Identity in Modern Japan

by Chihiro Isozaki

In a brightly lit meeting room in the National Diet building, the air filled with a sense of waiting. All eyes were on Taro Kono, a member of the House of Representatives as he struggled to form an answer. He opened and closed his mouth, swallowing unspoken words. A man who, in the past hour of interviews and conversation had exhibited such insight, intelligence and expertise on the issue of nuclear energy and policy, was now caught off guard, unable to say a single word about our other topic of research: minority issues in Japan. Granted, we had requested an interview with him about nuclear energy, and the sudden topic change had caught him unawares. But the question we asked had been a simple one, requiring only the most basic and general knowledge—knowledge that our group members had assumed was common sense. At last he spoke.

“…What minorities…?”

He looked around at us searchingly, helplessly.

“I mean, we don’t really have those here…”

We gave quiet hints. Surely there must be some groups of people who feel oppressed or discriminated against in some way? Still nothing. What about ethnic minorities, like the Korean and Brazilian immigrants? Or sexual minorities? The buraku-min caste?  He was thoughtful. He spoke reflectively.

“Ah yes, the buraku-min. That used to be an issue, but it’s more a regional level issue in the Kansai regions that doesn’t really affect national politics. And it’s not a big problem anymore …”

Again, he lapsed into an uncomfortable silence. We shuffled uneasily, looking down at our tea. Finally we gave in. How about the Ainu people? Can you tell us a little bit about them?

He was surprised at the unexpected allusion. Half confused, half amused at this reference to a topic which was so clearly divergent from regular topic of discussion at the Diet, he asked, “Well, what about them?”

I searched for sarcasm in his eyes. But the eyes that met mine were filled only with honest curiosity. It was at this moment that I realised that the fundamental problem that faced the minorities in Japan was not one merely of discrimination, but of complete and utter ignorance.

We saw this trend of general ignorance on minority issues, particularly issues of the Ainu people, throughout our three days in Tokyo as we interviewed various members of office and top-ranking political positions. These men, highly intelligent, well-educated and carrying the weight of Japan on their shoulders, all showed the same response when it came to the Ainu: ignorance, a degree of embarrassment or defensiveness, coupled with surprise and amusement that our group had chosen to study such an “unusual” or “obscure” topic.

When asked about how the Ainu’s political status in Japan, the interviewees often resorted to a fleeting mention of Mr. Shigeru Kayano, an Ainu politician who sat in the Japanese Diet from 1994-1998—the first and only Ainu to ever have a seat to this day.

“I sat with Mr. Kayano in Diet, way back in the day,” one interviewee recalled, as if this answered our question.

While Kayano’s appointment made an immense impact on the empowerment and status of the Ainu people, driving some positive change such as the “Law for the Promotion of Ainu Culture” adopted by the parliament in 1997, there are still a variety of issues that remain for the Ainu today on social, cultural and political levels, including widespread poverty, lack of access to education and high-level jobs, and the difficulties of cultural and language preservation. The name-dropping of a single Ainu politician as a symbol for peaceful coexistence and the resolution of all past problems was emblematic of the highly problematic way of thinking that pervaded the Ainu issue: general disinterest and an unwillingness to delve deeply into it.

As we travelled further up to Hokkaido, this trend seemed to continue: news reporters, shopkeepers and restaurant waiters were all confused as to why a group of foreign students would want to travel all the way to Japan to study about the Ainu. To us, in turn, their confusion was interesting: why was it so strange to them? Was it because they felt the Ainu issue as something insignificant? Was it something that was trivialised and forgotten about in everyday life? When I tried to ask a woman in the market about her thoughts on the issue, she became extremely uncomfortable.

“It’s not really any of my business,” she said. “They do their own thing, and we do ours. There’s nothing to really think about.”

This unwillingness to associate with the Other is something I felt throughout this trip, not just through our research of the Ainu, but through our own interactions. As a Japanese growing up outside of my home country, I had frequently visited Japan with my family during school breaks, experiencing Japan through the eyes of a native Japanese and participating in its daily rhythm. This time, as the only Japanese person on the trip traveling with 6 other Yalies, I was able to see my own country through the lens of the foreigner—or, as my U.S. student visa says, the “non-resident Alien”—and experience what it felt like to be Othered by my own people.

People avoided eye contact. They kept a bigger physical distance on trains than I was used to. Even when people found out some of our group members could speak Japanese, they began every interaction with a nervous or embarrassed laugh. But more disturbingly, while someone would have definitely told me off for accidentally blocking the entrance of the train car with my luggage (a complete social faux pas) had I been travelling alone or in a group of other Japanese people, no one said anything. Perhaps part of it was a language barrier; they assumed that I could not speak Japanese, and was not confident enough in their language ability to talk to me in English. But I believe that it is something more than that. It was as if social norms did not apply to me, because they did not regard me as part of their society. And in a country where social norms regulate a large part of everyday social interaction, excluding me from the applicability of social norms felt, to me, like a rejection of my existence from that train. It was an active choice to ignore the presence of the Outsider.

If American identity is based on the American Dream and the notion of a “melting pot” where anyone can become a “successful” American despite of their backgrounds and ethnicity, then Japanese identity is one based on homogeneity and shared, unspoken understanding. While I am not arguing that one is superior to the other, each cultural set-up faces its own individual challenges that it must learn to overcome. In Japan, one of the major challenges in this increasingly interconnected world is to learn to accept the Other as something that will not necessarily pose a threat to our national identity. Only through a disintegration of such unfounded fear can we really achieve an open environment where people will be more willing to learn about and accept the presence of minorities.



Ainu Itak: An introduction to the Ainu language and its current state

by Dan Mitropolsky

The intent of this section of the website is to provide background about the Ainu language including our findings relating to its current state (usage, attempts at revival, fluency of speakers, etc.). The second part will be a resource for those interested in learning some of the language itself. It is obvious to anyone who has tried to learn the Ainu language, at least from outside of Hokkaido, that resources are extremely limited, and structured, continuous and thorough learning materials especially so.

Overview of resources for learning the Ainu language: In my attempt to learn the Ainu language I have had to use a combination of disconnected online resources, equally unstructured printed materials acquired in Japan, and often overly technical or academically linguistic resources (also to be acquired in Japan, and exclusively in Japanese). There exists perhaps one or two truly adequate learning materials (in that they are ground-up, consecutive and self-contained, include meaningful exercises and/or explanation) including a grammar textbook available in Japan (which, although the best guide to learners of the language, suffers from lack of vocabulary building and into-Ainu translation exercises), and a CD based learning kit that is used in the few Ainu language classes that exist in Japan. For readers truly interested in acquiring the language I would recommend the grammar guide, アイヌ語文法の基礎、佐藤知己. Other resources include mini-textbooks that are text versions of Ainu language radio lectures; these, however, are not well structured or interconnected and are not the best resource to a standard language learner. Furthermore, the most valuable resources are entirely in Japanese. It is hence my goal to compile a guide to the Ainu language in English using the aforementioned resources and others. I will include references to the resources I use but it is my hope that this guide will serve directly as a resource to new learners of the language.

Why learn Ainu? Just like all languages, the Ainu language is a product of human culture and civilization. Learning it is fascinating from a historical, cultural, anthropological and linguistic perspective. Ainu is a language isolate; there are no established relationships between Ainu and any other language, although numerous linguistics have proposed various relationships (main proposed relationships include Ainu with Japanese, Ainu with Korean, Ainu with Altaic in general, Ainu with Nivkh and/or other North Asian languages, Ainu with Indo-European, Ainu with Ugro-Finnic, and others. Again, none of these theories has ever gained widespread acceptance; there is not enough core vocabulary correspondence based evidence to conclude a linguistic relationship between Ainu and anything else. This does not mean that the Ainu are a ‘unique’ peoples of complete historical isolation, if such a concept even exists. Many languages are isolates, including Japanese and Korean. Most likely, the Ainu language is distantly related to some language in the geographic vicinity, but this connection would be so ancient that the amount of linguistic change that has occurred by now makes it extremely difficult to establish). Learning Ainu is also preservational, helping keep alive a language that has very few speakers and is widely viewed as moribund. However, with enough People learning Ainu (and in particular with an international interest in the language), it is possible to revive and sustain this unique vestige of human heritage.

Current Status of the Ainu Language

There is much confusion over the true current state of the Ainu language. Different sources give different figures about the number of speakers, and there exists even more variance and inconsistency surrounding the number of truly fluent or native speakers. What can be said for sure is that there is no comprehensive and truly reliable study about the number of Ainu speakers. However, from members of Ainu organizations in Hokkaido who were able to present us with rough estimates based on their understanding of the general affairs surrounding the Ainu at present, it is reasonable to estimate that there are only a handful (fewer than 10) truly fluent speakers, but perhaps several thousand who have some knowledge of the language. However, the latter ranges from conversational Ainu to knowledge of a few words or phrases. It is impossible to say anything more conclusive than that. Hokkaido University has perhaps 2 or 3 truly fluent speakers of the language, and Sapporo University perhaps 1 more. The amount of academics truly fluent in the language is startlingly low; many academics involved in Ainu research have basic to no knowledge of the language.

From speaking with activists, academics and Ainu leaders, it can be concluded that the intensity of efforts to revive or support the language is low. The language is taught at several universities but not learnt by many. At Hokkaido university, the only university to have an academic center or department of any kind dedicated to Ainu study, two courses of the language are offered. One is in fact a general overview of Ainu language, culture, and history targeted primarily at college freshmen, and is taken by around one hundred students each year. In this course, students learn very basic Ainu- perhaps self-introduction, basic grammar, and an extremely limited vocabulary. An intensive course in the Ainu language (which focuses on translation and knowledge of research or academic work rather than overall proficiency or fluency) is also offered and taught by the single Ainu language teacher in the university, but is taken by only a few students (~5) a year. Again, graduates of this class are by no means fluent or even able to speak the language. However, more practical courses aimed at delivering everyday conversational competency in the language can be found at various smaller programs and schools throughout Hokkaido ran by individuals with a personal interest in teaching Ainu. There are at least 15 such centers, and they receive some sort of funding from the prefectural government. Many of these centers use the aforementioned CD kit, and most of its students are working adults with a side interest in acquiring some knowledge of the language of their ancestors. It is unlikely that these programs produce many fluent speakers, or at least anyone who will go on to integrate the language at home or in their daily lives. The director of the Hokkaido Ainu and Indigenous Peoples center shared with us an anecdote of one professor in the center who is very fluent in Ainu (although he learnt it, not a native speaker) and uses it at home with his children. However, the nature of this anecdote and its peculiarity reveals the scarcity of such cases. This- the usage of a language at home and an upbringing of a new generation of native speakers- is the essential step to language revival, and there are no efforts to promote this. The main problem surrounding Ainu revival is that it is difficult not only to organize effective learning programs, but at present, it is also difficult to find individuals interested in committed study and use of the language.

Schedule, YIRA 2013, Investigatory Trip to Japan

 Trip Schedule

3 / 10

– Fly from New York to Narita, get settled in Tokyo

 3 / 11

– Interview with Hatakeyama Yojiro(畠山陽二郎), Director of the Nuclear Energy Policy Division at the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (経済産業省資源エネルギー庁原子力政策課課長)


– Interview with Motohisa Furukawa (古川元久), Former National Policy Minister and current Member of House of Representatives of Japan, Democratic Party of Japan (元国家戦略大臣、現在衆議院議員、民主党所属)

More information:

– Interview with Koichiro Genba(玄葉光一郎), Former Foreign Secretary and current Member of House of Representatives of Japan, Democratic Party of Japan (元外務大臣、現在衆議院議員、民主党所属)

More information:

– Interview with Kono Taro(玄葉光一郎), Current Member of House of Representatives of Japan, Liberal Democratic Party of Japan ( 衆議院議員、自由民主党所属)

More information:


Free day to explore Tokyo


-Ride the Shinkansen to Aomori, and the Seikan Tunnel Express into Hokkaido

-spend the evening in Hakodate


-Visit Hakodate Museum of Indigenous Peoples, speak with museum staff

-Ride the Super Limited Express from Hakodate to Sapporo

-spend evening in Sapporo


– Interview with members of the Hokkaido Ainu Association (北海道アイヌ協会)

More information: (日本語)

-Interview with reporter from Hokkaido News (北海道新聞)


-Free day in Sapporo, including visit to Museum of Hokkaido University, and the modern Ainu art exhibit at the Modern Ainu Art Museum of Sapporo


-Depart early to ride local trains and buses to Biratori and Nibutani(平取、二風谷) the Ainu heartland of the northern island

-visit the Nibutani Ainu Museum, learn basic Ainu

-Interview with Kayano Shiro (萱野志郎), founder and president of the Ainu Political Party(アイヌ民族党), and son of Ainu activist, literary authority, cultural leader, politician and first non-Japanese and Ainu member of House of Representatives Kayano Shigeru(萱野茂)

More information:萱野志朗 (日本語) (more detail in Japanese version)

-Receive tour of Kayane Shiro / Kayano Shigeru’s personal collection of rare Ainu artifacts

-Interviews with Hokkaido News, Nikkei News


-Visiting the Hokkaido University Center for Ainu and Indigenous Studies


-Interview with Prof. Teruki Tsunemoto(常本輝樹), Professor of Law and Director of the Hokkaido University Center for Ainu and Indigenous Studies (the only Ainu research center at a university), the academic authority on Ainu legal issues and rights, and Prof. Ken’ichi Ochiai (落合研一), Professor of Law and Ainu Law and Consitution

More information: (More information in Japanese version)

Enjoying our last night in Sapporo by eating a steamed crab cooked whole!


-Ride three super express trains all the way back to Tokyo

On the Anniversary of 3/11

by Jason Douglass

At a street corner two blocks down from Tokyo’s Yurakucho station, the metal underbellies of the Yamanote line trains – each perfectly divorced by three minutes – grind against their tracks at high speeds, resonating as if an urban metronome. The chill, damp air seems to blur the red, handheld lights of the policemen as they usher protestors into meticulously constructed rows. This night marks the second anniversary of Japan’s Fukushima nuclear disaster; this intersection stands adjacent to the headquarters of TEPCO, the energy company believed by many to be responsible for the seemingly eternal desecration of Fukushima Daiichi. In the eyes of the international community, those gathered on this night stand for a cause currently championed by the Japanese people nationwide. In reality, they number less than seventy.

Clinging to succinct, radical signage, these protestors, though few in number, rewrite what would have otherwise been the orderly soundtrack of a downtown Tokyo district. Into megaphones, they peer upward; toward the offices of those executive few they believe to have endangered the lives of their beloved. Uprooted and outraged, their tears stain the precautionary white paper masks they wear as Tokyo everymen and women. Disappointed by the amount of political and economic power still held by TEPCO despite their vulnerabilities exposed by Mother Nature’s recent wrath, they refuse to accept personal catharsis before industrial accountability. Over the past two years, these protests, which have regularly occurred on Friday evenings outside of the Prime Minister’s residence, have slowly begun to dwindle in attendance. After last year’s election, which allowed anti-nuclear movements to take a backseat to domestic economic issues, the media has only further downplayed this grass-root political activism. But those in attendance did not allow the absence of cameras or TEPCO respondents to silence their grievances. Each possess a story they so desperately want to share.

Mistake not the Japanese as an apolitical man, for tonight he cries out, if only at closed corporate windows and trains which know only how to move forward, unrelentingly. On the same unforgiving timetable as the train, Japan too moves forward, deafened, with no time to stop and think about the future of domestic energy production. At this rate, there is only one certainty: eventually, force without fuel must come to a screeching halt.

Waste matters

by John D’Amico

Before the disaster on March 11, 2011, thirty percent of Japan’s electricity came from nuclear power.  Now, only a few plants remain operational.  The one or two still online will close sometime this September.  Oil and gas bought in bulk from abroad make up for the lost power.  Though the previous administration planned for the deactivation of nuclear power plants by the 2030s, Abe Shinzo and his political allies, the conservative Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), might go in a different direction.  Future policy will depend on both the new rules instituted by the Nuclear Regulation Authority of Japan and the outcome of an ongoing debate in Japanese politics.

Some, like Mr. Hatakeyama, the head of nuclear policy at METI, argue that the cheap operating costs of nuclear and the risks of a volatile global oil market make the continued use of nuclear power, with the adoption of more stringent safety standards, economically rational. Yet Mr. Kono, a member of the conservative Liberal Democratic Party in the lower house, makes a surprisingly different calculation.  Unlike many others in his party, he opposes the use of nuclear power, and not for the usual reasons of safety or sensitivity to the feelings of the victims of the 2011 disaster.

According to him, the problem is none other than waste.  Within ten years the storage for spent fuel will fill up, and no feasible fast breeder reactors even exist to deal with leftover plutonium.  While Mr. Hatakeyama seemed confident that the planned Rokkasho underground storage and treatment center would take care of at least the spent fuel problems, Mr. Kono rather drily countered that finding an appropriate site for the facility—one with no risk of earthquake, no volcanos, and no groundwater—“would be impossible in Japan.”

Though nuclear plant operation costs are comparatively low, the process of finding an appropriate means of waste disposal, as well as the maintenance of that disposal system, makes nuclear power much more costly when compared to fossil fuels.  According to Mr. Kono, even on a technical level, Japan cannot in the long term continue the reprocessing and storage of spent fuel.  He sees this technical impossibility as the key limitation of any effort to restart nuclear power.

Yet the others we spoke to disagreed, considering technical problems irrelevant.  According to Mr. Hatakeyama, METI deals with policy and therefore does not need scientists directly on staff.  Mr. Kono criticized this tendency to neglect scientific knowledge in the upper echelons of the Japanese political world, laughing about how a past Minister of Science couldn’t answer a simple question about the difference between processing uranium and plutonium.  The other two members of the lower house we interviewed exemplified this tendency, choosing instead to make the case for or against nuclear power for economic or safety reasons.

Part of the problem is misinformation.  TEPCO and other power companies not only sponsor political campaigns, but also provide technical advice and analysis that often ignores unpleasant, un-business-friendly truths.  Before 3/11, it was in no one’s interest to challenge the status quo mentality:  that nuclear power was absolutely safe and  economically sustainable.  After the disaster, everyone knew the former was false.  The latter is still up for debate.

Tomorrow, Japan

We leave tomorrow, for Japan.  We’re going to study one: the role of the indigenous Ainu population in contemporary Japanese culture and society, and two: the role of the Ainu political party in the ongoing struggle against the restart of nuclear power plants and the broader fight for popular involvement in government in Japan.  The trip will offer us the chance to explore in-depth the northern island of Hokkaido, the native land of the Ainu and a place somewhat removed from the rest of Japan in terms of history, landscape, and culture.  Part of the reason for that comes from the influence of two Americans: Horace Capron, who applied American farming techniques to the island in his capacity as foreign adviser to the Meiji leaders behind the development of the then-newly colonized island from 1870-1875, and William S. Clark, third president of UMass Amherst, who then established the Sapporo Agricultural College (now Hokkaido University) and further developed new crops and methods for farming.  Clark’s parting words to his Japanese students, “Boys, be ambitious!” remains something of a popular slogan both in Hokkaido and in Japan at large

The Ainu did not benefit from this expansion of large-scale agriculture, which indelibly shaped the character of the landscape to this day.  Though land was set aside for them (to farm, not to pursue their traditional life-ways), it was quickly leased out at bargain-basement prices to Japanese farmers, the deals facilitated more so by alcohol than by rational consent.  Since an 1899 act deprived them of their status as an independent ethnic group, the Ainu did not receive formal recognition as an ethnic minority group until 2008, a status denied them probably because of the economic and cultural convenience of forcing assimilation for the sake of harmonious resource exploitation. Regardless, with the 2012 establishment of the first ever Ainu political party, the time looks ripe for an assessment of their role and potential impact in the contemporary Japanese scene.