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'Ainu My Voice' – a documentary focusing on the modern-day struggles of the Ainu people

By Connie Sceaphierde, grape Japan

Of all the indigenous people of Japan, the Ainu are arguably the most well known among both the Japanese and international communities.

An ancient tribe of people native to the islands of Japan, the Ainu developed a unique culture which deeply contrasted against that of the Yayoi people who arrived in the country many millennia later. It is believed that the Ainu are descendants of the Jomon-Jin (hunter-gatherers) that lived in Japan approximately 16,500 years ago, if true, this would make the Ainu Japan’s first civilized people.

Once, the Ainu populated most of Japan, but following the migration of the Yayoi people into Japan during 300 BCE, the Ainu were pushed northwards to Tohoku, Hokkaido and the former Japanese Islands of Karafuto (Sakhalin) and Chishima (the Kuril Islands). After the Meiji Restoration and the swift northward expansion of modern society, the Ainu culture began to disappear, with only pockets remaining on the island of Hokkaido.

"Ainu My Voice" is a short documentary film produced by 3MINUTE Inc and fashion magazine MINE, as one of the women’s empowerment documentary series “Future is MINE”. The program focuses on the struggles of Rie Kayano, a modern Ainu woman as she attempts to find a balance between modern life and her Ainu identity.

The film begins on a positive note, with a number of girls announcing their hopes and dreams for the future. However, when we meet Rie Kayano, a pained look crosses her face as she struggles to put into words what it is that she wants to achieve in her life. The documentary then cuts to a B-roll of drone recordings over Hokkaido and shots of Kayano as she dons her traditional Ainu clothing, the Attush robe.

Kayano tells us of her past and shares happy memories of her dancing with her mother and sister to traditional Ainu music as a child. We also learn that after she entered elementary school, Kayano experienced discrimination and bullying for her indigenous roots, causing her to despise her heritage and to grow up feeling self-conscious. This would continue until she reached the age of 18 when she moved to Sapporo and made new friends who spoke openly about their Ainu Heritage. This rekindling with the Ainu culture then led Kayano to join the band MAREWREW where she sings as a traditional Ainu vocalist.

Kayano would go on to study at Sapporo University under the Ainu Scholarship, the “Urespa Project” which was founded by professor Yuko Honda in 2010.

Following the birth of her daughter, Kayano felt as if her life was slipping away without her having done anything of particular note and had a sudden urge to accomplish something. She was invited to go to Florida so that she could meet with the Seminole, a native American people who have found a way to keep their culture blossoming whilst coexisting with ongoing and ever-changing modernisation.

In Florida, Kayano meets with numerous members of the Seminole tribe and visits one of their schools, where she experiences an immersion class where only the native language, Creek, is spoken. Kayano is shocked to see the children laughing and playing in their native tongue, as she has never seen this happen amongst Ainu children.

During her time with the Seminole, Kayano has the chance to talk through her struggles with different members of the tribe, who encourage and ensure her that she will succeed despite the many challenges that she will certainly face.

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Upon her return to Japan, Kayano has finally come to fully accept her Ainu identity and begins her journey of sharing her culture with the world.

The film finishes up with Kayano singing a song that she wrote in traditional Ainu language, describing her journey to Florida and her meeting with the Seminoles which brought her great inspiration and newfound hope.

Full of moving, powerful imagery beautifully filmed by cinematographer Ryosuke Kawaguchi, "Future is MINE - Ainu My Voice" is a heartwarming documentary film directed by Daichi Tomida, which portrays the struggles of living with and trying to rekindle Ainu heritage in modern society.

The documentary is available to watch with English subtitles (make sure to click youtube’s CC button for the subtitles) on YouTube.

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© grape Japan

©2024 GPlusMedia Inc.

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I'm glad she grew up to take pride in her heritage. It could have gone either way when you're bullied at a young age. Unfortunately some grow to hate themselves and others like them, be they of an ethnic minority or LGBT.

It's sad to see the Ainu language on the verge of extinction. The Ryukyu languages will follow if something more isn't done. It's not so hard to grow up learning more than one language.

10 ( +11 / -1 )

When I was living in Hokkaido, my company had a very large translation project for the Hokkaido government. There were videos, posters, booklets, all to be translated for a large international project. There was one poster that I refused to work on unless they changed it.

The huge caption read, "It has been 100 years that human beings settled in Hokkaido." 

The official who I was dealing with couldn't see anything wrong with it. I went above him and eventually found someone who could see the problem and the title was changed.

This illustrates the problem. The Ainu were not regarded as human beings.

8 ( +9 / -1 )

Just don't tattoo your face and unless wearing a tshirt everyday claiming yourself as Ainu, what struggles are you dealing with here?

Is that a genuine query to the Ainu people or just a way of dismissing their issues without deeper analysis?

Did you miss there part of the article that mentioned the bullying?

5 ( +5 / -0 )


"It has been 100 years that human beings settled in Hokkaido."

I remember you saying this. Absolutely mind-boggling. Can you imagine Trump saying it's been 300 odd years since human beings settled in America? On second thoughts...

4 ( +6 / -2 )

Exactly what happened to the native Americans. It's called Pride to the indigenous people.

2 ( +2 / -0 )

The huge caption read, "It has been 100 years that human beings settled in Hokkaido." 

I commend you Bertie W for that comment.

To me the Ainu and have some similarities to indigenous people of the Pacific US North West and BC coastal regions.

2 ( +2 / -0 )

Teaching young Japanese about the Ainu should be a more important lesson in tolerance than teaching them about MLK and "I have a dream". Learning more about what the Ainu dream would be much closer to home and could serve as an antidote to toxic chauvinism.

1 ( +2 / -1 )

Go a little further back and historical evidence will show that various people came to Japan and settled 980 - 1300 and the later aggression's from the north. More than the typical han-bun and today it only spreads again to alter the society.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Bob KunihiroToday 01:35 am JSTExactly what happened to the native Americans. It's called Pride to the indigenous people.

And when I was in the Navy I learned the story of the indigenous Philippine peoples like the Igorot. And Australia has the Aborigines,  New Zealand Maori, India has Dravidians, southern Africa has the Hottentot Pygmies, northern Europe has Lapps, and of course the Native Americans. It's the same all over the world.

And it's time to right the wrongs, stop repeating them and embrace all our ethnic heritages and stop the shaming. We are all made in God's image.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

WobotToday  10:06 am JST

The Ryukan people are actually more widely known than the Ainu. Most Japanese people seem to barely know the Ainu exist, if at all... I doubt many foreigners know about them either.

The wajin have an obligation to correct historic wrongs and free the original people of the land

There's hardly a house in Japan without a carved bear and an Ainu man/woman doll set. Most people are quite aware of the Ainu.

-4 ( +3 / -7 )

Pride can be a dangerous thing.

-7 ( +0 / -7 )

Just don't tattoo your face and unless wearing a tshirt everyday claiming yourself as Ainu, what struggles are you dealing with here?

-11 ( +1 / -12 )

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