The Ainu kotan near Lake Akan, an important center of indigenous tourism, in Kushiro, Hokkaido, Japan, in 2016. “Kotan” means “village” in the Ainu language. (Laura Liverani/Prospekt) A tonkori player performs at the Porotokotan, Shiraoi Ainu Museum in Shiraoi, Hokkaido, Japan, in 2013. The tonkori is a traditional plucked string Ainu instrument. Ainu performers in traditional clothing play, dance and sing for visitors inside a reconstructed cise, traditional home, at the museum. (Laura Liverani/Prospekt/)
Japan is a nation that often presents itself as ethnically homogenous, but in fact it has an indigenous population called the Ainu. These hunter-gatherers worshiped nature and animals, spoke a language unrelated to any other, and had unusual customs like tattooing their lips.
Only nine years ago, the Ainu finally gained parliamentary recognition as a people with a “distinct language, religion and culture.” The resolution in 2008 was a small victory for this long-oppressed people, despite no statement of rights, no restitutions and no apology for centuries of discrimination. It began in the early 15th century, when Japanese settlers began pushing into Ainu land on the island known today as Hokkaido. Later, under the harsh policies of the Meiji Era, the Ainu were prohibited from speaking their language and forced to use Japanese names. They were barred from their hunting and fishing traditions.
Photographer Laura Liverani embarked on a project to document the Ainu people shortly after the passing of the resolution. Some recounted stories of modern-day discrimination. Others spoke of the lost beauty of the Saru River, a sacred site for the Ainu, on which the government constructed a dam in the 1990s. “It was quite painful to see a mass of concrete in the middle of such a beautiful landscape,” they said.
Today, Liverani said, a concerted effort is being made to preserve Ainu culture and language. And with the 2020 Olympics to be held in Japan, the government has plans for a facility centered on Ainu culture. Between these and other efforts in Hokkaido villages, perhaps a little life can be breathed into the land known as Ainu Mosir — “land of the human beings.”
Old photographs and other memorabilia at the studio of Ainu artisan and former photographer Morio Senke in Akan Ainu Kotan, Kushiro, Hokkaido, Japan, in 2016. (Laura Liverani/Prospekt/) Ainu elder Haruzo Urakawa in his home in Chiba prefecture, greater Tokyo, in 2012. Kamuy Mintara, meaning `Playground of Gods,’ is a cise, a traditional Ainu home, that Urakawa built by himself in the mountains outside of Tokyo. There, he lived as close as possible to the traditional Ainu lifestyle which, as a child in Hokkaido, he had learned from his father. Today Kamuy Mintara is closed. (Laura Liverani/Prospekt/) Ryoko Suzusappno, a member of the Chitose Ainu Association, at Lake Shikotsu in Hokkaido, Japan, in 2016. Although the Ainu were forcibly assigned Japanese names by the Japanese government in the Meiji period, today some choose to use their Ainu family name to reclaim their identity. Ryoko uses her ancestors’ last name. (Laura Liverani/Prospekt/) A view from the model Ainu tourist village inside Noboribetsu Bear Park in Noboribetsu, Hokkaido, Japan, in 2016. (Laura Liverani/Prospekt/) A deer skull in a mountain forest in Biratori, Hokkaido, Japan, in 2015. (Laura Liverani/Prospekt/) Monbetsu, a professional deer and bear hunter, is photographed outside his home with his hunting trophies in Biratori, Hokkaido, Japan, in 2015. Hunting is a tradition still widely practiced among the Ainu. (Laura Liverani/Prospekt/) Maya, a high school student, stands in her fishing gear in the river near her family home during summer vacation in Biratori, Hokkaido, Japan, in 2016. (Laura Liverani/Prospekt/) A haul from the river on a butterbur plant leaf, which is used to lay the fish out before gutting in Biratori, Hokkaido, Japan, in 2016. According to Ainu folklore, under butterbur leafs live the Koropokkuru, or “little people,” small humanlike creatures skilled at fishing. (Laura Liverani/Prospekt/) Two Ainu sisters demonstrate karate at home in Nibutani, Hokkaido, Japan, in 2015. They study martial arts in the village cultural center where they also study Ainu language. (Laura Liverani/Prospekt/) Maya, 15, is in her school uniform at her grandmother’s Attush weaving workshop in Nibutani, Hokkaido, Japan, in 2014. Maya was born to an Ainu mother and a Japanese father. (Laura Liverani/Prospekt/) Hibiki is a cultural employee at the Ainu Museum in Shiraoi, Hokkaido, Japan. He was brought up as an Ainu by his adoptive mother in a community shelter in the village of Nibutani. He is pictured at home, in 2015, wearing his Ainu traditional robe. (Laura Liverani/Prospekt/) Oki Kano is an Ainu musician and founder of Oki Dub Ainu Band in Nemuro, Hokkaido, Japan. Here he is pictured holding his Tonkori and wearing an owl costume in the backstage of a television recording studio, in 2015. The costume was designed for his participation in a popular Japanese TV children show. The owl is one of the numerous animal gods in Ainu religion. (Laura Liverani/Prospekt) A pole structure said to represent an Ainu warrior in Nibutani, Hokkaido, Japan, in 2015. (Laura Liverani/Prospekt)
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