Ben Hills

Shigeru Kayano squints through the snowflakes settling on his eyelashes as he looks down towards the dam. “The Japanese are spitting at heaven,” he growls. A kilometre away, muffled by the snowstorm, orange-painted cranes swing against the winter sky and tip-trucks slush along frozen tracks as 2,000 years of Ainu history is slowly buried under 200,000 tonnes of concrete.

Soon there will be nothing left of the land where Kayano’s ancestors farmed their rice and millet down the generations, of the valley where they hunted bear and bob-tailed deer, the cemetery where they buried their dead and the secret place where they went to intercede with the fox god when he whispered that ill fortune was about to befall the village.

Ten centuries ago the Wajin – the invaders who now call themselves Japanese- defeated the indigenous Ainu tribes in a series of bloody battles, massacred their chieftains and drove the survivors into exile in the remote hinterland of the northern island of Hokkaido.

Now the Japanese have come with their bulldozers and their cheque books to take even that.

In three years the project will be complete, a wall of concrete the height of a 10-storey building will dam the wild Saru River where the Ainu have lived and hunted since time immemorial; their little hamlet of thatched huts, farmland and forest will be swallowed by a lake four-kilometres square.

One by one, burdened by unwise debt, the 50 families who once owned land here have reluctantly sold out to the Government. The money has now mostly gone, and the Ainu have drifted away from the village, or taken jobs as day labourers at the dam site.

Only Kayano is left to rail against the scheme – he has refused to accept the $150,000 offered for his single hectare of rice paddy. He is the last angry Ainu.

“Can’t we have one river in Hokkaido, maybe the Saru, where the salmon can spawn naturally, where crows and bears and foxes and owls – and Ainu – can be free and take the salmon to eat? How happy life would be,” he sighs.

But in his heart, Kayano knows that the dam cannot now be stopped … $650 million of government money has been sunk into it, and it is now 80 per cent complete. Nor has he much hope of halting the two more that will be built next in the higher reaches of the Saru.

The Government says the dams are needed for flood control, but Kayano knows better: they are to provide cheap power and water for the massive white elephant of an industrial estate down the road. And, he says, they are kickbacks for the politicians involved from a corrupt construction industry.

The dam on the Saru River is a microcosm of the way Japan is treating its original inhabitants in this, the United Nations’ International Year for the World’s Indigenous People.

“All over the world the pale people who invaded other people’s land are feeling guilty and signing treaties and giving at least something back,” says Kayano, “but not here – there is no action, not even much talking.”

A few weeks ago, the English-language version of Yomiuri Shimbun – the world’s biggest-selling newspaper – carried a massive report from The Los Angeles Times on the struggle for rights by indigenous people around the world.

It dealt with the land rights battle by the Yanomani Indians of the Amazon, Mapuche militants in Chile, the campaign to preserve indigenous languages in Guatemala and marches against Columbus Day in Bolivia.

But nowhere in the 5,000-word article was there any mention of the minorities in Japan’s own backyard, including the Ainu, the original Japanese.

“They are embarrassed that they took our land, so now they want to pretend we don’t exist,” says Kayano. Indeed. Japan’s Foreign Minister, Michio Watanabe, attempting to apologise for some earlier racist remarks about black Americans, declared at a press conference a year ago: “Japanese are a mono-ethnic people, so (we’ve) got to be more careful (when speaking, so as not to give offence).”

Although most Japanese will deny there is any racial discrimination here, the fact remains that even middle-class families hire private investigators to check on the ancestry of the prospective spouses of their children to make sure the bloodline is unsullied by any minority. Nearly half of all Ainu polled say they have experienced prejudice.

Five years ago, the Government’s Ainu Affairs Bureau – they do not have their own department, and in practice are looked after by the Hokkaido Development Agency – conducted the only reliable-ish survey of Ainu people.

It was found there were then fewer than 25,000 people left who claimed to be Ainu, about 0.2 per cent of the population, or proportionally only one-fifth as numerous as Australian Aborigines. Many are believed to have been missed – turning their backs on their culture and passing themselves off as Wajin in the big cities.

Because of an official policy of assimilation going back more than a century – and the Ainu custom of “marrying out” and adopting unwanted Wajin babies – none can claim to be full-blooded, and many do not have the double-eyelid fold, the luxuriant body hair and the Caucasian features of their ancestors.

Nibutani village, on the banks of the Saru River 20 kilometres from the ocean, is the last Ainu stronghold – most of its population of 550 is Ainu, and many of the older folk still remember the language.

This is where Shigeru Kayano was born, 69 years ago, in a wooden-floored thatched hut. It is now a rather gimcrack tourist town. Signs invite visitors to dress in Ainu robes for happy snaps – but the Ainu have lived hereabouts for millenia. Pottery shards dug up in the excavations for the dam date to the Jomon period, more than 300 years before the birth of Christ.

Kayano proudly displays a studio portrait of his blood ancestors, taken in 1911 – his grandfather, bearded and regal, is missing the finger he hacked off when he was a boy of 13 to escape from serfdom to the Wajin who had kidnapped him to work on a fishing boat.

His grandmother is tattooed around the mouth in the Ainu style. Both are wearing cloth made of the bark of elm trees, dyed in distinctive patterns. When he was a child, Shigeru was told yukar – epic poems, the Ainu having no written language – of the days before the Wajin came to the Saru valley, when salmon was the basic food.

In 1876, when his grandfather was a young man, the new Meiji government in Tokyo – afraid of Russian territorial ambitions – annexed Hokkaido, forced the Ainu to adopt Japanese names and language, and confiscated their lands.

In 1899 the Hokkaido Ainu Protection Act – the first of a series of paternalistic pieces of legislation which the Ainu have been trying to have repealed ever since – was passed. Two hectares of land per family was doled out (that is how Kayano’s family acquired its land) and special schools were established for the Ainu, in which “difficult” subjects like science, history and geography were not taught. Salmon fishing became illegal.

From there on, it’s been pretty much downhill.

Writing in the current edition of the tell-it-how-it-is Lonely Planet Guide to Hokkaido, Robert Strauss warns travellers: “Japanese tourists seem comfortable at seeing the Ainu culture debased by pseudo ‘Ainu villages’ with Disneyland surroundings and souvenir shops selling tacky carvings.

“The old Ainu festivals and shamanic rites are acted by listless, elderly Ainu. I found these tourist circuses intensely depressing – they are often combined with caged bears in zoos … symbolic of the freedom lost by the Ainu.”

Although, superficially, Nibutani today looks like a prosperous little village, the Government’s statistics paint quite a different picture of what goes on behind the stage show. It is a picture of deprivation that should bring shame to the managers of the world’s second richest economy.

The Ainu have five times the rate of eye disease and tuberculosis than the average in Hokkaido. Sixty per cent of them are on some sort of government benefit – three times the average.

“I didn’t think anything of this until I went overseas for the first time,”says Kayano, now something of an international celebrity, a delegate to the UN subcommittee on indigenous peoples, who has travelled abroad 19 times.

“When I went to Canada I saw that the Indians are allowed to catch fish to eat – if we do it, it is called poaching and we get arrested.

“In parts of China, where there is a Korean population, the road signs are in Korean – here no-one was interested in the Ainu language, it was dying, until I started a little school.”

Down the road at the council – the municipal emblem is, ironically, the lily of the valley – there is sympathy, but little else, for Shigeru Kayano’s last stand against the dam.

Two thousand of the 7,000 ratepayers in the area are Ainu, but they have not one representative on the council. The Mayor, Yoshiteru Nakamichi, says the council has been supporting the dam since it was first proposed more than 20 years ago.

“This is not an Ainu versus Wajin issue,” says Mr Nakamichi. “The Government has compensated these people for their land … sure, some Ainu culture has been lost, but the dam will stimulate the economy of the whole area.”

Kayano snorts with contempt when he hears this. “Just go take a look at this so-called development,” he says. “I call it ‘Nihon ichi dekkai akichi'(literally, the biggest empty land in Japan) I do.”

On a desolate, snow-covered stretch of marshland running down to the angry grey North Pacific, a “thirdsector company” acting for the Hokkaido Government, has bought 10,000 hectares of land.

For 20 years they have been trying to entice industry here. The only visible successes are five signs on a noticeboard, indicating petroleum tank-farms, a Suzuki car factory, and a power-generating station. The rest of the land is an empty monument to failed Tokyo central planning.

There is nothing else (bar the hotly disputed benefits of flood control) to show for the expenditure of $650 million of public money, and the destruction of Japan’s last Ainu habitat.

“I would like to think that (Prime Minister Kiichi) Miyazawa will do something this year to return our land, but it’s not going to happen,” says Kayano. “For (five) years now we have been asking for new legislation dealing with Ainu affairs – whenever Miyazawa is asked about it in the Diet he says: ‘There is a committee thinking about it’.”

While they think, the snow falls on the Saru River, and the Ainu culture is another 10 tonnes of concrete closer to extinction.

Publishing Info

Pub date: Saturday 13 March 1993
Edition: Late
Section: Spectrum
Sub section:
Page: 41
Word count: 1891
Keywords: Japan Ethnic groups
1. Shigeru Kayano … little hope
2. A statue of Shakushain, the Ainu Napoleon
3. Kayano’s grandparents and a cousin in 1911