For someone who grew up ashamed of her ethnic identity, they are powerful words.
“You are beautiful just as you are. Don’t be afraid,” Mina Sakai sings to a young, enthusiastic crowd in the language of the Ainu, the indigenous people of northern Japan.
Sakai, 25, belongs to a group of young Ainu at the forefront of a revival of ethnic pride. Rebelling against a history of institutionalized discrimination, they want greater political recognition and the rescue of a culture that has been nearly wiped out by government assimilation policies and social pressure to conform.
Sakai is a leader of the Ainu Rebels, a group of more than a dozen Ainu in their 20s and 30s who sing and dance to prerecorded music, celebrating their ethnicity in unusual fashion by mixing traditional dress, dance and language with hip-hop and rap. Call it Ainu fusion.
In one number, several young women—dressed in typical Ainu blue and purple robes and headbands with bold, geometric patterns—danced in a circle while young men brandished bows and arrows, all to a throbbing techno beat that filled the small concert hall at a recent music festival in Sapporo, the capital of Japan’s northern island of Hokkaido.
[Mina Sakai’s] awareness came at age 16 when, on a cultural exchange trip to Canada, she was struck by the passionate way Canadian indigenous people danced and sang.
“I was shocked. They were so cool and so proud of being native Canadians,” she said. “I realized that I have a beautiful culture and strong roots. I decided that I should be a proud Ainu and express that in my life.”
In June, Japan’s parliament recognized the Ainu as an indigenous people with a distinct religion, language and culture, a major shift from the mid-1980s when Yasuhiro Nakasone, the then prime minister, declared that Japan was a homogenous nation with no minorities.
The Ainu, a name that means “human,” lived in the forests of Hokkaido and surrounding islands for centuries, fishing for salmon and hunting deer and worshipping the spirits of the sun, thunder, water and fire as well as plants and animals.
Many scholars believe the Ainu came here from central Asia and Siberia. About 140 years ago, Japanese settlers colonized Hokkaido. They forced the Ainu to adopt Japanese names and ways, banned their language, and made them take up the unfamiliar livelihood of farming. Disease and poverty took a huge toll.
To escape discrimination, many choose non-Ainu spouses to dilute indigenous features such as pronounced cheekbones and noses and, among the men, more facial hair than the Japanese. “They felt that backwardness had been mapped onto their bodies,” said Ann-Elise Lewallen, an American cultural anthropologist at Hokkaido University.
“Ethnicity is hip in Japan,” said John Maher, a professor of linguistics at the International Christian University in Tokyo who follows minority issues.
“Young people are more aware of Japan’s multicultural makeup, but it’s still pretty shallow,” said Hideaki Uemura, a human rights scholar at Tokyo’s Keisen University.
Parliament’s recognition of the Ainu was in a nonbinding resolution. It created an eight-member committee to recommend further steps for the government to take, but only one member, Tadashi Kato, is Ainu.
Many Ainu doubt the government will officially apologize—as Australia and Canada did recently to their native populations for past policies—pay compensation or grant access to land for hunting or fishing.
“Japan is behind other nations in this way, even though it claims to be an advanced economic power,” said Kato, executive director of the Ainu Association of Hokkaido.