came to depend on imports of rice from Japan via the Wajinchi, and there is evidence to suggest that Matsumae officials barred the Ainu from growing their own rice, for commercial reasons. Isabella Bird comments that, “on asking why the Ainos do not make vessels of iron and clay as well as knives and spears, the invariable answer is ‘The Japanese took away the books’”. It seems more likely that the books were never bestowed.

Trade led swiftly to severe depletion of many of the natural resources of the Ezochi. In 1715, a Matsumae lord notes that deer populations had crashed and that while traditionally the Ainu had traded deer pelts in abundance, “recently it is not like it was before. In all four directions natural resources have become exceedingly scarce”. Overhunting of deer herds for trading purposes frequently had catastrophic repercussions, as the Ainu in many regions were reliant on venison as an integral part of their diet, and were ravaged by famine as a result.

Disease, above all smallpox, also played a crucial role during this period in rending the fabric of Ainu life. Smallpox spread beyond the Wajinchi in the 17th century and resulted in mortality rates of as high as 60% in the communities where it occurred and creating even greater social disruption, as elders died prematurely, meaning that oral traditions could not be passed down, and as subsistence activities became impossible for smallpox-enervated survivors. Syphilis was the other major disrupter; although it arrived in Japan only in 1512, it may have arrived in Ezo in the mid-16th century, and was certainly present by the late 18th century, resulting in a huge decline in fertility; it was a primary cause of the well documented slide in the Ainu population: no remotely accurate demographic information is available until the 19th century, but Ezo Ainu may have numbered 40,000-70,000 in the 17th century, with perhaps 5,000 more on Sakhalin and a few thousand on the Kurils. In 1807 shogunal officials estimated the Ezo Ainu population at 26,000; by 1854 that estimate had fallen to below 18,000.

Shakushain’s War of 1669 represented the last pan-Ainu uprising against the Wajin and was, as Brett Walker writes, “a watershed in the history of the Japanese conquest of Ezo”. The war begins as sporadic fighting across several years between two Ainu chiefdoms, the Shibuchari and the Hae, over mutual disregard for traditional hunting and fishing borders (which in itself was probably provoked by a trade-driven breakdown of tradition), with the Hae, in danger of defeat and with Japanese gold miners on their territory, appealing to Matsumae for protection and Shakushain (Samkusanyu in Ainu), the chief of the Shibuchari, then rallying other Ainu, incensed by sharp Japanese trade practices, to his side, and attacking Wajin first in Shiraoi and then marching toward the Wajinchi, a stalemate standoff with Matsumae forces then ensuing at Kunnui, only a couple of day’s march from the border. Matsumae enlisted the assistance of the shogunate, alarmed at the threat to its authority, and dispatched troops to Shakushain’s rear, cutting him off and inflicting heavy casualties on the Ainu, who, suffering from a crippling Japanese trade embargo, surrendered and settled for peace. Celebrating the peace treaty with Wajin officials in late 1669 with copious amounts of sake, Shakushain and other Ainu commanders were hacked to death by Matsumae warriors, and the war was over.

There were two more skirmishes of note in the Edo period, a 1770-1771 uprising on Urup in the Kurils against Russian fur-traders moving south from Kamchatka and demanding tribute, and the Menashi-Kunashir Rebellion of 1789 in far northeastern Ezo, provoked by rapacious Hidaya family merchants who had come to exert some financial sway over the Matsumae lords and granted exclusive concessions in return, but Shakushain’s War represented the last concerted bid for independence (or freedom from interference) by the Ainu. With hindsight, given the vast resources of the shogunate that the Matsumae could have drawn on but proved not to need, it is clear that even by this early stage, in which Ainu still outnumber the Wajin, the rebellion had not the slightest specter of a chance of success.

The Japanese treatment of the Ainu in the Edo period was entirely in keeping with the times, of course, and paralleled by the Qing dynasty treatment of Sakhalin Ainu, under its tributary “system for subjugated peoples” (until rising Japanese influence and direct shogunal control over Ezo ended the Qing trade at the end of the 18th century), and the Russian yasak system of tribute with animal skins, designed to nurture “obedient conquered peoples”, which the Kuril Ainu were paying yearly by the middle of the 18th century. The historical Ainu experience, at the center of a world contested by three great powers, would naturally have seemed entirely unremarkable to contemporary Westerners, had they known about it, and evoked little sympathy. Indeed, as generous and curious an observer as Isabella Bird was, she can still chill modern bones, as when after receiving the courteous hospitality of Ainu for several days, she writes: “These Ainos, doubtless, stand high among uncivilised peoples. They are, however, as completely irreclaimable as the wildest of nomad tribes, and contact with civilisation, where it exists, only debases them. They are charming in many ways, but make one sad, too, by their stupidity, apathy, and hopelessness, and all the sadder that their numbers appear to be again increasing; and as their physique is very fine, there does not appear to be a prospect of the race dying out at present.”


In 1799, alarmed by a 1778 incident in which Russians landed in eastern Ezo and requested the opening of direct trade, and by reports of secret direct trading between the Russians and the Matsumae lords, the shogunate seized control over eastern Ezochi, designating it tenryo (“heavenly territory” or land under direct shogunal control), and established an early colonial office, the Hakodate magistracy, in 1802. Western Ezochi was put under direct rule in 1807 and Northern Ezochi (Karafuto, the Japanese name for Sakhalin), in 1809. Brett L. Walker writes that, “although the Matsumae family was again put in charge of Ezo between 1821 and 1854, its days of unrestricted trade with the Ainu were effectively over in 1802”. Tokugawa interest in Ezo waxed and waned, however, according to perceptions of the Russian threat, which led to the restoration of attenuated Matsumae rule. Ainu conditions only worsened in the early 19th century, however, as a basic infrastructure began to be put in place. Richard Siddle writes that, “Ainu labour was used for roadbuilding, transportation and servicing the fisheries, in addition to direct economic production. Ainu were brought down from the mountains to work on the coast, or were transferred between basho [“trading posts”] run by the same trader. The recruitment of labour was accomplished by armed Wajin if necessary, and the elderly and infirm were left behind in their villages to cope as best they could.”

The Tokugawa shogunate finally expired in late 1867, the Emperor Meiji was “restored” in January 1868, and in a strange footnote to the ensuing Boshin War of 1868-1869, which pitted the supporters of the shoguns against the ultimately victorious imperial forces, Takeaki Enomoto, commander of the shogunate navy, fled with a small fleet of ships and French advisors to Hakodate, where they proclaimed an independent Republic of Ezo in December 1868, with Enomoto being elected president of the infant republic. Imperial forces quickly snuffed out the rebellion, however, and the republic was dissolved in June 1869; in August, Ezochi was renamed Hokkaido (“north sea passage”), as a name that meant “land of the barbarians” would never do for what was now, finally and unambiguously, Japanese territory. The objective of the Meiji state for Hokkaido was equally unambiguous: colonization (takushoku), the Kaitakushi (Colonization Commission) having already been established in July. Assisted immigration from other parts of Japan was the means, with the land of Hokkaido being declared terra nullis, and after some false starts, the influx of settlers accelerates: from an 1872 population of 123,000, mostly still in the former Wajinchi, the population doubles every decade or so, to 250,000 in 1884, 600,000 in 1894, and 1.1mn in 1903, by which point Ainu represented less than 2% of the population of Hokkaido, versus perhaps a third two generations earlier. By the time amateur Scottish ethnologist Neil Gordon Munro was living among the Ainu in Nibutani in the 1930s, he could write of the frequent suicides of “desperate [Ainu] women, who could not endure the wretched existence occasioned by present circumstances, a complex of alcoholism, abject poverty, surrounding detraction, psychic depression and demolition of the old social order.”

Much of the blame for the further immiseration of the Ainu lies with the Hokkaido Former Aborigines Protection Act (Kyudojin Hogoho) of 1899, the explicit goal of which was assimilation via agriculturalization, education, and welfare, primarily medical assistance. Land grants restricted Ainu freedom to choose their own occupation, were frequently of tiny plots of the most marginal land, any many Ainu lost control of their plots to Wajin neighbors, sometimes through devious means: a favored strategy was to get the Ainu landowner drunk and lease his land in perpetuity for a peppercorn rent. An apartheid system of education was established, with kyudojin gakko (“former aboriginal schools”) created and assigned a second-rate curriculum focusing on agriculture. Education was in Japanese and the use of Ainu was discouraged, and with elementary school attendance rising from 18% in 1895 to 99% in 1928, this was clearly instrumental in hastening the extinction of the Ainu language and the Japanizing of hearts and minds. Medical assistance extended only to prescriptions; there were no moves to build desperately needed medical institutions in Ainu areas. While smallpox had been more or less eradicated through Jennerian vaccinations in the 1850s, tuberculosis was now the big killer, accounting for around a quarter of Ainu deaths in 1912-1916 against 7.5% for the Wajin. The Ainu lost their names, too; traditionally they had gone by single names, but from around 1872 they were assigned Japanese family names and from around the turn of the 19th century begin to assume Japanese given names as well, no doubt under assimilationist pressure. Culture proved more resilient; Shigeru Kayano (1926-2006), in Our Land Was a Forest: An Ainu Memoir, recalls his father officiating at an uniwente, a funeral service conducted in cases of unnatural death in which the gods are scolded, in 1937, and again officiating at an iomante bear-sending ceremony, in which a bear cub, the god of the mountains, is raised by the village and then ritually sacrificed and sent back to the world of the gods, as late as 1948. (The iomante was banned by an ordinance of the governor of Hokkaido in 1955 as a yaban na gishiki [“barbarian ceremony”], an ordinance only withdrawn in 2007).

The material circumstances of Ainu life improve after the Second World War, as the Japanese economy blossoms. Kayano, who was born into bleak prewar poverty, reports that by the 1950s, he and his siblings were living “kupoutar yayperepoka, ‘not wanting for food’, the condition of greatest happiness in Ainu society”. Subtler indignities persisted, though, as insensitive Japanese ethnographers and scholars of Ainu culture poured into remaining Ainu settlements, carrying away folk utensils, digging up sacred tombs and ferreting away ancestral bones, and photographing villagers in poses akin to criminal mugshots. About this time begins what might be termed the museumification of Ainu culture: as the customs, tradition, and language die out—Yosano reports that by around 1953, there were only three residents of Nibutani village in Biratori town, one of the last bastions of the Ainu, who could speak fluent Ainu—artifacts are moved to museums and skills on the verge of extinction, such as attusi weaving, are relearned for the growing tourist trade.

Glacially, the political context changed: Yosano is elected a town councilor in 1975, the first Ainu ever to win elective office, and is garlanded with a Hokkaido Cultural Promotion Award in 1978. In 1994, he wins an Upper House seat for the DPJ, becoming the first and so far only Ainu Diet lawmaker. Two landmark events occur in 1997: the Ainu Culture Promotion Act is passed, replacing the odious Hokkaido Former Aborigines Protection Act (incredibly still on the books after nearly a century), with the objective, according to Article 1, of contributing to the development of “our country’s diverse cultures” (waga kuni no taiyo na bunka), and although opposition to the construction of the Nibutani Dam, which flooded Ainu burial sites, proved futile, the Sapporo District Court did rule that the state owed the greatest duty of care to the Ainu culture but that care had been neglected.

Which brings us more or less to the present day. The Ainu itak (“language”) is either extinct or very close to it; one 1996 estimate put the number of active speakers at 15, another 1993 estimate described Kuril Ainu as extinct from the late 19th century, Sakhalin Ainu as possibly extinct, with the last known speaker aged 90 in 1992, and Hokkaido Ainu as nearly extinct, with no children speaking it, the mean age of the youngest speakers over 80, and fewer than 10 total speakers. I find it amazing that there is not more accurate and up-to-date information available on this subject, with the lives of the last few native speakers attracting intense interest. Ainu is being taught at several language classrooms established by Shigeru Kayano across Hokkaido, but without exception it is being both taught and learned as a second language.

According to the Hokkaido Utari Living Conditions Survey conducted in 2006 by the Hokkaido Government, the Ainu population in Hokkaido stood at 23,782, although the Ainu Association of Hokkaido will have you believe this is a gross underestimate. (Some sections of the Ainu community prefer these days to be known as Utari [“comrade”], rather than Ainu, perhaps because with a twist of pronunciation, Ainu can be made to sound like “Ah! A dog!” in standard Japanese). Prostitution of both Japanese and Ainu women, rape, and the taking of Ainu mistresses by Japanese men at trading posts were rife in Ezo from the earliest days, and this and later intermarriage must mean that most donsanko (as Japanese inhabitants of Hokkaido are known) with deep roots on the island have a fair amount of Ainu in their genetic make-up, with the reverse also being the case for the Ainu. With your language gone, your culture largely in the hands of curators, and your once Caucasoid-like physiognomy increasingly indistinguishable from the rest of your compatriots, it’s not clear to me what an assertion of Ainu identity really means any longer, although of course the right to such assertions should be zealously protected. The Utari survey also revealed that almost a third of Ainu were engaged in primary industries, far higher than the 5% or so as a whole for the municipalities in which they lived, and that while high school graduation rates are no longer dissimilar, only about 17% of Ainu progress to tertiary education, less than half the national average. Discrimination, while not reported as rife, was found particularly in schools and in marriage-related areas—presumably the reluctance of Japanese families to admit potential spouses with Ainu backgrounds into their fold.

In the week or so of research that enabled me to cobble together the above narrative, I had several preconceptions overturned. First was that the Ainu were the genjumin aboriginals of lore, present on Hokkaido since time immemorial. Clearly the honor of that appellation belongs, if to anyone, to the Jomon. Second, and related to the first, was the naïve presumption that the Ainu were a monocultural bloc and a proto-nation, whereas the societies of the Sakhalin and Kuril Ainu evolved in very different directions to the Hokkaido Ainu, while on Hokkaido in the era of the Tokugawas there were five distinct political spheres, from Soya in the north to Uchiura in the south. Third was that Japan really was a closed country during the sakoku jidai (“closed country era”) of the Edo period. Aside from the widely known Dutch and Chinese presence in Nagasaki, trade with Korea flourished via the domain of the island of Tsushima in the Korea Strait and trade with China was also conducted via the Ryukyu Kingdom (present day Okinawa) and the Satsuma domain in southern Kyushu. But the most permeable of all the borders was the northern one separating Ezochi and Wajinchi, with goods flowing in not only from Ezochi but also from Qing dynasty China through Sakhalin in what was known as the Santan trade and from Russia down the Kurils. I can’t say I was surprised at the scale and intensity of the oppression, though I was taken aback to learn how far back in time it stretched, as did the devastation of the natural environment, which assists in undermining the fond picture many Japanese have of Hokkaido as a land of untarnished daishizen (“big nature”).

Nowadays Shiraoi (1980 population 24,158, estimated 2009 population 20,127, projected 2035 population 12,765) is a drab and charmless coastal town no more inspiring than the Ainu origins of its name, “a place of many horseflies”, would suggest, and there is nothing about it that would lead the passer-through to realize that it had any distinct cultural heritage at all. Head inland a little and you come across Poroto Kotan, which features a reconstruction of an Ainu hamlet (kotan) on the shore of Lake Poroto, and the Ainu Museum.

Poroto Kotan is the most singularly depressing tourist spectacle it has ever been my misfortune to encounter; my notes made at the end of the day merely record it as “sad on so many levels”. The glowering clouds and persistent threat of rain didn’t help, nor did the paucity of fellow tourists (well, it was Wednesday morning), but there was much more to it than that. After paying the admission fee, the visitor is forced first though a barn-like hall thronging with souvenir stalls, which should surely be the last thing you encounter rather than the first. The stalls are festooned with the most shameless and tawdry knick-knacks masquerading as emanations of Ainu culture, one particularly favored bit of tat being large woodcarvings of bears with salmon in their mouths. Ainu ashtrays, anyone? Stallholders muttered invitations to inspect their wares, murmurings you would be hard pressed to hear in “Japan”, but already perturbed, I hurried on. Much more distressing was a compound of crude concrete kennels, fronted by barred off pens around which Ainu hunting dogs (also known as Hokkaido Inu) paced restlessly, and behind that an oblong cage divided into four tiny enclosures in which sat a quartet of listless brown bears, a scene so upsetting that I have already long erased it from my memory banks. Why not go the whole hog and hold an iomante bear-sending ceremony for the camera-toting tourists every afternoon at 2pm? Indeed, that would be preferable to the life sentence of incarceration that has been handed down to these bears, because at least it would take place in the framework of a belief system that worshipped the bear as a god, whereas in contemporary Japan bears are treated no better than sideshow freaks or a pestilential nuisance and threat to life and limb, even though there are thought to be only around 2,000 brown bears in the whole of Hokkaido and precisely four people died in bear attacks in the two decades from 1980 to 2000, fewer than lose their lives on the roads of Hokkaido every week.

The museum, on which a fair sum of money had been showered, was a travesty. While it purported through its exhibits to present a picture of Ainu fishing, hunting, agriculture, clothing, housing, and religion, it was Disneyfied and dehistoricized beyond measure. These were the Ainu, the museum seemed to be saying, now you see them—or rather, then you saw them—now, you don’t. No doubt to protect those still preciously fragile Shamo (the slightly derogative late Ainu word for the Japanese, from the Ainu sam, neighbor) sensibilities, there was no mention whatsoever of the centuries of Wajin contact. The explanatory notes to the exhibits were anodyne to the point of absurdity: “The Ainu ate breakfast, dinner, and sometimes lunch”. Aha, I smirked cynically to myself, that must be the reason they ended up in a museum—they skipped the midday meal. I learned more in a couple of minutes flicking through a book in the museum shop about the Ainu in a historical context than I ever could have in the museum itself.

Michael Weiner, in Race, Ethnicity, and Migration in Modern Japan (2004), credits the Shiraoi museum with having been particularly active in outreach to Japanese society, having published over 30 books and pamphlets on the Ainu, and more generally claims that the tourist centers—and there are many, not just in Shiraoi—have been effective in the education of the public and in fostering a pan-Ainu identity, but I’ll be unconvinced as long as it’s possible for the moyen sensuel to leave places like Poroto Kotan in the state of complacency in which they entered it.

The one pleasure that Poroto Kotan afforded was the smell, through thatch, of wood smoke, which ranks alongside earth after rain as my favorite olfactory delight. With a teary eyed squint it could almost—almost—have been the Edenic days of 15th century, when the mountains, rivers, and shores, fire, earth, and water, and the foxes, deer, and bear were truly alive with the gods.


3 responses to “Shiraoi: Where the first arrows of the last war fell

  1. Please take a look at my website ( We share a similar sort of dream. I will put your website on mine as a link, along with the Chiorri Project.

    Good luck for the centuries to come!

  2. How did Yosano win a seat for the DPJ in 1994 when the party wasn’t around until 1998? Wikipedia tells me Kanayo won the SDP seat in 1998 but…

    • Well spotted! For some reason I decided to call Kayano “Yosano” in the middle of this, perhaps because I was excited (ahem) about coming face-to-face with Kaoru Yosano while he was out campaigning in the 2009 Lower House election… Kanayo won the seat for the SDP in 1994 and then helped in the formation of the DPJ (the 1996-1998 incarnation of it) in 1996 when the SDP imploded. Thank you for pointing my fumble out.

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