Australia to Return Remains of Japan’s Indigenous Ainu People

In the early 20th century, an anthropologist excavated the remains and sent them overseas

Ainu people wearing traditional clothes at the Ainu Museum, City of Shiraoi, Hokkaido, Japan. Wikimedia/CC BY-SA 3.0

In the early 20th century, Japanese anthropologists flocked to the northern island of Hokkaidō to study the indigenous Ainu people. Researchers excavated Ainu burial sites and shipped several sets of Ainu skeletal remains to scholars overseas—reportedly without permission from the families of the deceased. 

Today, the Ainu people are locked in a bitter fight for the return of these plundered remains, and advocates recently made a significant step forward in their mission. As the Japan Times reports, Australian museums have agreed to send three Ainu skulls back to Hokkaidō.

Australia’s ambassador to Japan, Richard Court, is negotiating the repatriation with Japanese officials, in consultation with representatives of the Ainu Association of Hokkaidō. Once talks have concluded, Australia will become the first country outside of Japan to return Aino remains. 

“We will work on this project carefully to leave no grievances by gaining consent from the parties involved and considering historic and current circumstances,” said Kazushi Abe, vice executive director of the Ainu Association of Hokkaidō, according to Fumiko Yoshigaki of the Asahi Shimbun.

The skulls are currently being held at different institutions, among them the National Museum of Australia in Canberra. Investigations by both Australia and Japan suggest that the remains were shipped abroad by the anthropologist Yoshikiyo Koganei between 1911 and 1936—a time of intense, complicated interest in the Ainu people and their connection to Japan’s history.

According to the Ainu Museum, Ainu Culture first emerged on Hokkaidō and other adjacent territories in approximately 1400, possibly growing out of the earlier Satsumon Culture. They spoke their own language and revered the natural world, with the focal point of their worship centering upon a god of fire.

By the mid-15th century, the people of mainland Japan had started to extend their influence to the southern part of Hokkaidō. Over the next three centuries, the Ainu fought three major battles with the Japanese, in the hopes of maintaining their sovereignty. But the Ainu lost every time.

In the late 19th century, after Japan had been established as a modern nation state, Ainu people living outside of Hokkaidō were forced to relocate to the island, according to a paper in Current Anthropology by Morris Low, associate professor of Japanese history at the University of Queensland. The Ainu were required to forfeit traditional hunting practices, take up farming, and adopt Japanese names. In 1899, the Japanese government passed the Hokkaidō Aborigine Protection Act, which sought to help the Ainu engage with agricultural practices, according to the Ainu Museum. But the Act labeled the Ainu as “former aborigines,” thereby legally designating them as an assimilated group.  

Around this time, Japanese scholars began to take a keen interest in the origins of the country’s people. The Ainu became a focal point of their research; as Low explains, “[a] central debate has been whether or not the Ainu are living vestiges of the Neolithic Jōmon people, the earliest Japanese.” Researchers visited Ainu villages to take blood samples, sift through cultural artifacts, and excavate Ainu remains.

Yoshikiyo Koganei, the anthropologist who reportedly sent the three skulls to institutions in Australia, asserted that the Ainu shared features with early Jōmon skeletal remains. According to Low, Koganei and his contemporaries “helped construct an image of the Ainu as a primitive race that was considered racially immature.”

Decades have passed, but the Ainu are still marginalized in Japan. As the Japan Times points out, their identity as a distinct, indigenous people flies in the face of the common belief that Japan is ethnically homogenous. The Japanese government did not recognize the Ainu as a native group, with a unique culture and language, until 2008, Dean Irvine reports for CNN.

It is impossible to undo the wrongs that have been perpetrated against the Ainu, but efforts to return ancestral remains (recently, a Japanese university also agreed to return remains it had exhumed in the 1930s following a court-mediated settlement) is a positive step.

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