A host at the Ureppachise cultural center plays a song on the mukkuri, a traditional Ainu instrument.

From the Ship

Another Side of Home: Yuki Koji and an Ainu Cultural Exchange in Kushiro

Aug 21, 2018

Japan is often mistakenly cited, by both foreigners and nationals alike, as an example of a monocultural country. This not only neglects the experiences of the many Japanese people with mixed heritage, but also the experiences of ethnic minorities indigenous to Japan, such as the Ainu people of the northern part of the country. The Ainu people have a distinct culture, religion, language and historical trajectory, and have historically suffered great marginalization due to the idea that they are not "Japanese". The Meiji government banned the Ainu language as well as some of their traditions and annexed much of their land. Successive governments continued the policy of trying to disenfranchise and assimilate the Ainu population. The Japanese government didn't officially recognize them as an indigenous group and accept historical responsibility for their mistreatment until 2008.

It is difficult to estimate the number of Ainu people in Japan. The Japanese government estimates the population to be 25,000, but there are likely many people who do not know that they have Ainu heritage, because of the way Ainu people were forced to assimilate into the Japanese population over the past 150 years. Others who use a broader definition of "Ainu" have estimated the Ainu population to be as high as 200,000. The Ainu and Japanese languages aren't related, and in fact, Ainu is an isolated language - meaning there are no known historical or linguistic connections between it and any other. There is also a small Ainu population in Russia, so nearly all Ainu speak either Japanese or Russian; as the Ainu language has no original alphabet, it is typically written in Japanese katakana characters or Cyrillic.

The 98th voyage of Peace Boat was fortunate enough to host an Ainu guest educator, Yuki Koji, who boarded the ship in Seattle. Yuki was born in Kushiro, Hokkaido, and generally had negative feelings about his heritage for much of his childhood and adolescence. He says that because his culture was looked down upon, he looked down on it as well, and it wasn't until he was older that he began to realize how important and precious it was, and value, in particular, its deep connections to nature. He now uses music, oral storytelling, video, printmaking, lectures and exhibitions to educate others about Ainu culture and traditions. In addition to musical performances onboard Peace Boat, he led workshops where participants carved linoleum cuts of traditional Ainu designs to make their own prints.

After three and half months of traveling, the Ocean Dream finally returned to Japan on August 19. Before completing its journey in Yokohama and Kobe, the ship called to the northern port of Kushiro, where a Peace Boat study programme set out for a day at "Ureppachise", an Ainu cultural center. Upon arriving to the center, the tour was greeted by a group of Ainu hosts dressed in traditional clothes, who soon began performing a traditional song and dance, which came to include music on the mukkuri, a traditional Ainu instrument made from bamboo and played by pulling a string against tong that vibrates in the player's mouth. After watching a short documentary about Ainu practices and traditions, participants were able to try on traditional Ainu clothing, and take part in group style dance around an apeso, a special kind of fireplace used in ceremonies and religious practices.

The group then had the opportunity to learn and practice some Ainu words, and there was much marvel at how starkly different the language is from Japanese. "Thank you very much", for example, is 'arigatou gozaimasu' in Japanese, but 'Iyayraykere' in Ainu. Participants then each received their own mukkuri, and though it is a challenging instrument to get used to, were guided by their helpful hosts as teachers. Finally, after enjoying a meal that included favourites like salmon prepared in the local style, the tour group gifted the Ureppachise cultural center with a Peace Boat plaque to show their appreciation for the special day and the new experiences gained.