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.”

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