Lessons about conservation from the Indigenous Ainu of Japan

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Written By: Dylan Ruan, Living Lab Intern, UCSB Sustainability

The Ainu are an Indigenous people in Japan who have been critically impacted by the country’s transition into a modern society. At the moment, they are perched in a cultural no man’s land. Some believe that the Ainu have not embraced contemporary Japanese society. Others might see modern Ainu as insufficiently traditional and inauthentic as a result.

The Ainu have continued to uphold their culture in the face of considerable historical hardship. Ann-Elise Lewallen, professor of East Asian Studies at UCSB, has worked with the Ainu for nearly 20 years.  “They have suffered tremendous injustices,” she said. “They and their ancestors have been incredibly resourceful and creative in finding ways to survive with what they had at their disposal.”

Settler colonialism is one piece of a complex history that has dealt a devastating blow to the Ainu. Colonialism involves a new group of people coming in and establishing new cultural practices and societal structures. Settler colonialism, however, is a specific escalation of colonialism that involves removing an Indigenous people from their native land and then taking it from them.

It’s an oppressive form of disenfranchisement that closely describes what has happened to the Ainu.

Ann-Elise writes that the Ainu have dealt with these blows to their identity by celebrating both the modern and the traditional in what she calls “the ancestral space.” In the ancestral space, the Ainu continue to engage with their culture through practices like traditional embroidery and clothwork in modern Japan. The ancestral space coexists with the present reality, which allows the Ainu to celebrate their culture without exclusively turning to traditional ceremonies.

Standard ideas of environmental conservation conflict with many traditional lifestyles of indigenous people. A simplified model of conservation instructs us to section off a chunk of land, build fences around it, and allow it to run itself without any human interference.

The mainstream global environmental movement often romanticizes native people’s relationships with the environment and sometimes this leads to a misunderstanding of their interrelationship with nature. Some operate under the assumption that as indigenous people of Japan, the Ainu serve as guardians of this form of untouched wilderness. But rather than distance themselves from the natural world, the Ainu engage with it in an interactive way.

“None of this would be possible if the natural environment is destroyed,” Ann-Elise said.

Some Indigenous people revisit the roots of their culture through song and dance, storytelling, or historical texts. For the Ainu people in Hokkaido Japan, getting in touch with their roots means literally coming in contact with the roots of the trees, plants, and biological life around them.

The Ainu people have consistently been shaped by their relationships with the natural landscape. In fact, Ann-Elise argues that the interactive and reciprocal relationships the Ainu people developed with the waterways, forests, and mountains of Hokkaido–the second largest island in Japan’s archipelago, have been key to the evolution of their cultural practices.

All of Ainu culture depends on having access to plants and animals in the natural world. They demonstrate these relationships with the natural world by expressing them in tangible ways that can be quite complex.

For instance, traditional bags are often spun using fibers found on very particular sets of plants and emblemized with material only those plants can provide. “You don’t just carve a spoon or sew together a piece of clothing,” Ann-Elise said. “But every piece of clothing is embellished with this very specific type of motif that points towards the particular relationships between the ancestors and the nonhuman spirit world.”

Despite having their initial ties to the native land severed, the Ainu have formed meaningful relationships with the natural world in their new environment. Ancestors of modern-day Ainu form relationships with sentient beings of the natural world, known as kamuy, similar to those they nurtured with specific trees, plants, and fibers in the past.

“In urban spaces, for example, they have cultivated relationships with local sentient beings in landscapes that are different from those in the homes of their ancestors,” Ann-Elise said. Here, she presented an image of Ainu men and women kneeled on terraces in prayer to these kamuy while sleek steel skyscrapers tower besides them.

Ann-Elise argues that research on Indigenous people like Ainu should not be conducted just for research’s sake. Instead, the work needs to be done in a way that benefits the Ainu in some way or another.

“I think we have a responsibility to build bridges with the local community or in this case, the local Indigenous community, and find ways to form partnerships, reach out across the academic divide, and involve the local Indigenous people in planning initiatives that are relevant to them and other marginalized groups.”

Ann-Elise has surveyed North American museum collections of Ainu materials and shared her findings with Ainu women artists in order to help them regain access to materials that were removed from Japan.

Ann-Elise also provides support for connecting Indigenous communities by assisting them with having a stake in United Nations organizations that are influential in international civil society. She stresses that it “is important to maintain a sense of humility and allow Indigenous communities to take the lead” and allow them to exercise sovereignty in choosing the types of partnerships and approaches they feel are most beneficial to them.

One of the most commonly cited criticisms of the environmental movement is its tendency to be very Eurocentric, middle-class, and in some cases elitist. The movement needs to expand its scope and include people like the Ainu whose culture, livelihood, and survival have always been inseparable from their environment.

“How do we incorporate communities who haven’t been central to the conversation and refocus the issues to include them? I think there’s a lot of work to be done for sustainability, anthropologists, and scholars in general.”

Ann-elise lewallen’s book, The Fabric of Indigeneity: Ainu Identity, Gender, and Settler Colonialism in Japan, is forthcoming from School for Advanced Research Press and University of New Mexico Press in September 2016.