Ainu Ancestral Remains, Long Held in Australia, Returned

Ainu Ancestral Remains, Long Held in Australia, Returned

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An Ainu man, Okawa Masaru, is placed in front of a black and white image of the Melbourne Museum. The image is bound by traditional Ainu designs in white and blue.
In an indigenous victory, Ainu ancestral remains, long held in museums in distant Australia, have at last been returned to local Hokkaido communities.

On Saturday, May 6th, an Ainu delegation hailing from Japan entered Melbourne Museum in Australia for the fulfillment of a long-awaited promise. Said vow had been made some six years ago, but the controversy the promise concerned was far older. In 2017, then-ambassador to Japan Richard Court told the Ainu Association of Hokkaido that two Australian universities had agreed to the return of ill-gotten indigenous Ainu remains. The ancestral artifacts, consisting of four sets of Ainu skulls, had been sent to Australia for purported research purposes nearly 100 years ago.

The Ainu people are the indigenous inhabitants of Hokkaido, which is now Japan’s most northern main island. The Ainu are also indigenous to the neighboring large island of Sakhalin, as well as the Kuril chain, both now held by Russia but with a long history of contested ownership with Japan. As an indigenous people group with their own isolate language and unique culture, the Ainu have long been subject to academic and scientific interest from their colonizers. In the early 20th century, this often took the form of invasive studies, sometimes involving the harvesting of blood under false pretenses, grave robbing, and more. Such desecrations were so offensive to local communities that there were cases of Ainu throwing their bodies over graves in order to block Japanese researchers from disinterring them. [1]

In a black and white photograph, a Japanese man in a suit stands amongst numerous Ainu remains and artifacts, including numbered skulls and countless swords.
Professor Kodama Sakuzaemon among innumerable plundered Ainu artifacts.

Between 1911 and 1936, Japanese researchers sent Ainu remains to Australia for anthropological research purposes. Now, four such sets have at last been returned to Japan, and to the larger Ainu community from which they were removed. These include a singular skull taken in 1921 from the area of what is now Kyowa Town in central Hokkaido; another skull was taken from Sakhalin Island in 1936, and exchanged for Aboriginal remains supplied by an Australian museum.

A Long-Awaited Ceremony

The Ainu delegation to Melbourne Museum for the handoff ceremony Saturday included Okawa Masaru, the executive director of the Ainu Association of Hokkaido, as well as Tazawa Mamoru of the Enchiw (Sakhalin Ainu) Bereaved Families Association. Officials from both the Japanese and Australian governments were additionally present. The handoff itself was presided over by the deputy president of the Museums Board of Victoria, Tim Goodwin.

The Ainu delegation held a Kamuynomi, a traditional ritual to offer thanks to the kamuy – the spiritual, divine beings within the Ainu cosmology. Australian Aboriginal people were also present at the event, and offered up their own prayers for the repose of the Ainu deceased whose remains were at last being returned to the home of their ancestors.

Following the Kamuynomi, Mr. Goodwin was contrite, expressing regret for the harm done by the Australian museums in question. “We apologize for the distress their removal has caused your communities and sincerely hope that their return will help in repairing the damage caused.”

Tazawa Mamoru of the Enchiw Bereaved Families Association, well aware that there were yet Australian indigenous remains being held in Japan, said the following: “I pray that the remains of the Aboriginal people will also be swiftly returned from Japan.” [2]


Okawa Masaru of the Ainu Association of Hokkaido offered his own comments on the long-awaited ceremony. “I believe our ancestors must surely have felt a deep loneliness [so far from home]. We will undertake the proper actions to console the spirits of the dead upon return to Japan.”

Okawa Masaru of the Ainu Association of Hokkaido discusses the ceremony. (Screenshot from NHK news broadcast.)

Ainu Remains Heading Home

The four sets of remains are set to arrive in Hokkaido today, Monday, May 8th. The three skulls originating from Hokkaido will be interred at the mass memorial facility at the recently-opened Upopoy National Ainu Museum and Park. The skull from Sakhalin offers a more complex problem; most Sakhalin Ainu were forced to move to Hokkaido at the end of World War II upon the Soviet invasion of Karafuto Prefecture, where they hailed from. These remains would be most at home on Sakhalin, but repatriation is highly difficult in the current climate. Instead, they will be stored at a Hokkaido university until appropriate arrangements can be made with an Ainu organization.

This repatriation from Australia is one of many that have taken place in recent years. Ainu organizations have long protested over the theft of their familial artifacts; unlike in previous decades and even centuries, such protests are at last having an effect. Universities in Japan are slowly returning indigenous ancestral remains. (A 2013 government report found that 11 Japanese universities held over 1,600 such remains.) [3]

This is not the first repatriation from abroad, either; in 2017, the Berliner Gesellschaft fur Anthropologie, Ethnologie und Urgeschichte returned an Ainu skull it deemed had been obtained through “ethically inexcusable” methods. A German tourist in Hokkaido had originally stolen the skull in 1879 “under cover of night,” in his own words. [4]

Making Up for Old Wrongs

While direct graverobbing has long since ceased, modern Ainu can still sometimes feel they’re placed under an uncomfortable level of academic and touristic scrutiny. Director Fukunaga Takeshi examines this theme in his recent film Ainu Mosir.

In 2007, the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples included a section obligating party states to work for the repatriation of Indigenous remains. In 2017, a Japanese cabinet decision further prioritized such repatriations to Ainu families and communities. Hopefully, the Ainu people will continue to be reunited with their ancestral remains, whether such are held in Japan or abroad.

To learn more about the Ainu people’s campaigns for the return of their ancestral remains, and the pain such plundering has caused, read our previous article on the subject. The said article can also be viewed in video form below.

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[1] Robertson, Jennifer. (2013). Politics and Pitfalls of Japan Ethnography: Reflexivity, Responsibility, and Anthropological Ethics. Routledge. P8

[2] 北海道 News Web. (05月06日). アイヌ民族の遺骨が返還 オーストラリアの博物館から. NKH.

[3] Scott, Simon. (Aug 12, 2013). Ainu fight for return of plundered ancestral remains. The Japan Times.

[4] Mainichi Japan. (July 20, 2017). Ainu remains to be repatriated from Germany in July 31 ceremony. The Mainichi.

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Noah Oskow

Serving as current UJ Editor-in-Chief, Noah Oskow is a professional Japanese translator and interpreter who holds a BA in East Asian Languages and Cultures. He has lived, studied, and worked in Japan for nearly seven years, including two years studying at Sophia University in Tokyo and four years teaching English on the JET Program in rural Fukushima Prefecture. His experiences with language learning and historical and cultural studies as well as his extensive experience in world travel have led to appearances at speaking events, popular podcasts, and in the mass media. Noah most recently completed his Master's Degree in Global Studies at the University of Vienna in Austria.

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