Review: “Ainu Mosir” Paints Reality of Japan’s Northern Indigenous People

Review: “Ainu Mosir” Paints Reality of Japan’s Northern Indigenous People

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Ainu Mosir on Netflix
Picture: AINU MOSIR trailer
A film currently streaming on Netflix provides a sensitive and nuanced introduction to the modern lives of the Ainu people.

There are many telling scenes in Fukunaga Takeshi’s recently-released second film, Ainu Mosir.

The film takes place in Akanko Ainu Kotan, a village dedicated to tourism related to the Ainu, the local indigenous people of Japan’s northern island, Hokkaido. In one such scene, Emi, the mother of main character Kanto and an Ainu herself, is working in her souvenir shop. The film has been cutting back and forth between various scenes set at this store, with Japanese and foreign tourists entering and looking at local Ainu woodcuttings and other craftworks. Emi is working the register and has been gamely fielding questions from tourists.

One comment, however, seems to catch her – and the viewer – momentarily off guard.

Overhearing a quick discussion between Emi and her son, a customer speaks up: 「日本語上手ですね。」”Your Japanese is so good.”

The single line is enough to engage a cringe reaction from anyone who’s ever visited Japan and spoken Japanese. It’s the sentence heard time and again by second-language speakers of Japanese, no matter the skill level. But while the statement can smack of condescension for foreign-language speakers, it’s infinitely worse when directed at an Ainu.

Emi can, of course, speak Japanese. She, like most Ainu, was born and raised almost entirely within a Japanese environment. The Ainu language has perhaps a few remaining native speakers, all elderly. The film even makes a point of showing Emi and other local adults engaged in an Ainu language class. Ainu may be the language of her people, but for Emi and the vast majority of Ainu, Japanese is their native tongue.

For the tourist, however, the Ainu are merely a curiosity; a people she likely knows next to nothing about, and whom she assumes are still foreign enough that Japanese would remain unintelligible. This reflects the reality of majority Japanese perceptions of the Ainu: an uncivilized, “disappearing tribe” (滅びゆく民族) – not as fellow citizens or as normal people.

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(This, of course, is if the Japanese person in question even knows anything about the indigenous people of their North. A national survey from 2016 revealed that a disproportionate 74% of the Japanese population had never even been exposed to Ainu culture or people.)

Ainu Mosir (a term referring to the lands of the Ainu people, which once consisted of all of Hokkaido, the Kuril Islands, and southern Sakhalin) contains many such moments where the modern reality of the Ainu people and their attempts to maintain their culture run up against the need to commodify said culture, as well as the exoticized gaze projected on them by the very tourists they rely upon.  The result is a story, gently told, which displays the conflicted experience of the Ainu – one which many minorities in countries the world over may be able to empathize with.

Cultural Self-Discovery

This single line – 日本語上手ですね – is enough to engage a cringe reaction from anyone who's ever visited Japan and spoken Japanese. Share on X

The story in question centers around Kanto, a middle school-aged Ainu living near Lake Akan. Kanto’s father, a craftsman devoted to his own Ainu culture, has recently passed away. Constantly surrounded by the cultural artifacts that set him apart from the wider Japanese society around him – which cause him to be an eternal “other” in the eyes of a famously homogenous society, and which invariably remind him of his father – Kanto wishes to get away from it all.

That is, until family friend and local activist Debo takes him under his wing. Debo and Kanto venture into the forest, where the older man introduces him to Ainu rituals and folklore. Debo also introduces Kanto to a bear cub he’s been raising, and entrusts the young boy with caring for the animal. What he doesn’t mention is why he has the bear to begin with: Debo wishes to conduct the first Iyomante (bear-sending) ceremony to be held in Japan in decades.

This famed ceremony was once one of the most important events in the Ainu ritual calendar, but was pressured out of existence by the Japanese government. As the ceremony involved the ritual sacrifice of the bear, it was considered, like so much of Ainu culture, “uncivilized”.

When Cultural Hearth and Tourist Trap Meet

As a film, Ainu Mosir is admirable in both its specificity to the Ainu, as well as its universal components. The base story, about Kanto dealing with his father’s passing, growing up, and coming to accept who he is, can be seen in many a similar film. What sets Ainu Mosir apart, however, is the attention to the specifics of the Ainu experience.

Hokkaido was once entirely the domain of the Ainu, who lived in small communities (kotan) and engaged in hunting, fishing, and small amounts of agriculture. They were also involved in a trade network reaching as far as Kamchatka to the north and Beijing to the west. Centuries of Japanese encroachment, colonization, and assimilation campaigns, however, have made the modern Ainu a stark minority in their own land. Official tallies show a total Ainu population of around 25,000, compared to an overall population of Hokkaido which sits at over 5 million. Only one district on the whole island has a majority Ainu population – Nibutani, to the south, which remains over 80% Ainu. At the sub-prefectural level, Kushiro, where the film takes place, has a fairly high Ainu population, at nearly 8%.

The Colonization of Hokkaido

How a mysterious frontier island peopled by “barbarians” became one of the four main islands of Japan – and how the original inhabitants suffered as a result…

To learn more about the history of the Ainu people, watch our video on the colonization of Hokkaido.

The complete subsumption of Ainu lands to the Japanese majority and the discrimination and oppression that came with it caused many Ainu to seek to disappear into the larger Japanese milieu. For those that remained, the Japanese curiosity towards the Ainu led to the construction from the 1960s of “traditional” Ainu villages in parts of Hokkaido to service tourists. (These “kotan” were necessitated by the eventual decline of real Ainu villages, which Japanese and foreign visitors to Hokkaido had regularly toured in the 19th and early 20th centuries.) Ainu, often impoverished as the result of earlier Japanese policies, could make comparatively good money working a season at such tourist sites. They would recreate Ainu ceremonies and dances, not for their own purposes, but to satiate the desire of outsiders to witness the exotic.

Though providing much-needed supplemental income, taking part in these displays was often an embarrassing experience for the Ainu. Kayano Shigeru, famed Ainu activist and first indigenous member of Japanese parliament, looked back on his time working in these villages with a good deal of ire. However, participation in these less-than-authentic recreations did inspire Kayano to find a more meaningful path towards protecting his culture for the future. It also helped him to decide to go into business making Ainu handicrafts and giving performances himself, assisted by other Ainu – rather than doing so at the behest of Shamo (ethnic Japanese) managers (or, as he might consider them, profiteers).

On Display

Ainu have always had to contend with such contradictory pushes and pulls, whether they be prodding Japanese academics taking hair samples or spiriting away their ancestral remains, or commodification of their native culture. Becoming involved in assisting with ethnographies or selling their culture to the curious were often necessary for everyday survival, but held a deep spiritual cost. As scholar Tessa Morris-Suzuki has put it, “the preservation and presentation of culture have been deeply contested, divisive, and problematic issues for Ainu society.”

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Watch our video on the recent success Ainu activists have had in suing for the return of ancestral remains.

The degree to which being turned into a tourist commodity disturbed some Ainu is articulated very well in the following 1931 quote from Hagiwara Mojiki, a leader of the Ainu community in Motobetsu:

“’Do you think that in Tokyo it’s considered good manners to open people’s windows and stare in at them without saying a word?’” A question like this speaks volumes about the attitude towards us Utari [Ainu] exhibited by the Wajin [ethnic Japanese] who visit Hokkaido, particularly in the summer months. They are so curious to see our houses that they lean in at the windows and roll up the blinds and point silently at the interior, without uttering a word of greeting. They just observe us with exactly the same attitude that they would have if they were looking at animals in a zoo.”

The 1960s onwards, however, have seen the increasing assumption of control over Ainu cultural tourism by the Ainu themselves. This movement was led in part by Kayano, who established the Nibutani Museum of Ainu Cultural Resources in 1972. In many cases, it is now individual Ainu and cultural counsels that dictate how their culture is presented to tourists. Nonetheless, there are still many Ainu who chafe at cultural objectification, even if their own brethren manage the modes of display.

Avoiding Objectification

Thankfully, these issues and more are presented with a good deal of tact by Ainu Mosir. Director Fukunaga is himself a Hokkaido native (although not an Ainu). Almost all the characters in the film are portrayed by Ainu non-actors from the actual Akanko Ainu Kotan. (This follows a trend set by Fukunaga’s first film, Out of My Hand (2015), where the principal Liberian immigrant characters are played by actual Liberian immigrants.) Most characters simply maintain the names of those who portray them. For example, Debo, village activist and mentor to Kanto, is played by Akibe Debo, who also provided cultural consultation.

This reflects the reality of majority Japanese perceptions of the Ainu: an uncivilized, "disappearing tribe" (滅びゆく民族) – not as fellow citizens or as normal people. Share on X

Scene by scene, we are introduced to the daily life of our Ainu principles. Kanto goes to school (where posters bearing Ainu sayings are posted to the walls). He plays in a garage band with fellow Ainu children. His mother, Emi, works in her souvenir store and fields questions from tourists. Debo participates in the local council, where they debate over the correct direction for the Kotan, trying to balance the maintenance of their culture with the needs of the tourism industry and the perception of the outside world.

Band of Local Ainu

One scene of Kanto’s band practice, in particular, spoke to me. Kanto, his interest in his own culture recently awakened thanks to time spent with Debo, is intrigued when another member of the band suggests they start using Ainu instruments. (The specific idea develops after the friends attend a concert put on by the real-life internationally famed Oki Ainu Dub Band – Oki himself makes a cameo in the film.)

A low-key but wide-ranging debate follows amongst the band members. One reminds the group that he doesn’t even know how to play the traditional tonkori. Another is particularly resistant to the idea. “Do we have to do Ainu stuff in the band too?” Kanto responds that, since they’re Ainu, whatever they do is Ainu. (This surprisingly deep remark resembles that of Ainu activist Tahara Ryoko, who said that “Ainu culture is not limited to language or ceremonies or dance. It is Ainu life itself. Whatever happens every day within the household is Ainu culture.”) His friend remains unconvinced – “We don’t have to advertise it.”

As someone who grew up in a minority culture in the United States, the various feelings expressed by these young characters resonated quite strongly. My entire youth, I was ensconced in the Minneapolis Jewish community. Like Kanto and his life in the Ainu bubble, I went to Jewish elementary and middle school, attended Jewish summer camps, had supplementary language and religious courses, studied for my Bar Mitzvah, and went to innumerable Jewish cultural celebrations. I experienced firsthand the mixed feelings of pride in my specific culture and the pressures from the wider, mostly Christianized American culture that surrounded us. At times, I too wished to disappear into the homogenized American milieu or to present as less purposefully Jewish. Like Kanto, however, I slowly learned just how important maintaining my personal identity was in the face of assimilation.

Personal and Cultural Evolution

The film continues to present these sorts of real-life, understated quandaries. Debo is visited by a Shamo reporter looking for his next Ainu-related story; Debo, while friendly, is resistant to informing the reporter (played by mainstream star Lily Franky) about his planned Iyomante ceremony. He wishes to perform the intimate ceremony for his own people, not as an object of curiosity for Japan at large. Another scene shows an academic convincing a reticent elderly Ainu woman to perform a traditional song she remembers from her youth, echoing the experience of so many Ainu as subject to the gaze of academic research.

Despite the numerous examples of the everyday trials of Ainu life in Hokkaido, the movie still maintains its straightforward story of family life and personal growth. While the narrative is never particularly exciting, it is engaging and meaningful. The film makes little use of incidental music (instead focusing on moments of pointed use of diegetic music, where Ainu sounds in Kanto’s daily life provide our soundtrack). The camera is mostly positioned in such a way as to resemble a well-produced documentary. Certain moments, however, linger on scenes of nature, engaging in pillow shots which bring home the environment of Hokkaido itself – the very Ainu Mosir of the title.

In the end, the film works well as a narrative, and even better as an introduction to what it can mean to be Ainu – or, indeed, a minority in general – in an otherwise homogenized world. For those interested in Ainu, indigeneity, or indeed Japan itself, Ainu Mosir is highly recommended viewing.

Ainu Mosir is currently streaming on Netflix in most English-speaking regions. As of this writing, it is being shown in theaters in Japan, after which it will become available on Japanese streaming services.

Sources

Morris-Suzuki, T. (2013). Tourists, Anthropologists, and Visions of Indigenous Society in Japan: Changing Academic and Public Perspectives. In Beyond Ainu StudiesChanging Academic and Public Perspectives. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press. 45-66

Kayano, S. (1994). Our Land Was A Forest: An Ainu Memoir. Routledge.

Official Website of Fukunaga Takeshi.

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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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