Ancestral Ainu Remains Returned by Tokyo University

Ancestral Ainu Remains Returned by Tokyo University

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A long fight by Japan's indigenous Ainu results in a hard-won victory - but much more remains to be done.

Ainu Ancestral Remains Returned – An Indigenous Victory in Japan

A long fight by Japan’s indigenous Ainu results in a hard-won victory – but much more remains to be done. Video by Noah Oskow Our main site: www.unseenjapan….

An audio-visual version of this post is available on our YouTube channel.

Resting Once Again Amongst Their People

On August 22nd, a Kamuinomi – an Ainu ceremony meant to celebrate the return of spirts to the realm of the gods – was held in Urahoro, in eastern Hokkaido. The sacrament’s purpose was that of welcoming back six sets of indigenous remains, taken long ago by Japanese researchers based out of the famed Tokyo University. The researchers first removed the Ainu remains from their gravesites in 1889, in the early Meiji Era; later, others returned in 1965, in the post-war era, for more.

The group receiving the ancestral remains was the Raporo Ainu Nation, the local Urahoro indigenous organization. For them, it was a day of quiet celebration – the culmination of a series of victories in their quest to reclaim stolen Ainu remains.

Raporo Ainu Nation had previously brought court cases against Hokkaido and Sapporo Medical Universities, both of which housed innumerable Ainu skeletons; all have now been returned to their homelands. Tokyo University, despite earlier protestations, was now also acquiescing to similar demands.

Six wooden boxes were laid out in front of a large freshly dug grave. Besides the waiting earth sat the Ainu delegation, bedecked in traditional clothing. They chanted in the Ainu tongue – one unrelated to the Japanese language which otherwise surrounded them. (Unlike the languages of the native Ryukuans, Ainu is not a Japonic language.) Libations of sake were offered to the kamuy, the spirits. Then, the remains were finally reinterred in the land from which they had so long ago been taken.

The Abduction of their Ancestors

The impetus for the veritable grave plundering of Ainu bones was ostensibly scientific: the desire by Japanese researchers to learn more about the physical and, later, genetic make-up of the indigenous ethnic minorities native to Japan’s northern borders. Indeed, at the time of the first unearthing, Hokkaido (and the native Ainu people along with them) had only recently been fully incorporated into Japan.

Previous to the Meiji Restoration in 1868, Hokkaido wasn’t even “Hokkaido;” rather, it was Ezo, a frontier borderland peopled by those the Japanese considered “barbarians.” A relatively small Japanese settler colony ruled by the Matsumae clan existed on the southern tip of Oshima Penninsula, which regulated trade with the Ainu and oversaw Japanese financial control of the island.

Sadly, this led to the entire field of Ainu Studies being essentially founded on grave robbery. Click To Tweet

Previous to Japanese encroachment and eventual control, the Ainu people lived in villages scattered across Ezo, Sakhalin Island, and the Kurils. While they had a hunter-gatherer lifestyle that appeared uncivilized to the Japanese, Ainu society was in fact more complex than most interlopers perceived.

Beyond their advanced hunting and fishing techniques, the Ainu were also part of a diverse and expansive trade network that stretched from Hokkaido in the south, to Kamchatka in the far north. Ainu traders rode in dugout canoes to the Asian mainland, where they traded with the indigenous peoples of the Amur river basin. Sakhalin Ainu even made war with the Mongol-controlled Yuan dynasty of China, and later engaged in tributary trading with the Ming and Yuan dynasties.

High-quality silk brocades given to Ainu chieftains by the Chinese became prized goods for trade with encroaching Japanese from the south. It was access to these Chinese goods and Ainu-hunted pelts, furs, painted Sakhalin beads, and live falcons that made Japanese samurai desirous towards control of Ainu trade. Japanese trading pressure; exploitative and often coerced use of Ainu labor in Japanese fisheries; the ravages of newly introduced diseases; all these brought irreparable damage to the Ainu environment and society.

The Myth of a Naturally Doomed People

In 1889, in the midst of Japan’s headlong rush towards modernity, the Japanese government passed the Hokkaido Former Aborigines Protection Act. The Ainu were now officially considered Japanese. In practice, this meant they were subject to forced cultural assimilation that further disrupted their society and lead, ironically, to mass discrimination.

The Ainu’s were now a periphery people scheduled to be made “Japanese,” their “aboriginal” status to be forgotten as quickly as possible. In light of the notion that the Ainu were now a “disappearing tribe,” Japanese researchers became intent on taking as many artifacts of the Ainu’s material culture as possible before the earth swallowed them up. This is part of what resulted in the initial untombing of the Ainu remains just recently returned by Tokyo University.

In these inaugural years of the field of ‘Ainu Studies” (アイヌ学), previously held ideas about Ainu “barbarians” were melded with the emerging scientific field of evolution, leading Japanese researchers to make various claims about Ainu inferiority to “more evolved” Japanese society. Researchers, although often empathetic towards the plight of the impoverished Ainu, believed the only way to “save” the object of their research was to assimilate them out of existence. As Ainu ties to their craft traditions waned and the people themselves were assumed to be on the brink of annihilation, researchers felt the need to collect and document as much as possible.

A Dark Legacy for Ainu Studies

The Hokkaido Museum of Northern Peoples (Hoppo Minzoku Hakubutsukan) exhibits about the culture of Ainu native people and other northern peoples of the world.
Picture: Shutterstock

Sadly, this led to the entire field of Ainu Studies being essentially founded on grave robbery. In both 1864 and 1865, mere years before the fall of the Tokugawa dynasty, the British consul in Hakodate led a group of foreigners interested in uncovering the mystery of the Ainu’s “Caucasian” features to secretly raid Ainu gravesites. When the story broke, it became a major scandal (even resulting in the firing of the consul).

Yet subsequent Japanese researchers continued to seek out Ainu bones for well over a century. Sometimes this was done with the understanding of local Ainu. (As often happened with Ainu crafts, money was possibly exchanged). Other times, however, researchers hoping to learn more about this “disappearing tribe” engaged in acts that very much resembled the previous British consul’s.

Ancestors Unearthed

Most infamous of the grave robbers was Hokkaido University Professor Kodama Sakuzaemon, who lead various state-sanctioned raids into local boneyards throughout the 1920s to 1970s – all against Ainu protests. Sometimes police were called in to help hold off Ainu from physically preventing the unearthing of their ancestors. As is recalled in the book Beyond Ainu Studies, a 1930’s bone-collecting expedition resulted in…

…the entire village police force [being] enlisted to assist Kodama’s team and when three or four elderwomen threw their bodies over their ancestors’ grave sites they were unceremoniously removed by attending officers.

The end result of decades of university researchers stealing thousands of ancestral remains was an Ainu populace who often distrusted and felt anger towards those Japanese academics and scientists who, ostensibly, wanted to understand the Ainu. Especially egregious to the Ainu was the fact that, within their tradition, bodies are to buried whole in order to maintain a tie to the spirit.

Painful Memories

Our land, Ainu Mosir, had been invaded, our language stripped, our ancestral remains robbed…. At this rate, what would happen to the Ainu people? Click To Tweet

For Kayano Shigeru (萱野 茂, 1926 – 2006), the first Ainu in Japanese parliament and a major voice for indigenous rights, the spiriting away of Ainu skeletons and artifacts by mainland researchers was a source of much shame. In his famous memoir, Our Land Was A Forest, Kayano recalled returning home to find treasured artifacts missing; his impoverished father had sold them away to researchers.

In those days I despised scholars of Ainu culture from the bottom of my heart. They used to visit my father for his extensive knowledge of the Ainu. I often railed at them and, accusing them of behavior as rude as that of waking a sleeping child, ordered them never to return. Professor K. [likely Kodama] of Hokkaido University was one at whom I snarled many times… They dug up our sacred tombs and carried away ancestral bones. Under the pretext of research, they took blood from villagers and, in order to examine how hairy we were, rolled up our sleeves, then lowered our collars to check our backs…

It was this same anger and desire to recover the Ainu culture that lead Kayano to become such a major voice in the question for indigenous rights in Japan.

Seeing such self-centered conduct by shamo [Japanese] scholars, I asked myself whether matters should be left as they were: Our land, Ainu Mosir, had been invaded, our language stripped, our ancestral remains robbed, the blood of living Ainu taken, and even our few remaining utensils carried away. At this rate, what would happen to the Ainu people? What would happen to Ainu culture? From that moment on, I vowed to take them back.

The Fight to Reclaim the Ancestors

It was with the same spirit of cultural recovery that Ainu groups from around Hokkaido have set out to gain the return of their ancestor’s remains. In 2008, after centuries of denial and erasure, the Japanese government suddenly announced that the Ainu were to be legally considered the indigenous people of the north. Although by this point there remained only around 25,000 self-declared Ainu with only a few elderly native speakers still living, this signaled a huge victory for Ainu rights. In 2013, the Ainu council of Kineusu used their new indigenous status as a basis for suing Hokkaido University for the return of uninterred Ainu bones.

More lawsuits followed. Slowly, the ancestral remains and funerary artifacts sitting in collections and in storage across universities in Japan began to be returned. Hokkaido University, home to more Ainu remains than any other facility in Japan, played a major role in these skeletal repatriations. In July, Hokkaido opened the Symbolic Space for Ethnic Harmony – a “national center for the revival and development of Ainu culture.” The center is to host the National Ainu Museum and National Ainu Park. Importantly, it also has a space to carefully store Ainu remains. Still, the Symbolic Space itself has become controversial with Ainu, with some hoping for the return of remains more directly to Ainu communities.

The Way Forward

Ainu Museum

The return of the ancestral remains by Tokyo University on Saturday comes amidst an interesting time for the Ainu community. Recognition of the Ainu and their culture is one the rise worldwide, they finally have recognition by the Japanese government, and cultural revival movements are gaining steam. Young Ainu are engaged in reconnecting with their heritage, learning their language, and sharing their culture with others. Hokkaido schools will soon have textbooks that make multiple references to Ainu history. The field of Ainu Studies has evolved, now placing more primacy on the perceptions of the Ainu themselves and welcoming more Ainu scholars.

Yet still, Ainu face discrimination and erasure. A national survey from only four years ago revealed that a huge 74% of Japanese people had never been exposed to Ainu culture or people. The now-delayed 2020 Tokyo Olympics suddenly axed an Ainu ceremony planned for the opening ceremonies. Progress is being made, but it’s not always enough.

Yet, on Saturday, as the burial of six sets of remains in Urahoro marked the complete return of a total of 103 such Ainu once held at Tokyo University, Raporo Ainu Nation honorary president Masaki Sashima found himself becoming emotional.


I’m overcome with feeling having reached this moment. I prayed to the remains of the deceased, saying, “I’m greatly sorry for having made you wait so long. Please rest in peace.”

The earth of the Ainu Moshir, the Ainu homeland, once again embraced the ancestral remains, welcoming them home.


(08月22日). 東大返還アイヌの人の遺骨を埋葬. NHK News Web.

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

Hudson, M.J., Lewallen, A., & Watson, M.K. (2014). Beyond Ainu StudiesChanging Academic and Public Perspectives. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press.

Walker, B. (2001). The Conquest of Ainu Lands: Ecology and Culture in Japanese Expansion,1590-1800. University of California Press.

Kimura, K. (2015, July 25). Japan’s indigenous Ainu sue to bring their ancestors’ bones back home. The Japan Times.

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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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