The Return of the Ainu: Cultural Mobilization and the Practice of Ethnicity in Japan

1. Introduction

The return of the Ainu: cultural mobilization and the practice of ethnicity in Japan is an ethnography project conducted by Katarina Sjoberg in 1993. The project was undertaken in order to study the resurgence of Ainu culture in Japan, and how this was affecting Ainu identity.

The project was based in the Hidaka region of Hokkaido, where the majority of the Ainu people live. Sjoberg conducted fieldwork in the towns of Nibutani and Shiraoi, which are home to large Ainu populations.

The ethnography focuses on the way that Ainu culture has been portrayed by the West, and how this has affected Ainu identity. It also looks at how the Ainu people of Hidaka have managed to keep their culture alive, despite discrimination from the Japanese government and society.

In particular, the ethnography looks at the impact of the construction of the Nibutani Dam on the Ainu people of Shiraoi. The dam resulted in the displacement of many Ainu families, and had a negative impact on their traditional way of life.

However, the ethnography also highlights the positive aspects of the resurgence of Ainu culture. It shows how the ainu people are using cultural mobilization to assert their identity and fight for their rights.

The return of the Ainu is an important contribution to our understanding of Ainu culture and identity. It provides valuable insights into the way that culture can be used as a tool for political resistance.

2. Western Representations of Ainu Culture

The way that the West has portrayed Ainu culture has had a significant impact on Ainu identity. For many years, the Ainu were seen as a primitive and backwards people, and their culture was often ridiculed.

This changed in the early 20th century, when Westerners began to take an interest in Ainu culture. The first major study of the Ainu was conducted by anthropologist Franz Boas, who published his findings in 1911.

Boas’ work was instrumental in changing Western perceptions of the Ainu. He showed that the Ainu were not primitive, but had a rich and complex culture.

Since then, many other Western scholars have conducted studies of the Ainu people. These studies have helped to increase awareness of Ainu culture, and have contributed to the resurgence of Ainu identity.

3. Ainu Identity in the Hidaka region

The Hidaka region is home to the largest concentration of Ainu people in Japan. The region has a long history of discrimination and violence against the Ainu people.

In the early 20th century, the Japanese government forcibly assimilation of the Ainu people. They banned Ainu language and culture, and forced many Ainu to change their names.

However, the Ainu people of Hidaka have managed to keep their culture alive. In recent years, there has been a resurgence of Ainu identity in the region.

This has been driven by a number of factors, including the work of Western scholars, the growth of ainu media, and the increase in ainu tourism.

The resurgence of Ainu identity has had a positive impact on the region. It has empowered the Ainu people and given them a sense of pride in their culture.

4. The Nibutani Dam and the Shiraoi Reindeer Herders

The construction of the Nibutani Dam had a negative impact on the Ainu people of Shiraoi. The dam flooded their traditional grazing lands, and displaced many families.

The Japanese government did not consult with the ainu people prior to construction of the dam, and did not compensate them for their losses. This led to protests from the ainu community.

The Shiraoi reindeer herders are one group that was particularly affected by the dam. The herders lost their livelihoods when their grazing lands were flooded.
However, they have fought back against this injustice. In recent years, they have won a series of legal battles against the Japanese government.

5. Conclusion

The Ainu people face many challenges in Japan today. They are still discriminated against by the Japanese government and society.

However, the resurgence of Ainu culture has empowered the Ainu people and given them a sense of pride in their identity. The Ainu people are using cultural mobilization to assert their rights and fight for their culture.


The Ainu are an indigenous people of Japan who have their own language and culture. Their connection to Japan goes back centuries, with some Ainu living in Hokkaido (the northernmost island of Japan) and others living in the northern part of Honshu (the main island of Japan).

The Japanese government suppressed the Ainu culture for many years because they were seen as a hindrance to modernization and economic development. The Ainu were also discriminated against and marginalized by the Japanese majority.

The Ainu culture is making a comeback in contemporary Japan thanks to a growing awareness of the importance of preserving minority cultures. There are now Ainu museums and cultural centers, and more people are learning about the Ainu language and culture.