SAPPORO, Japan – Separated by a short span of freezing sea, a local association of Ainu in Hokkaido has started efforts to forge warm relations with the Aleut ethnic group of the Aleutian Islands of the United States.
As part of Ainu activities to gain global attention as an indigenous group, representatives from the two groups met in Alaska on Friday local time under the auspices of the Hokkaido government. The aim was to deepen fellowship through cultural events and other activities.
It was in 2008 that the government officially certified the Ainu as an indigenous group. After that, a delegation from the Ainu Association of Hokkaido attended the U.N. World Conference on Indigenous Peoples in 2014, and there have been cultural exchanges with indigenous groups from Taiwan, Thailand, the Philippines, Vietnam and others, where the cultures of the respective regions were mutually introduced.
The foundation for the exchange with the Aleut was laid in July 2018. An Ainu group attended a memorial service for those killed during fierce fighting in World War II on Attu Island in the Aleutians, and while there, learned of the history of the Aleut.
The Ainu side, through the Hokkaido government, contacted officials of the Aleut, and the two sides agreed on an initial step of having representatives meet in early February.
'Many things in common'
Both the Ainu and the Aleut are hunting peoples, and have many shared traits such as a long tradition of using pelts from marine animals.
At the meeting, the Ainu side proposed holding a cultural event in Alaska as early as this summer. There, traditional Ainu crafts such as "attus" (embroidered garments) will be introduced, and educational spaces will be set up to allow each to learn about the other's history and other aspects of life.
"The Aleut have many things in common with the Ainu," said Kazushi Abe, president of the Sapporo Ainu Association. "They each built a unique culture, and were at the mercy of external pressures. We want to build a friendship between fellow indigenous groups from the ground up."
Abe, who is also vice executive director of the Ainu Association of Hokkaido, indicated he will be calling on other local associations in Hokkaido to participate.
In conjunction with the opening of the National Ainu Museum and Park, also known as "Upopoy," in the town of Shiraoi in April 2020, the Hokkaido government has plans to help expand awareness of the Ainu from both cultural and historical perspectives.
"In recent years, activities to promote interactions with indigenous peoples have been expanding," said an official of the Hokkaido government's international affairs office. "Communication between the two sides is deeply significant. We will continue to provide support, such as making arrangements for planned events."
Migration from Asia
About 9,000 years ago, the ancestors of the Aleut people migrated from Asia to North America, according to former Open University of Japan Prof. Henry Stewart, an expert on the culture and history of Arctic peoples.
Settling in the Aleutian archipelago, they flourished by hunting seals, otters and other sea animals from kayaks.
However, from the mid-18th century, their population dropped rapidly due to exploitation by Russians and others. During World War II, the former Imperial Japanese Army advanced into the islands, and the United States systematically moved the Aleuts to the Alaska mainland and other places.
According to a survey by the United States in 2000, the Aleut population was 11,941, mainly living in Alaska.
"It is possible there was a cultural connection with the Kuril Ainu, who were geographically close," said Goro Yamada, former curator of the Historical Museum of Hokkaido (currently the Hokkaido Museum).