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.

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