For those interested in learning more about the Indigenous people of Japan, a trip to Hokkaido is not complete without paying a visit to one of the newest cultural institutions in Japan, the Upopoy National Ainu Museum. Opened in the summer 2020, Upopoy is dedicated to showcasing the history, vibrant traditions, and living culture of the Ainu people.
The Museum represents the progress of cultural understanding about the Ainu, both within the dominant culture in the country and for visitors from around the world. As nations move forward slowly on the difficult work of decolonization, places like Upopoy can play an important role in raising awareness of Ainu history in Japan, representing a step forward along a longer reconciliation journey.
The Upopoy National Ainu Museum
Located in Shiraoi, about 1.5 hours from Sapporo, the Upopoy National Ainu Museum offers visitors an immersive trip through the world of the Indigenous Ainu people, providing a glimpse into their way of life, customs, and beliefs.
Upopoy, an Ainu word meaning “singing together in a large group,” aims to revive and protect Ainu culture. It’s situated in an expansive open-air park space on the shore of Lake Poroto.
The museum campus includes a Cultural Exchange Hall for performances of dancing and singing, and a Crafts Studio where visitors can see artisans at work. For anyone interested in learning more about the Indigenous people of Japan, a trip to the Museum is an essential visit.
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In the national Ainu park, there are several tradition cise (houses) comprising a kotan, Ainu village, with displays of traditional weaving and carving. Visitors can also try hands-on activities like embroidery and archery and play traditional musical instruments.
Like First Nations people in Canada, the Ainu people of Japan experienced discrimination and efforts to assimilate them into Japanese culture and society.
The Japanese government recognized the Ainu as Indigenous People in 2019, confirming a previous resolution from 2008. But many traditional rights of Indigenous people, like hunting and fishing, have yet to be returned to the Ainu.
So. while Upopoy is significant in presenting and recognizing the Ainu culture in Japan, the museum doesn’t come without baggage.
A Journey through time and culture
Upopoy National Ainu Museum and park is the first national museum in Japan to present and celebrate Ainu culture. The modern building echoes traditional Ainu architectural style while incorporating elements of concrete, glass and wood.
The large Permanent Exhibition is the heart of the museum. Led by our young Ainu guide, Setascape Konno, I spent hours exploring exhibits of intangible cultural heritage. Descriptive signage is available in both English and Japanese.
I lingered at interactive displays and multimedia presentations showcasing the past and present aspects of Ainu culture, going back 30,000 years.
The museum does an excellent job of presenting the long arc of Ainu history and culture. This includes acknowledging their assimilation by the dominant Japanese culture over the centuries.
The Ainu have a strong tradition of oral storytelling. Many stories highlight how the Ainu observe nature and move in the world.
In Ainu mythology, everything in the world has a spirit and is connected. The spirits become ‘kamuy,’ (supernatural deities) and must be handled with care and respect. Flora, fauna, fire, water, wind, mountains, and rivers are all kamuy. They manifest in the human world with gifts such as meat and furs.
We owe our lives to nature, including to the trees, which protect the earth and keep humanity alive.Debo Akibe, Ainu elder
Preserving tradition and knowledge
At the heart of Upopoy is its mission of preserving and promoting Ainu culture. It’s also a place for today’s Ainu to reconnect with their roots.
The current population of Ainu is small. In the last official survey from 2017, only 13,118 people identified as Ainu in Hokkaido. Japan’s northernmost prefecture has a total population of about 5.2 million
The Museum also plays an important role in fostering cross-cultural understanding. Beyond showcasing examples of Ainu tools, clothing and artwork, Upopoy hosts workshops, demonstrations, and performances. These allow visitors to experience Ainu culture and traditions firsthand.
These interactive experiences range from crafting traditional Ainu garments to participating in music and dance performances. The chance to try these experiences fosters a deeper appreciation for the cultural significance of these practices.
After several lackluster attempts at archery, I attended an mesmerizing performance at the Cultural Exchange Hall. Through singing in a large group and dancing, Ainu men and women told stories about hunting, animals and nature. They wore woven clothing in traditional colors of red and blue, and the emotions in their songs and dances crossed all linguistic boundaries.
There was also an incredible performance of the Ainu mukkuri mouth harp. A small instrument made of bamboo and string, the mukkuri produces sounds mimicking nature.
Moving towards reconciliation
The establishment of the Upopoy Ainu Museum is a step towards acknowledging historical injustices after centuries of forced assimilation and cultural erasure.
And while the museum offers an historical record of Ainu struggles and presents their past and living culture in a beautiful manner, officially, important issues remain unresolved. As in Canada, the reconciliation process in Japan is a complicated journey.
In summer 2023, a group of Ainu in Hokkaido sued several branches of the Japanese government. They want to reclaim historic fishing rights, lost more than 100 years ago, to fish for salmon in the Hokkaido River. The suit, and efforts by some Ainu to gain greater economic empowerment and political rights, demonstrates the complexity of recognizing Indigenous people and culture as living in the present, rather than as part of a distant past.
As a cultural institution, Upopoy National Ainu Museum has an important role to play in fostering education and understanding. Its existence has also sparked an unprecedented broader discussion in Japan.
“The decolonization of museums in Japan is a controversial issue. We are starting to create this space to think of Japan as non-homogeneous,” notes sociologist Mariko Murata, a professor at the Department of Sociology at Kansai University.
A trip to Upopoy can be the beginning of a greater understanding of the Ainu, and of how they and Japan may redefine their future relationship in promoting the living Indigenous culture that exists in Hokkaido.
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Disclosure: The writer visited Upopoy as a guest of the Japan Tourism Bureau.
Photo credit: Claudia Laroye