Native Identity - An Ainu Story (My Story)

I have been interested in the Ainu pretty much since I came to Japan, though like most Japanese people, I knew little about them or whether they even still existed. There is a sensitivity with working with indigenous people and that combined with a more closed attitude to outsiders in Japan left me feeling untrusted when I first tried to approach some members of the Ainu community regarding doing a photography project, so it wasn’t easy to get this project started.

Members of the Ainu community in Hokkaido often come to Honshu (Japan's main island) to perform traditional dances or give talks in schools or community centres and other than going to Hokkaido I thought that getting to one of these events might be my best chance to meet some Ainu people and see if it might be possible to start a photography project with them. So in May 2016 I took an overnight bus from Tokyo to Toyama to visit an ‘Ainu festival’. When I got there I chatted to some people and got the general message ‘it might be possible but I can’t help you’, which left me feeling positive enough to consider going to Hokkaido in the summer. 

On the way out of the exhibition feeling that the trip had gone no better or worse than expected, I ended up getting on the same bus as the performers at the festival - musicians, singers and dancers, all from Akan. I told them that I was a photographer and wanted to do a project with the Ainu community. We chatted and then I ended up going for coffee with a few of them. 

Later that evening whilst wandering the streets before getting my bus I bumped into the whole group who, drunk, merry and on their way to karaoke and greeted me like an old friend that they had bumped into out of the blue. They invited me along to karaoke and I sang a few obligatory songs, including a duet of ‘Day Tripper’ (only being aware of it’s relevance to my situation as I write this) and I left with a few business cards and feeling like things couldn’t have gone better.

When I got back to Tokyo and sent emails to the people I met, some didn’t reply, some gave one word replies and one person told me that people in Akan would be disgusted if I took photos of them and at this point I started to think that maybe I should not continue pursuing this project. Kenji Matsuda, head of the Akan Ainu Cultural Preservation Society, was the only person that I hadn’t messaged yet. He told me that he was busy over the summer and it would be difficult to meet, so as a last ditch attempt to get this project going I offered to help him out and he returned the favour by saying that I could stay at his place if I did. 

When I first went to Akan I didn’t take a single photo as I still had that ‘disgusting’ comment in the back of my mind and decided that it would be better to get to know people and then see if they are comfortable with being photographed. I knew that I would be helping out in Matsuda san’s ramen (noodle) restaurant - Banya….but that was all.

When I arrived we met at Banya - which he lives above with his wife and dog, in Ainu Kotan (Kotan means ‘village’ in the Ainu language). I dumped my stuff and was downstairs and helping out almost immediately. Banya is a regular drinking haunt for some people in the local community and Matsuda san (referred to as Master by staff and some customers) often welcomes newcomers into town with drinks and chats into the early hours of the morning. 

I have now been back to Akan 3 times and everytime I spend at least half of my time at Banya. I help out by cleaning dishes, taking orders and chatting to customers (there are quite a lot of foreigners passing through Akan and Matsuda san speaks no English at all). This arrangement isn’t very conducive to taking good photos as I generally prefer not to be rushed and that isn’t possible when you’re working in a busy restuarant. It has however, enabled me to get to know and be trusted by Matsuda san and his family and the people of Akan better than I could if I just came and asked if i could take photos and it’s also allowed me to learn about contemporary Ainu culture through experience rather than learn about it in an academic sense.

Matsuda san has taken me to his family graves for Obon (Japanese festival of ancestor worship) and let me spend New Year’s Eve with his family. He introduces me to people as his son, usually to bemused looks, but he usually ends up convincing people that I am genuinely his long lost son from England. 

There is also a fair bit of down time in the restaurant and I have been able to get some of my favourite shots during those moments. If there’s nothing going on and i’m not doing anything then Matsuda san will give me the task of squeezing out the gyoujya niniku (行者にんにく - which translates as ascetic’s garlic - it’s a like a slimy spring onion and the liquid has to be painstakingly squeezed out before cooking it - a bowlful takes about 45 minutes and leaves you with garlicky throbbing hands). Matsuda san always seems to bring it out just as I’m about to relax or do something else. 

Doing a photo documentary isn’t just about going to a place and setting up your camera. If you want to really get to know the subject and not always be an outsider looking in, but to be an insider, then it’s more about getting to know the people you are working with and basically making friends with them and hanging out, whilst taking photos and getting to know their story. I also feel that I should do my bit as Matsuda san lets me stay at his place and sometimes feeds me too. I probably end up working in total about 3 - 4 hours a day and if I want to take a day or two to just focus on photography then I will let him know. We also have arranged a few shoots and I always have my camera slung over my shoulder as Matsuda san has agreed to let me take photos whenever I like. 

Every time I have come to Akan I have learnt more and seen a deeper level of existence of a culture that at first I thought was not more than a relic of the past. Ainu culture is alive and well but of course not in it’s previous form. Most people live in houses with electricity and running water, shop in convenience stores and go to karaoke to enjoy themselves, but there is a tangible culture which is being kept alive by old and young members of the community and I think that there is more Ainu pride than than it seems like there was in the past, when people of Matsuda san’s generation were raised trying to hide their culture.  

There are a fair number of Japanese people who are deeply involved in the Ainu community, some are married to Ainu, some have Ainu blood a few generations back and some are just interested in the culture or live and work locally. It is hard for me to separate the cultures of the Ainu, Hokkaido and Akan and to be able to distinguish what comes from where. My experience is a combination of all 3 and that combination is representative of the modern Ainu living in Akan. The combination comes together to form a connection to nature that when seen in connection with the existing Ainu culture, gives me a feeling of being connected to something just a few steps removed from ancient ways.

I think there are as many different sides to Ainu culture as there are Ainu people and my documentary so far aims to portray my experience of a piece of Ainu culture and is definitely not representative of the whole community, though the history of the Ainu as a whole is something that all Ainu people have in common and I will attempt to tell both stories in my upcoming exhibition which will be held at The Brunei Gallery at SOAS in London from October - December 2018. Please feel free to contact me for any more information, and I hope to see you there!