Post written by Michael Adams, Christine Eriksen and Heather Moorcroft.
For ten days in August, three AUSCCER members immersed themselves in a series of cultural experiences in Japan. Heather Moorcroft, Christine Eriksen and Michael Adams were there for the International Geographical Union (IGU) Regional Conference. The conference theme was Traditional Wisdom and Modern Knowledge for the Earth’s Future – an interesting example of political irony in hindsight. The conference venue, the dramatic Kyoto International Conference Centre, achieved a place in history as the site of the signing of the Kyoto Protocol in 1997.
We were all in Japan as members of the Indigenous Peoples Knowledges and Rights Commission (IPKRC) of IGU. IPKRC has an established protocol of engaging with the local Indigenous communities of the country hosting any given IGU conferences. So for thirty members of the commission (postgraduate students, academics as well as accompanying family members of different nationalities), our Japan experience commenced with a pre-conference trip to Ainu Mosir – Hokkaido – the northernmost island of current-day Japan. The field trip foreshadowed the Indigenous-themed sessions of the conference to consider the political struggles and programs for the retention and revival of Ainu culture.
The Ainu are an Indigenous people of Japan. They previously inhabited a wider area in northeast Asia from Kamchatka, the southern part of Sakhalin, Hokkaido and the northern part of Honshu – an area known to Ainu as Ainu Mosir. Ainu communities traded with the Japanese and other peoples from the 12th century until the beginning of the 1600s when the Japanese government began to push into Hokkaido and Ainu independence was gradually weakened. In 1878 Japan commenced an aggressive colonisation process, which continued for over a hundred years. During this period, Ainu lost all rights to lands and suffered an assimilation process (akin to the colonial processes experienced by, for example, Indigenous Australians and California Indians). Very limited rights to practice culture in the form of songs and dance were legislated for. Ainu resisted assimilation, and our study trip learnt about some of these processes and outcomes. As one of our hosts, Professor Yugo Ono, said, “Colonisers not only stole the land, but also the history of the Ainu people”.
A key learning experience was the Nibutani Dam site on the Saru River in southern Hokkaido – an area where the Ainu make up 70% of the population. The Ainu name for the Saru River is Si-sir-mu-ka, meaning a river often dammed by sand and silt. The dam was to supply water for a proposed industrial centre, which was never constructed, yet the dam proceeded anyway. Predictably, the Nibutani Dam is now a giant silt trap that has exacerbated the potential for downstream flooding, including a near-catastrophic incident during a typhoon in 2003.
After construction of the dam had started in 1986, two local Ainu men commenced legal action against the government of Japan for illegal acquisition of land their families had used for 400 years. Years of legal action resulted in a watershed 1999 court ruling that acknowledged the illegality of the land acquisition and additionally officially acknowledged Ainu indigeneity. Ironically and tragically, by that time the dam was completed and at least three important Ainu sacred sites were destroyed. The deeply personal impact this has had on local Ainu was clear from the host of our visit – Koichi-san, the son of one of the plaintiffs. Read more at Nakamura 2013 and Nakamura 2008.
However, strength has also been derived from the court ruling. The impressive Nibutani Ainu Culture Museum reflects Ainu history and continuities into the present (see photograph of the canoe), and nearby land has been acquired for reforestation of plants used traditionally by Ainu (as seen in the first photograph). Koichi-san welcomed us to a community building near the restoration site where we all shared a meal – an important cultural protocol for Ainu (the below photo is the community building). Our hosts explained all the ingredients, which included a soup of venison and ferns as well as char, a local fish caught in the days before our meeting.
We went on to hear from the Director of another extensive museum, the Porotokotan Ainu Museum in Shiraoi. The strength of Ainu art traditions is evident, for example, in the museum’s Director, Masahiro Nomoto having collaborated in several international exhibitions, such as this one at the Smithsonian in Washington DC. For us the study trip concluded with the first ever symposium on Indigenous geographies held at Hokkaido University.
While our Japan experience started with the IPKRC pre-conference trip to Ainu Mosir – Hokkaido, that was where the conference theme of Traditional Wisdom and Modern Knowledge in the context of Japan seemed to stop. We enjoyed participating in and listening to Indigenous themed sessions and papers during the conference, yet the IGU conference itself had no known representation by, or research about and/or with Ainu people. This reflects the continuing political challenges faced by contemporary Ainu communities. It also exemplifies, as highlighted by Richie Howitt in relation to a session discussion on Indigenous uranium mining in Canada, the clever ways in which the meaning of the word ‘we’ shifts depending on who “we” want to include (a collective “we”) and exclude (e.g. “we” have consulted) in any given context thus exacerbating inequitable power relations.
We return enriched by experiences that have helped unsettle the ways in which “our” society tend to view colonial structures as an explicitly Anglo-Eurocentric ideology.
Christine and Heather acknowledge the generous financial support of the International Geographical Union, the Institute of Australian Geographers and the University of Wollongong that enabled them to attend the conference. Our sincere thanks go to the Ainu hosts for sharing their stories, to Professor Yugo Ono, Dr Naoko Fukayama, Associate Professor Jeff Gayman and others for leading and interpreting, and to Dr Brad Coombes and Assistant Professor Jay Johnson for overall organisation.
Michael Adams is on Twitter @DrMichaelAdams. Other posts by Michael include ‘Redneck, barbaric, cashed-up bogan? I don’t think so: hunting and nature in Australia’, ‘Landscapes of uncertainty in California‘ and ‘Postcard from India – part one, part two and part three‘.
Find out more about Heather Moorcroft.