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date: 26 September 2022

Japan and the Ainu in the Early Modern Periodlocked

Japan and the Ainu in the Early Modern Periodlocked

  • Noémi GodefroyNoémi GodefroyDepartment of Japanese Studies, Institut National des Langues et des Civilisations Orientales (Inalco), IFRAE (French Research Institute on East Asia)

Summary

The Ainu are an indigenous people of northeast Asia, and their lands encompassed what are now known as the north of Honshu, Hokkaido, the Kuril archipelago, southern Sakhalin, the southernmost tip of Kamchatka, and the Amur River estuary region. As such, Ainu space was a maritime one, linking the Pacific, the Sea of Okhotsk, and the Sea of Japan, and the Ainu settlements were dynamic actors in various maritime trade networks. Hence, they actively traded with other peoples, including the Japanese, from an early stage.

Spreading over thousands of years, relations between Japan and the Ainu evolved in an ever-tightening way. These relations can be read in diplomatic or political terms, but also, and maybe even more so, in economic, spatial, and environmental terms, as Japan’s relationship with the Ainu people is deeply rooted in its relationship to Ainu goods, lands, and resources. Furthermore, Ainu songs reveal the importance of the charismatic trade with Japan in the shaping of Ainu society and worldview. From the 17th century, the initial, relative reciprocity of Ainu-Japanese relations became increasingly unbalanced, as the Tokugawa shoguns’ domestic productivity and foreign trade came to hinge upon Ainu labor, central to the transformation of northern marine products. During the 18th century, overlapping authorities and conflicting interests on both sides of the ethnic divide led to the advent of an inextricable web of mutual interdependencies, which all but snapped as the northeastern region of the Ainu lands became the convergence point of Japanese, Russian, and European interests. The need to establish clear regional sovereignty, to directly reap regional economic benefits and prevent Ainu unrest, led the shogunate to progressively establish direct control on the Ainu lands from the dawn of the 19th century.

Although shogunate control did not lead to a full-fledged colonial enterprise per se, from the advent of the Meiji era, Ainu lands were annexed and their inhabitants subjected to colonial measures of assimilation, cultural suppression, and forced agricultural redeployment on the one hand, and dichotomization and exhibition on the other hand, before they all but disappeared from public discourse from the end of the 1930s. From the 1990s, within a global context of emerging indigenous and minority voices, Ainu individuals, groups, and movements have strived to achieve discursive reappropriation and political representation, and the past years have seen them be recognized as a minority group in Japan. Given past and ongoing tensions between Russia and Japan over sovereignty in the southern Kuril, and the future opening of the Arctic route between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, the Ainu could play an international role in both diplomatic and environmental terms.

Subjects

  • Borderlands
  • Japan

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