Posts Tagged ‘ceremonies’

Food Rights of the Ainu People of Japan

April 14, 2015

The Ainu are an ancient people, populating the islands of the Sea of Okhotsk including Sakhalin, Ezo (later known in Japanese as Hokkaido), the Kuril Islands and the southern end of Kamchatka. For centuries they lived as hunter-fisher-gatherers who also practiced small scale agriculture. When the earliest Japanese, descendants of Chinese and Koreans, immigrated to the islands now known as Japan, their feudal society stayed for the most part in the southern islands, avoiding Ezo. This avoidance allowed the Ainu to live essentially in peace, continuing their customs and culture uninterrupted. Relations deteriorated under the Tokugawa Shogunate as the Japanese moved onto Ezo. The Ainu were forced to pay exorbitant tributes and made into second class citizens. In 1799, after the Ainu rebellions in the Kuril Islands, the shogun instituted an assimilation policy for the Ainu which was drastically accelerated in the 19th century during the Meiji era. Under such conditions Ainu hunting and fishing were severely curtailed as well as their language and religion, and they were driven to the brink of extinction. Today, thanks to interventionist efforts, the Ainu people and culture are experiencing a renaissance.

The earliest record of the Ainu dates back to the 14th century, a.d. Mitochondrial DNA evidence supports the theory that the Ainu descended from the Okhotsk and Satsumon cultures as early as the 13th century. (Sato) Some Ainu believe they originally came from the region of the Saru River on Ezo. (Shigeru)

As hunter-fisher-gatherers, the Ainu’s subsisted on a diet primarily of venison, bear and salmon with wild fruits and berries, millet, wild onions, wild potatoes and other plants. These items were found in abundance in the islands. “Whenever the Ainu needed meat they would enter the woods with bows and arrows and hunted as many deer as they desired.” (Shigeru) The traditional practices of Ainu hunting were honed by centuries of working with the land and observing the results. The Ainu called salmon “shipe” from the original phrase “shi-e-pe” which translates into “the real thing we eat”, meaning “our staple food”. Harvesting only what was needed at the time, “they ate only the ‘interest’ on the returning fish, so there was never a worry about the ‘capital’ or main stock of fish disappearing.” (Kayano, 23)

They had a spiritual connection to the land and the harvest. All animals and plants were considered sacred, although some more than others. In order to appease the spirit gods, hunters offered prayers before the hunt and after the kill. Religious and cultural ceremonies centered on the meat and fish. In one such ceremony, the first salmon of the season was placed upon a wooden cutting board, set at the seat of the father of the house with the fish’s head facing the fireplace in a very particular manner. The father would bow to the salmon and speak a prayer in his native tongue thanking the fish for the honor of its presence in his house. Shigeru Kayano, an Ainu and the author of Our Land was Once a Forest, wrote about such an offering made each year by his father. “Then he faced the flames in the fireplace and prayed to the goddess of the fire: ‘Today for the first time this year I have brought home a salmon. Please rejoice. This salmon is not merely for us humans to eat by ourselves, but for us to eat with the gods and with my children, as tiny as insects. Please watch over me, that I may catch many salmon hereafter.’” (Shigeru) Offerings such as this were performed over a great variety of foods and situations, always honoring the animal that was taken and asking for a blessing of some sort. The religious connection to their food was a significant part of the Ainu culture. These practices continue today among some of the few remaining Ainu who still identify with their heritage.

The problems of declining or destroyed food rights and sovereignty began in earnest with the Meiji restoration and the focus that government placed upon strengthening Japan’s military and central government. Land rights were stripped from the Ainu who had held some of the choicest territories in the country. Those tracts were handed out to Japanese settlers and nobility, leaving the Ainu without their traditional hunting, fishing and gathering grounds. “This trend caused not only poverty but also the destruction of Ainu traditional cultures.” (Godfrey) Hunting, fishing and gathering were integral parts of the Ainu identity. To remove these from them was akin to a prison sentence.

The Meiji government handed out seed and implements and ordered the Ainu to begin farming and raising cattle and pigs. Agriculture was traditionally women’s work for the Ainu people. Removing hunting and fishing from the men and forcing them into farming was devastating. “Probably one of the largest stumbling blocks for the Ainu was the change in the traditional division of labor between men and women which farming seemed to demand.” Famine, disease, poverty and starvation ensued. The Ainu were in decline. (Peng, 732) From a population estimated at around 80,000 the Ainu dropped to about 15,000 during the Meiji. And what remained was a conquered people.

With practices of assimilation not too different from the way the United States government treated Native Americans in the 19th century, Ainu children were removed from their homes, sent to assimilation schools, taught the Japanese language and forbidden to speak their own. Their religious practices were also forbidden, including those honoring the spirit gods. (Godfrey) The Ainu culture was removed forcibly and quickly.
Laws were passed enforcing the new way of life. Prior to the Japanese incursion, the Ainu hunted approximately 600 – 700 deer each year on Ezo. During the Meiji era, the Japanese hunted on average 15,000 deer annually. Then deer hunting was forbidden entirely. Salmon were on the list as well. Initially, when the Japanese took over the islands, they would fish the ocean salmon, leaving the freshwater salmon for the Ainu. As more commercial fishermen fought for limited opportunities in ocean fishing, the government opened up the rivers to them. Under Meiji law, private parties were no longer allowed to fish in the rivers. The Ainu were only subsistence fishermen, not commercial. Now they would not be fishermen at all. The sacred rites of the First Fish offerings would no longer be possible.

Some Ainu complied, making great efforts to abide by the changing laws. But there were many who continued to fish. Living in fear of arrest, parents counselled children that if any person asked if they ate fish, they were to deny it.

Kayano remembers how his family was torn apart over this prohibition:
“One night [in 1932] a policeman stepped inside [my home], looked at my father and said ‘Shall we go, Seitaro?’ My father prostrated himself on the floor and said, ‘Yes, I’m coming.’ Without raising his head, he let large tears fall onto the wooden floorboards … . My father was being taken away by the police for catching salmon… . As my father was led away, I ran after him, sobbing.” (Kayano)

Fortunately for the Ainu, as their traditional foods became out of reach to them and they were forced to change their diets in order to survive, the change was fairly nutritionally equitable. Where other aboriginal cultures suffered malnutrition and starvation due to forced dietary changes, the Ainu continued to eat foods that were at least similar to their old ways, even if they were unable to continue their old practices. Pork became the meat of choice – not by choice but by default. If that was all that was available, that was what was eaten.

With the change of cuisine came a change of attitude. The assimilation policy of the Meiji period set up conditions that promoted Japanese food as superior and Ainu food as inferior and undesirable. Under the new cuisine promotions, rice was considered “more tasty” than millet. The wild onion/garlic carried a strong smell and taste. Called by its Ainu name pukusa, it became the subject of ridicule. Many avoided it all together. Others simply renamed it “Ainu negi” (Ainu onion) now associating the smell of the onion with the Ainu people. Over time, other foods were added to the derogatory list simply because of their association with the Ainu people. The Ainu adapted the best they could, accepting the new standards in order to avoid the stigma that was now attached to their old habits. Those who did continue their old practices did so secretly. (Iwasaki-Goodman)
For those foods the Japanese liked and wanted to continue using, renaming them provided that option. They were then gradually added into the Japanese diet but with a Japanese name. In so doing, they removed any association with the Ainu and thereby any consideration as “undesirable”. (Iwasaki-Goodman) Traditional Ainu dishes and names now brought shame. Even the schools served only Japanese fare.

In addition to losing the Ainu names of the foods they ate, the children also were not being taught the religious rituals of their ancestors. “The important prayers to and attitudes towards the spiritual beings involved in harvesting and processing certain foods” were being lost. (Iwasaki-Goodman) Children in this period had lost their most basic ties to their heritage.


“The normative influences during the adolescence of these people prevented Ainu food habits from being reinforced through secondary socialization. Instead, negative social conditions influence attitudes to Ainu food habits, making people more willing to shift towards the Japanese way of life.” (Iwasaki-Goodman)

According to Masami Iwasaki-Goodman, food culture is learned from birth and developed as children grow up eating what their families eat and preparing it, treating it, and valuing it as their families do. “Along with food habits, children also learn the attitudes and values associated with food items and their preparation through interactions with family members and friends.” (Iwasaki-Goodman) Lasting ties are formed in kitchens and around the table. Tastes and traditions are passed from generation to generation, all through food. When those traditions are taken away, so are the ties that they bring.

By the end of the assimilation efforts, questions were raised about its effectiveness. Dr. Noémi Godfrey considered it a failure, saying the Ainu had not been assimilated but rather acculturated.

“The Ainu can no longer live according to their traditional way of life. They went from being hunter-gatherers and traders to farmers or factory workers. They are no longer allowed to practice their religious customs, and the use of their native tongue is restricted. A cultural gap widens between generations, parents and children no longer speaking the same language or practicing the same customs. No longer considered Ainu, but still not considered Japanese, the former aborigines cannot find their place in Japanese society, and find themselves completely acculturated.”(Godfrey)

By 1921, Japanese immigration into Hokkaido/Ezo had reached its peak. The Meiji era had ended, and with it ended the great push to assimilate the Ainu. But the people were left without any sense of identity, of history or their own heritage. Almost 100 years of denial had effectively wiped out a culture. The language was considered dead, the laws prohibiting fishing and hunting remained and the stigma of identifying with the Ainu was pervasive.

In more recent years, efforts have been made both from within the Ainu community and from outside to restore some of that which has been lost. Members of the Ainu community have teamed with a research group from Hokkai-Gakuen University in Sapporo, Japan, to provide information and the experience of eating traditional Ainu food. In doing so, they have begun reintroducing Ainu foods into their food culture. The plan has four parts as described by Masami Iwasaki-Goodman:

1. A community newsletter providing information about traditional food items
2. A series of cooking lessons
3. Preparation of Ainu dishes for ceremonial occasions
4. Other activities conducted outside the community.

One of the first things the Ainu students learned was how much traditional Ainu foods they were already eating but never realized because the names were now only referred to in Japanese and had become part of Japanese cuisine. They found out there were real differences between their diets and those of non-Ainu. Probably most telling was the heavier than normal use of wild vegetables in their cooking.

Along with reintroducing traditional foods, the intervention group has also brought back several of the sacred rituals that had been lost. One of those centered on a fermented drink called “tonoto” which is a mixture of rice and egg millet cooked into a porridge. When it is placed into a keg, a piece of hot coal is placed on top of the mixture while the person performing the ritual offers a prayer to the fire god “Apefuchi Kamuy” to protect the tonoto while it ferments. (Iwasaki-Goodman)

Today, the laws prohibiting Ainu from fishing have not been lifted. But fishing laws are being examined both at the local and international level. Kayano went to court against Hokkaido Syuyhouiinkai to fight against a proposed dam that would, in his words, “constitute [a] threat to Ainu culture…” (CJIELP)

Food sovereignty, or the “right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food…and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems” (Rosenberger, 18) may never be completely within the grasp of the Ainu of Hokkaido. But where they had once lost everything to a conqueror, today they have far more of their rights restored than they have seen in centuries. Where the children are learning and holding on to the sacred traditions of their ancestors, perhaps there is hope one day to see them flourish once more.

Works Cited:

Colorado Journal of International Environmental Law and Policy. 245. Summer, 2001: LexisNexis Academic. Web. Accessed 3/4/2015.

Godfrey, Noémi. “The Ainu Assimilation Policies During the Meiji Period and the Acculturation of Hokkaido’s Indigenous People.” Paris. National Institute of Oriental Language and Culture Studies. Web. Accessed 3/4/2015.

Iwasaki-Goodman, Masami. “Tasty Tonoto and not-so-tasty tonoto: fostering traditional food culture among the Ainu people in the Saru River region, Japan.” Indigenous Peoples’ Food Systems and Well-being. Sapporo. Hokkai-Gakuen University. 2009. Web. Accessed 2/16/2015.

Kayano, Shigeru. Our Land Was a Forest: An Ainu Memoir. Japan: Westview Press, 1994. Kindle AZW file.

Kayano, Shigeru. “Traditional Ainu Life: Living Off the Interest.” First Fish, First People: Salmon Tales of the North Pacific Rim. Ed. Judith Roche and Meg McHutchison. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1998. 22-30. Print.

Peng, Fred C. C., Ricketts, Robert and Imamura, Nario. “The Socioeconomic Status of the Ainu: The Past in the Present”. American Ethnologist, Vol. 1, No. 4. Wiley. 1974. Web. Accessed 3/4/2015.

Rosenberger, Nancy. Seeking Food Rights: Nation, Inequality and Repression in Uzbekistan. Belmont: Wadsworth, Cengage Learning. 2012.

Sato, Takehiro, et al. Origins and Genetic Features of the Okhotsk People, Revealed By Ancient Mitochondrial DNA Analysis. The Japan Society of Human Genetics and Springer. 2007. Web. Accessed 3/4/2015.

Turner, Nancy J., Plotkin, Mark, and Kuhnlein, Harriet V. Indigenous People’s Food Systems and Well-being. Sapporo. Hokkai-Gakuen University. 2009. Web. Accessed 2/17/2015.