Life Onboard LAST UPDATE  September 3, 2008
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August 18, 2008 'Cool, Proud and Active' – Mina Sakai
Mina Sakai performed Ainu traditional dance.
First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win. -Gandhi
Throughout history indigenous communities throughout the world have faced severe and often brutal cultural persecution and assimilation. Though some countries have taken concrete steps to recognize their original inhabitants, decades of destruction have left indigenous people all over the world with severe social, economic and psychological problems.
During each Peace Boat voyage, learning about the indigenous communities of the world is a vital part of the education program. Closer to home however, for most of the passengers on Peace Boat, are the Ainu - the indigenous people of Hokkaido, the Kuril Islands and Sakhalin.
Japan started assimilating the Ainu in the Meiji period (1868~), outlawing their language, forcing them to use Japanese names, redistributing their land to Japanese farmers and restricting their work options.
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Mina Sakai taught a group of passengers how to play the mukkuri, a traditional Ainu instrument.
On June 6, 2008, shortly before the G8 summit was held in northern Japan, a bi-partisan, non-binding resolution was approved by the Japanese Diet calling upon the government to recognize the Ainu people as indigenous to Japan and urge an end to discrimination against the group. Yet the country is yet to fulfill its obligations according to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, adopted on September 13, 2007.
To help passengers understand the plight of the Ainu, one of the community's most dynamic activists, Mina Sakai was invited onboard between Acapulco and Vancouver.
Ms Sakai is founder and leader of the Ainu Rebels, a group of young Ainu who have joined forces since 2006. Their goal is to help other Ainu to accept their identity, be proud of their rich ancestry and break the racial stereotypes that take their place in modern day Japan.
There are most likely over 150,000 Ainu today; however the exact figure is not known as many Ainu hide their origin in fear of discrimination. Many Ainu are not even aware of their ancestry, as parents and grandparents often keep their descent private in order to protect their children.
Though Ms Sakai's father was very active in promoting Ainu awareness, he died when she was five years old. Her mother, being Japanese, brought up her children void of any Ainu influence.
Raised in Obihiro, Hokkaido, a city where discrimination against Ainu people is still strong, Ms Sakai and her Ainu friends experienced racism from school teachers, shop keepers, employers and classmates. In comparison, Sapporo and Tokyo, which are frequented by tourists, are relatively more open minded and tolerant towards other cultures.
Ainu Rebels. Photo from
Over the years, many Ainu stopped acknowledging their identity in want of a life free of racism. Ms Sakai, now 26 years old, said that when growing up, she would only see her Ainu friends in the comfort of each other's house, while she would spend time in public spaces with her Japanese friends. Having Japanese friends and being an Ainu was not common, so she was an exception to the norm.
Her life changed when she went to Canada during high school to participate in discussions about indigenous communities. She was amazed to see indigenous youth, proudly and actively acknowledging their culture. They understood their language and sang and danced as their ancestors had done. She spoke of being shocked by a 16 year old boy sitting next to her, with a tattoo of his tribe on his shoulder, something she could not imagine any Ainu would do.
This experience made her realise the importance of recognizing her true identity and the beauty and value of the Ainu. She stopped being afraid of how she was seen in public and started to openly embrace her culture. As well as founding Ainu Rebels, she has participated in United Nations conferences, university and school forums, and was also one of the driving forces behind the Indigenous Peoples Summit in Ainu Mosir, held immediately before the G8 Summit in Hokkaido.

The members of Ainu Rebels are all from Hokkaido. Each one of them had been hiding their identity before joining the group. Now, all are proud to be an Ainu and are ardent campaigners for their cause. As well as practising traditional song and dance, they incorporate hip-hop and modern beats into their work, to draw in the younger generations. Their expressive fusion of ‘new’ and ‘old’ is energising the recognition of Ainu as an intrinsic part of modern Japan.
For the majority of the passengers on Peace Boat, Ms Sakai was the first Ainu they had met, as far as they were aware. It was also the first time they had to confront the reality of Japan's brutal treatment of its own citizens. Similar in age to most of the youth on board, Ms Sakai’s oppressive experiences growing up in Japan touched the hearts of many. However her zestful determination to help her community rose above those sentiments to inspire and humble all onboard.
Mina Sakai Profile
Founder of the Ainu Rebels, a group of Ainu in Tokyo that have come together to fight against the prejudice and discrimination common against the indigenous people of northern Japan. Through sharing stories and studying together, the group manages to promoting pride in Ainu culture, and reach out through their traditionally influenced music and dance. Ainu Rebels Homepage:
Also see: the Indigenous Peoples Summit: