Common Bond: Japan’s Ainu People Connect With Alaska’s Aleuts

By Japan News Yomiuri | Updated: February 5, 2019 | Published: February 5, 2019 |

Ainu people dance at the Indigenous Peoples Summit in Sapporo, northern Japan, Friday, July 4, 2008. (AP Photo/Shizuo Kambayashi)
Ainu people dance at the Indigenous Peoples Summit in Sapporo, northern Japan, Friday, July 4, 2008. (AP Photo/Shizuo Kambayashi)

SAPPORO, Japan – Separated by a short span of freezing sea, a local association of Ainu in Hokkaido has started efforts to forge relations with the Aleuts of Alaska’s Aleutian Islands. As part of Ainu activities to gain global attention as an indigenous group, representatives from the two groups met Friday in Alaska under the auspices of the Hokkaido government. The aim was to deepen fellowship through cultural events and other activities. It was in 2008 that the Japanese government officially certified the Ainu as an indigenous group. After that, a delegation from the Ainu Association of Hokkaido attended the U.N. World Conference on Indigenous Peoples in 2014, and there have been cultural exchanges with indigenous groups from Taiwan, Thailand, the Philippines, Vietnam and others. The foundation for the exchange with the Aleut was laid in July 2018.

An Ainu group attended a memorial service for those killed during fierce fighting in World War II on Attu Island in the Aleutians, and while there learned of the history of the Aleut. The Ainu side, through the Hokkaido government, contacted Aleut leaders, and the two sides agreed on an initial step of having representatives meet in early February. Both the Ainu and the Aleut are hunting peoples and have shared traits such as a long tradition of using pelts from marine animals. About 9,000 years ago, the ancestors of the Aleut people migrated from Asia to North America. Settling in the Aleutian archipelago, they flourished by hunting seals, otters and other sea animals from kayaks. “It is possible there was a cultural connection with the Kuril Ainu, who were geographically close,” said Goro Yamada, former curator of the Historical Museum of Hokkaido. At the Friday meeting, the Ainu proposed a cultural event in Alaska as early as this summer.

There, traditional Ainu crafts such as “attus” embroidered garments would be introduced, and educational spaces would be set up to allow each to learn about the other’s history and other aspects of life. “The Aleut have many things in common with the Ainu,” said Kazushi Abe, president of the Sapporo Ainu Association. “They each built a unique culture and were at the mercy of external pressures. We want to build a friendship between fellow indigenous groups from the ground up.” Abe, who is also vice executive director of the Ainu Association of Hokkaido, indicated he will be calling on other associations in Hokkaido to participate. In conjunction with the opening of the National Ainu Museum and Park, also known as “Upopoy,” in the town of Shiraoi in April 2020, the Hokkaido government has plans to help expand awareness of the Ainu from both cultural and historical perspectives.

“In recent years, activities to promote interactions with indigenous peoples have been expanding,” said an official of the Hokkaido government’s international affairs office. “Communication between the two sides is deeply significant. We will continue to provide support, such as making arrangements for planned events.”

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