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  5. Critiquing the Colonialist Origins of the New National Museum Upopoy

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FOCUS March 2022 Volume 107

Critiquing the Colonialist Origins of the New National Museum Upopoy

Mashiyat Zaman, Leni Charbonneau and Hiroshi Maruyama

On 12 July 2020, Japan's national museum conglomerate welcomed The National Ainu Museum and Park in the the town of Shiraoi, Hokkaido. Known as Upopoy, an Ainu word that means "singing together as a large group," the new museum complex deviates from its predecessors as it highlights not Japanese culture, but that of Ainu, who are Indigenous to northern Japan and its surroundings. Proponents claim that Upopoy celebrates the country's multiculturalism while preserving Ainu culture, depicted as being "on the verge of extinction." 1 However, Ainu activists and allies have critiqued Upopoy, its underlying narratives concerning Ainu culture's position within Japanese society, and the policy measures that contributed to its genesis. From these perspectives, Upopoy represents the continued infringement on the rights of Ainu as an autonomous Indigenous community.

Historical Foundations of Upopoy

Upopoy's development cannot be understood without the context of Ainu-Japanese relations throughout history. Ainu and the Japanese had maintained trade-based and political relations for centuries, but by the late 17th century these became characterized by practices that privileged Wajin, or Japanese, parties. In the late 19th century, the newly-formed Meiji government enacted regulations to incorporate Ainu territories and enhance the nascent Japanese Empire's economic and political prosperity. Ainu populations on Hokkaido, Sakhalin (Karafuto), and the Kuril Islands were forcibly conscripted into projects of Japanese statecraft. Assimilationist policies prohibited and criminalized aspects of Ainu life, banning their language, dress, and subsistence practices such as fishing, hunting, and farming. The influx of Japanese settlers and industry drove overfishing, overhunting, and exploitation of forests and other bioregions, depleting the resources that formed the basis of Ainu subsistence.

Against this backdrop, the colonial Meiji regime passed the Former Aborigines Protection Act in 1899. The destitution that Ainu faced in the wake of settler-colonialism contributed to an enduring discourse that they needed "protection", and that the Japanese were in a superior position to administer it (obscuring their complicity in the causes of destitution). The narrative of a protective, paternalistic, and unilateral relationship from the Japanese to Ainu took concrete forms. Most notably, the colonial government "gave" land to Ainu following the Wajin settlement on their own territories. However, since the most viable areas had been allocated to Japanese projects and industry, "protection" for Ainu meant that they were "given" the least preferable allotments. The Japanese government's detrimental acts of "protection" administered under the guise of benevolence have normalized Ainu poverty and social stigma in mainstream Japanese society over the course of generations, continuing to this day.

In May 1997, the Ainu Cultural Promotion Act replaced the Former Aborigines Protection Act. This novel policy had a narrowly-focused gaze into a rigidly-defined and static image of Ainu culture, and blatantly ignored the long-standing demands of Ainu activists for respect and acknowledgement of their land and political rights. 2 Under the 1997 Act, Ainu culture was more of a historical relic to be preserved rather than an element of the lives of autonomous, enlivened people. It was also legibly "exotic" features of Ainu life such as dance, song, and craft which were recognized and protected as "culture." Thus, "protection" emerged synonymous with commodification, as the cultural markers of difference for Ainu became commercialized in the tourist market of Hokkaido.

But in 2007, Japan joined one hundred forty-four countries in adopting the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP). The Declaration stresses the obligations of signatory states to facilitate the realization of the sovereignty of Indigenous peoples and their lands, and to take measures to correct, reconcile, and provide reparations for instances of historical exploitation and colonization. Japan's voting for UNDRIP would set a course for subsequent Ainu-Japanese relations, although representatives of the latter group would largely dictate the agenda. The Japanese Diet established an Advisory Council for the Future of Ainu Policy, which featured only a single Ainu representative. 3 In addition to taking preliminary steps to envision a New Ainu Law to replace the 1997 Act, the Advisory Council declared it would take "concrete measures" to realize the "cultural distinctiveness" of Ainu people. These measures amounted to formalizing the discourse of Ainu people as "culture" as opposed to autonomous political agents, as well as outlining initial plans for development of the "symbolic space for ethnic harmony." 4

On 24 May 2019, the Japanese Diet implemented the Ainu Policy Promotion Act. 5 The new Act is most differentiated from its predecessors by its first article, which officially recognizes Ainu as an "indigenous" group for the first time in government policy. However, in all remaining articles, Ainu are referenced as an ethnic group, a severe shortcoming highlighted by critics who note the stark distinctions between the legal designations of Indigenous peoples and ethnic groups. The former category would recognize the political implications of collective rights based on original occupancy in a territory, provisions not accommodated in the status of ethnic minorities. Once again, the Ainu Policy Promotion Act focuses predominantly on the promotion and protection of Ainu culture and "the importance of the diversity that ethnic groups contribute to society." 6 Thus, it has been interpreted as a symbolic gesture that neither alters the norms established by the 1997 Act, nor facilitates the realization of Ainu's rights as guaranteed by UNDRIP.

The new Act also stipulates the establishment of the "Symbolic Space for Ethnic Harmony." But while a number of articles in UNDRIP (18, 19, 20, 31, 33, 34) outline the rights of Indigenous peoples to their autonomy, and authority to determine the representation and development of their cultural institutions, there were meagre attempts to include Ainu voices in the Symbolic Space/Upopoy's planning and implementation. Japanese perspectives held precedence, as was evident in a press conference on 10 July 2020 with the Minister of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology, Hagiuda Koichi. When asked how the Museum would depict the history of discrimination against Ainu, he responded: 7

There were supposedly different values between the Aborigines and the Japanese. I maintain a distance from opinions that these different values should be recorded as discrimination against the ethnic minority by the majority. If there is a negative or sad history in the relationship between the Aborigines and the Japanese peoples, it is of importance that memorial keepers tell it or record it at Upopoy. I do not deny it and I will not close my eyes to it. However, the efforts of the Museum are to promote the positive aspects of the Ainu culture in a way that is future-oriented.

n response to these remarks, Ainu activist Kimura Fumio expressed that Hagiuda's sentiment continues a pattern of historical revisionism espoused by Japanese conservative elites. For Kimura, these views are in line with the tone set by past politicians such as former Prime Minister Nakasone and Deputy Prime Minister Aso, both of whom denied the existence of Indigenous populations in Japan. For activists and Ainu citizens like Kimura, Upopoy is merely the materialization of the empty, platitudinal measures taken to participate in a discourse around indigeneity for the sake of political grift, while ignoring the issues and inequalities that persist for Indigenous individuals and communities. Upopoy does not fulfil the stipulations of UNDRIP; it has been crafted along with the Ainu Policy Promotion Act to sidestep real issues of concern to Ainu. This is demonstrated most succinctly with a primary feature of Upopoy: a memorial hall that consolidates nearly 1,300 Ainu human remains in one place.

The Memorial Hall: A Concrete Violation of Ainu Dignity

Upopoy comprises three central components. The first is the National Ainu Museum building, which includes exhibition rooms, a theater, library, and museum shop. The second component is the National Ainu Park, an open-air ethnographic complex featuring reconstructed Ainu dwellings and areas for performance. The last, and most problematic, is a Memorial Site for thousands of Ainu human specimens, mainly extracted from their burial grounds by researchers affiliated with universities and research institutions across Japan. 8

In the late 19th and 20th centuries, growing ethno-nationalist sentiment in the early Japanese empire contributed to institutionalized pursuits of eugenics to define the Japanese race by differentiating other populations under its imperial reach. The 1930s saw the establishment of the Japan Society for Racial Hygiene, responsible for the systemic excavation of hundreds of Ainu bodies from their resting places. Prominent researchers of anatomy at Hokkaido Imperial University (now the University of Hokkaido), Yamazaki Haruo and Kodama Sakuzaemon, led research trips in which they subjected thousands of Ainu to anatomical measurements, often as demonstrations in front of classes of medical students. 9 This period cast the foundation from which Ainu bodies were not only thoroughly racialized, but also classified as research objects, living or dead. In subsequent decades, researchers took it upon themselves to excavate Ainu graves without the free, prior or informed consent of Ainu residents or relatives.

Over 1,600 Ainu human remains have since been excavated, collected, and held in repositories across research institutions in Japan, with a number also circulating internationally. Since the 1980s, Ainu activists have initiated legal battles to reclaim these ancestral remains, as well as cultural artefacts that were excavated in kind. But requests for their return were often obstructed - information pertaining to catalogues of research specimens were obscured from Ainu claimants trying to locate the remains of their relatives or community members. Though a number of ancestral remains returned to their original resting sites following several lawsuits beginning in 2012, the majority are still maintained by research institutions. 10 Ainu individuals and families trying to reclaim them have repeatedly met barriers to repatriation.

The Japanese government failed to provide mechanisms for repatriation with Ainu's consultation as provided for in Article 12 of UNDRIP. 11 Between 2014 and 2018, it drew guidelines creating even more restrictions to repatriation. 12 When the Ainu Policy Promotion Act was enacted in May 2019, Ainu organizations and individuals were given until 25 October 2019 to initiate an application process for ancestral repatriation in accordance with these guidelines. After that, almost all unclaimed remains were to be consolidated at Upopoy.

The Upopoy complex, especially the memorial hall, is an infringement upon both the direct wishes of many Ainu as well as the international conventions to which Japan is obliged to follow. Racially-infused research is still underway in Japan, with researchers claiming that genetic research on Ainu specimens is in the best interest of Ainu. 13 Many presume that the consolidation of their ancestral remains in the memorial hall at Shiraoi will facilitate and streamline research, the measure enacted under the notion of fulfilling Ainu's Indigenous rights. But days before Upopoy's opening, Shikada Kawami, former curator of the Asahikawa City Museum, summarised a sentiment shared by many Ainu about the complex: 14

Upopoy looks like another instance of the Japanese exerting their power over Ainu. Stolen Ainu human remains have been collected in the memorial building. The collection benefits Japanese researchers, but doesn't alleviate the profound sorrow held by many grieving families. Some Japanese people blame us Ainu for wanting more besides Upopoy. In other words, they say that we should be satisfied and grateful. I don't know how many Ainu are aware of the degree to which they are still exploited and discriminated against.

"Protecting Ainu": Conserving National Ideology

At first glance, Upopoy presents a novel institution in the network of officially-sanctioned Japanese national museums, in that it is the first not to feature Japanese culture as its focal point. We argue that this depiction is misleading, and the specific representation of Ainu and Ainu history it pursues still casts the Japanese voice as dominant.

Structuring the ethos of the complex is a stringent meta-narrative that depoliticizes Ainu indigeneity as having merely cultural dimensions. This agenda is propagated through the language it uses to describe Ainu and their culture, even in its mission statement. A promotional pamphlet from 24 August 2019 described Upopoy's purpose as seeking the revival of "an invaluable culture in Japan that's on the verge of extinction." 15 An updated description on the Upopoy website adds that Ainu culture "remains under threat."

As officials have suggested themselves, the Museum has no intention of describing the historical context of this enduring threat to Ainu culture or of addressing Japanese colonialism. The language of extinction provides an impression that Ainu are something of a dying species, distorting the reality of the tens of thousands of Ainu who are continuously suffering from or fighting against enduring discrimination and social stigmatization. This is not abated by accompanying descriptions of Ainu culture as "cultivated amidst nature." These rhetorical patterns essentialize Ainu, and do not do justice to the diversity of contemporary Ainu life across Hokkaido, Japan, and beyond. Forcing Ainu into relics of nature, Upopoy does not provide a platform to showcase the modern and progressive leadership of Ainu individuals and communities.

This configuration of Ainu as a type of "ecological noble savage" complements policy-based strategies that emphasize a static definition of culture while avoiding delineation of the political rights of Ainu. 16 As a culture on the verge of extinction - as opposed to a robust collective composed of enlivened individuals - Ainu, like a natural resource, are a thing to be conserved. Relegated as dehumanized relics, their stories are hidden behind the commodification of Ainu life, preservation of "exotic" song and dance, and continued research on ancestral remains.

Thus, this newest addition to the Japanese national museums is not so different from its predecessors; Upopoy is another opportunity for Japan to exploit Ainu people as a cultural resource and display them in support of a national narrative of Japaneseness. In this instance, the Japanese ideal touted is one of benevolent conservation of humans-as-artefacts. There is no room for Ainu humanity in Upopoy, never mind their self-determination and inherent rights as Indigenous peoples.

Hiroshi Maruyama is the Director while Mashiyat Zaman and Leni Charbonneau are researchers of the Centre for Environmental and Minority Policy Studies (CEMiPoS) based in Sapporo, Hokkaido.

For further information, please contact: Hiroshi Maruyama, Centre for Environmental and Minority Policy Studies (CEMiPoS), e-mail:;


[1] Upopoy promotional pamphlet, August 2019.

[2] See Tessa Morris-Suzuki, "The Ainu: Beyond the Politics of Cultural Coexistence," Cultural Survival Quarterly Magazine, December 1999, for a detailed description of the passing of the 1997 Act.

[3] See Tessa Morris-Suzuki, "Performing Ethnic Harmony: The Japanese Government's Plans for a New Ainu Law," Asia-Pacific Journal - Japan Focus, Volume 16, Issue 21, Number 2, 1 November 2018.

[4] See "Final Report" of the Chief Cabinet Secretary for the Advisory Council for the Future of Ainu Policy (2009.

[5] See text of Ainu Policy Promotion Act in Japanese.

[6] Japan: New Ainu Law Becomes Effective, Library of Congress,

[7] Watch the press conference on YouTube, 萩生田文部科学大臣会見(令和2年7月10日):文部科学省>, 9 July 2020.

[8] Morris-Suzuki, "Performing Ethnic Harmony: The Japanese Government's Plans for a New Ainu Law," 2018, op. cit.

[9] See Maruyama and Charbonneau, "Resistance for Repatriation: The Enduring Legacy of the Colonial Robbery of Ainu Graves" in Decolonizing Futures: Collaborations for New Indigenous Horizons, Uppsala University, 2022.

[10] Perhaps the highest profile case is that of Ainu repatriation activist Ogawa Ryukichi. See Ogawa, Ryukichi, "Ainu Ikotsu Henkan Sosho Dai 3 Kai Koto Benron ni okeru Iken Chinjutsu [A Statement for the Lawsuit for the Repatriation of Ainu Human Remains at the Third Hearing in Sapporo District Court]" Research Group for Declassified Documents of Hokkaido University Newsletter No.3, 2013, 1-3.

[11] United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

[12] Guidelines concerning the repatriation of Ainu human remains stored in universities can be viewed from the Japanese Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology's website,

[13] CEMiPoS collaborated with the Hokkaido Television Broadcasting Company (HTB) in producing a documentary highlighting this narrative in light of the ongoing legal battles headed by Ainu activists.

[14] Shikada Kawami, 9 July 2020.

[15] Ainu Museum and Park pamphlet.

[16] The term "ecologically noble savage" was coined by Kent Redford in 1991. See "The Ecologically Noble Savage," Cultural Survival Quarterly Magazine, March 1991.