Ethnic Museums: Educating Others or Preserving Selves?

I used my ten days on Hokkaido to examine my idea that Ainu museums present Ainu ethnicity to a larger public, and are run with the goal of asserting Ainu ethnic identity in a way that challenges the majority Japanese conception of Japan as an ethnically homogeneous nation. This is when the emphasis of the Ainu on preserving their culture and participating in Japanese life as Ainu became clear to me. Ainu-run museums did in fact try to combat popular ideas about the Ainu (such as that there are no Ainu left, that the Ainu language is dead, that the Ainu are particularly hairy, etc.) through signs and information in brochures. At the Shiraoi Poroto Kotan (Ainu Village), guides also tried to make visitors aware that the Ainu are both Ainu and Japanese. For instance, a younger guide (dressed in Ainu clothing) tried to explain that the Ainu aren’t entirely different from the Japanese today, but that they still have a special culture, by saying “I’m the same as everyone else. I only wear these clothes from 8 to 5. Do you know any Ainu? These foods came from the Ainu…these place names are Ainu names….”

However, a researcher at the Shiraoi Poroto Kotan museum explained to me that of necessity, Ainu museums can only go so far in trying to explain Ainu ethnicity as well as traditional (and no longer existing) Ainu culture. She agreed with my feeling that it’s impossible to attempt to show Ainu culture and history in the same way that Japanese history is portrayed, because there are no records of Ainu history from the Ainu point of view. She also pointed out the impossibility of exhibiting a culture or identity that is currently in the process of being re-defined, and explained that “Ainu culture today is changing. People have a Japanese lifestyle, and they can no longer do things like take bears from the mountains, and it is unclear to them how to include their own feelings and lives in the ceremonies.” As a result, she informed me, the main goal of the museum was not to teach others about Ainu culture; instead, it was to focus on cultural preservation for the Ainu themselves.

The emphasis on cultural growth was the most common theme I encountered in Ainu-run museums. I had not realized the extent to which Ainu and Okinawans are currently engaged in re-defining their cultural identities for themselves, or that this concern would dominate other concerns about fitting into a larger Japanese society. Museums did not present this concern to tourists in displays; rather, it was only obvious when I looked at the way space was allocated in museums and talked to people working there. At the Kawamura Kaneto Ainu Memorial Museum, for instance, I was lucky enough to see the most famous contemporary Ainu musician (Oki) practicing for a music competition in the museum’s rehearsal hall, and the success of his rehearsal was the main concern of the museum staff. Ms. Fujita explained that she worked at a tourist village (the Gyokusendo Kingdom Village) in Okinawa because she wanted to learn about making Okinawan pottery: it was an apprenticeship, a place where crafts could be taught not only to casual visitors but to those interested in making the practice of those crafts a part of their life. There was also space at the Kingdom Village, as at the Kawamura Kaneto Ainu Memorial Museum, for local dance or music groups to rehearse.

SOURCE: The Myth of Japanese Ethnic Homogeneity, by Catherine Williams, September 1999

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Filed under education, Japan

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