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Tuesday, July 8, 2008

G8 SUMMIT 2008

Ainu artist, activist has spent a lifetime fighting prejudice


Staff writer

Shizue Ukaji was born in March 1933 in a small southern coastal area of Hokkaido known as Urakawa.

Facing the Pacific, Urakawa is known for its fisheries, especially sea tangle harvesting.

For the first 20 years of her life, Ukaji struggled with poverty and discrimination at the hands of "wajin" (Japanese) in her small community — because she is Ainu.

Life was difficult for Ukaji and her family. Her father was busy all year round trying to make ends meet by farming, harvesting sea tangle, logging and hunting. With the little money they made, Ukaji's parents not only fed her and her five siblings but also shared their food with other people's children who were in need — regardless of their ethnicity.

Thus no matter how hard her father worked, his income was never enough. Ukaji and her brothers and sisters did what they could to help out, often skipping school to make money at part-time jobs.

"We had to engage in physical labor," Ukaji said in a recent interview with The Japan Times. "The Japanese took away all of the good jobs from the Ainu, and our land and our fish."

The Ainu are an ethnic minority who originally lived mainly in Hokkaido, the four Russian-held islands off Hokkaido and the southern part of Russia's Sakhalin.

The word Ainu means "human" in the Ainu language. The Ainu call their homeland "Ainu Mosir," which means "the quiet earth where humans dwell."

In 1869, however, the Meiji government gave Hokkaido its current name and unilaterally claimed the land as part of Japan. Under Japanese rule, the Ainu were prohibited from practicing certain traditions, including men wearing earrings and women getting tattooed, and they were "encouraged" to learn the Japanese language.

Ukaji's parents were born in an era when the Ainu language was prohibited, so her family all spoke only Japanese at home. Discrimination against the Ainu and their culture was very strong, Ukaji recalled.

School life in the 1930s and 1940s was also trying for Ukaji. Her Japanese classmates picked on her because of her ethnicity, calling her "Ainu" or "a dog." If she dared to raise her hand to answer a question, she was bullied later for having the nerve to speak up in class.

Her teachers pretended not to see.

"Even though I was just a child, I had already seen the terror of the human soul," Ukaji said. "Those children's words pierced (my heart)."

With just barely enough attendance, Ukaji graduated from elementary school. But her family could not afford to let her go to junior high school, so Ukaji did whatever she could to help out her parents, taking up part-time jobs and looking after her younger siblings.

But when she turned 20, Ukaji persuaded her parents to let her go to a junior high school in Sapporo. Her schoolmates were much younger than her, only 12 or 13 years old, but Ukaji didn't care. She was hungry for knowledge and her three years in junior high were "heavenly," she recalled.

"I would say about only 1 percent of the Ainu of my generation graduated from junior high school — it was very rare in those days because (Ainu children) just all became laborers," Ukaji said. "It was a tough era. (The Ainu) were so poor that (their children) couldn't go to school to help out our parents."

Upon graduating from junior high at the age of 23, Ukaji couldn't find a job in Hokkaido, where discrimination against the Ainu was still deep-rooted. So she followed her friends to Tokyo.

It was 1956 when Ukaji arrived and Tokyo was still recovering from the destruction of World War II. She managed to find waitressing jobs in cafes, which by chance became her place of education as well — because university students would gather for hours at these cafes and hold discussions. The students talked about anything, Ukaji said, from film and literature to politics.

And then Ukaji would rush to the secondhand bookstore and buy anything from regular novels to German literature.

"I learned by listening with my ears while pouring coffee," Ukaji said, smiling. "I had nothing else to wear but the clothes I had on. . . . I may have had nothing else but I continued to buy books."

At age 26, Ukaji married a Japanese architect from Tokyo and the couple had a girl and a boy. Her daughter is currently active as an Ainu cultural adviser, while her son, Takashi, is an established actor.

While raising her children, Ukaji followed her parents' example and sheltered several Ainu children who made their way to Tokyo to pursue education or work. Slowly but surely, her desire to stand up for the rights of the Ainu began to grow — and she became one of the pioneers of their movement in the Kanto region in the early 1970s.

"It just became so difficult to live in a society based on the values of the Japanese," Ukaji said, again using the term wajin.

Together with her Ainu friends, Ukaji persuaded the metropolitan government to take measures on behalf of the Ainu, including letting them apply for welfare, and got permission to do a survey on the lives of Ainu living in Tokyo.

Now, the 75-year-old Ukaji is an artist living in Kamogawa, Chiba Prefecture. In 1996, when she was 62, she went to Hokkaido for a year to study traditional Ainu patterns. She is now a published author of illustrated books for children, in which she combines traditional Ainu embroideries of animals with words.

And for the Ainu, this past June 6 marked a significant moment as both Diet chambers passed a resolution to officially recognize the Ainu as indigenous for the first time in history. The resolution stated "the government shall recognize that the Ainu are indigenous people who have their own language, religion and culture."

After the resolution was passed, Chief Cabinet Secretary Nobutaka Machimura said the government now recognizes the Ainu as indigenous and promised policies on behalf of the ethnic minority that has been forced to lead underprivileged lives for so long.

"I have fought (for Ainu rights) for so long that I never thought I would live to see the day" when the government recognized the Ainu as indigenous," Ukaji said.

But the Diet recognition is just the beginning for them.

"For thousands of years, our ancestors protected and handed down (Ainu) culture and history, and we must continue to do that — because that is the source of our existence," Ukaji said.



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The Japan Times

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