Borders, as they stand now, present a paradox: we know that they only exist but for our respect of and belief in them. On one side of a given border, residents may live freely, marry the person of their choosing, dress how they like, and criticize their government. On the other side, because of laws or social pressure, maybe they can’t. Not only do the lines on the map not truly represent the people living beneath their power, but they become a tool formed to the will of the mapmaker — showing only what they want to show. A map of modern Africa compared to to Murdock’s 1959 tribal map, reinforces this idea that we draw the lines based on what we believe to be the truth.
Perhaps an island nation seems more immune to this: after all, the borders of land and sea tend to be more clearly distinguishable. But even Japan, a fairly homogenous country, has managed to draw the lines where it suits them. This works fine for most visitors to the country, who see Japanese culture as a single harmonious story developed over many centuries and represented by the current culture and customs unique to Japan. This description excludes foreign influence and swallows up Japan’s largest remaining group of indigenous peoples, the Ainu.
The Ainu descended from migrating tribes in northern China and Mongolia, who made their way to Hokkaido and remained there, fishing in the waters off northern Honshu. In the fourteenth century, while the Jomun people of southern Japan were developing artistically and building temples that would one day become major symbols of Japanese culture, the Ainu were trapping wild game and whaling with techniques brought over from central Asia and passed down through generations. Remainders of grain, pottery, and other tools have been discovered at sites in the Hokkaido region where the Ainu once lived, evidence of the transition made there from a hunter-gatherer society to a settled agricultural one. The indigenous cuisine was quite different from that of Southern Japan: rich stews and recipes for cured and roasted meat, which was never eaten raw.
The Ainu had a strong relationship with the land and the sea. They were skilled hunters who also held strong animist beliefs, like those of Dersu the Trapper. V.K. Arseniev’s 1923 travelogue follows the eponymous and mysterious savior, exploring the borderlands of Russia and Mongolia, territory that the Ainu would have covered many centuries before. They introduced whaling to the larger Japanese culture, and had great respect for and felt a spiritual connection with the animals. Some ancient craft making survive today, most using bone and animal fur, as was traditional in ancient times, and traditional style garments can still be found in Hokkaido. Though they had no written language, the Ainu were masters of epic storytelling, the art of which they called yukar.
After centuries of conflict with the growing population in southern Japan, the remaining Ainu struck an uneasy accord and trade agreement with the Japanese government in the 1600s. Despite this stalemate, the Ainu’s stronger and more advanced neighbors encroached on their territories and traditions. The Ainu became dependent on outside goods as their population succumbed to newly introduced diseases, such as smallpox, and they lost much of their tribe to conflict, capture, and slavery. With the beginning of the Meiji era in 1868, the Ainu were officially declared an “inferior” race by the government, who banned the use of their language, outlawed traditional hunting practices, and claimed Hokkaido (Ezo in Ainu) as a part of Japan.
As a nation, though, Japan is taking a renewed interest in this long-suppressed ethnic group. There are currently between 25,000 and 200,000 ethnic Ainu estimated to be left in Japan, with fewer than 100 known speakers of the language remaining. A representative of the Ainu garnered much attention in Japan for her comments at the 2014 UN World Conference of Indigenous People’s conference, appearing alongside a representative of the Ryukyuan, the indigenous peoples of Okinawa. Though in a small way, Ainu culture has crept into modern-day life. In Sapporo and in Tokyo, restaurants run by ethnic Ainu or serving traditional Ainu dishes are reintroducing the Japanese to a part of their country’s culture long ignored.