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Ainu: Spirit of a Northern People

The Ainu are the original indigenous people of Japan, once inhabiting much of northern Japan and now confined primarily to the island of Hokkaido. Many parallels can be drawn between the history and subsequent treatment of the Ainu and that of Native Americans. A lack of scholarly and non-scholarly text dealing with the Ainu only furthers the existing misunderstanding about the Ainu, both in Japan and in Western countries. Ainu: Spirit of a Northern People is the first comprehensive volume on the Ainu. This ambitious book aims to convey the history and culture of the Ainu people, both past and present.

Ainu: Spirit of a Northern People calls upon a varied and large group of scholars and Native Ainu leaders to impart their knowledge. The book should appeal to a broad readership; filled with hundreds of color photos and illustrations, it is not your average college text. A large and attractive volume, it makes a perfect coffee table book, conveying a wealth of information in a stunning layout. The book is proof that a scholarly text can also be attractive.

Many of the early chapters discuss the disputed origins of the Ainu; the most widely held view is that they are of Siberian ancestry, while some historians claim they are of Australian Aboriginal descent. It is in these early, historicallyfocused sections that the book is strongest. It presents a comprehensive history of the Ainu through a variety of voices and perspectives. "The Historic Period" traces the history of the Ainu from their early beginnings prior to contact with the Japanese through the attempt by the Japanese to assimilate them and right through to the presentAinu cultural renaissance. One of the most comprehensive chapters is "Ainu `Discovery' Collectors, Museums, and the Public." Articles in this chapter discuss the many Ainu museum collections throughout the world, including how these collections were originally acquired and viewed by the public.

Chapters focused on ethnographic detail are similarly strong. "Ainu Mosir: Land, Spirits, and Culture" is, from an anthropological point of view, the most insightful section, discussing everything from Ainu theology to eating habits. Many of these chapters are concise ethnographic accounts that offer a varied and detailed description of Ainu life from both emic and etic perspectives. Despite its strengths, however, the book never really connects Ainu traditions and past ways of life with contemporary ethnography. Any good anthropological text is capable of doing this, and one is left to wonder if this omission results from using so many independent pieces.

"Ainu Present and Future" highlights current initiatives by the Ainu to ensure the continued survival of their culture, as well as those factors limiting their progress. The section discusses some of the landmark laws affecting the Ainu, for better or worse. Among these is the 1899 Hokkaido Former Aborigines Protection Act -- a way for the Japanese authorities to assimilate the Ainu -- a measure which, understandably, met with Ainu resistance; and the 1997 Ainu Shinpo Act, which asserts that the Ainu truly are an indigenous people and as such are entitled to certain rights and laws to protect their indigenous status. Yet "Ainu Present and Future" fails to make reference to vital current issues.

The transformation over the years of Ainu culture is virtually ignored, and little mention is made of the consequences for Ainu who admit their indigenous identity. Only brief attention is given to the assimilation of the Ainu and its consequences. On the same note, the book is largely silent on Ainu land rights and on any reconciliation efforts by the Japanese government. These factors, coupled with the fact that Ainu culture is almost invariably discussed in the past tense, contribute to a fatalistic tone. While celebrating traditional Ainu culture, the book does little to explain what it means to be Ainu today. A reader interested in current and conceptual/intellectual information on the Ainu may be disappointed.

The book may never have been intended as a commentary on contemporary Ainu issues, but its impact would be improved by a drastic increase in contemporary Ainu literature. Ever increasing numbers of Japanese are braving social stigma and admitting that they are of Ainu ancestry. A book of this breadth and scope should have done more to examine the challenges and issues Ainu face as they strive to retain their identity under assimilatory pressures. Despite its flaws, however, Ainu: Spirit of a Northern People remains an important work, one that stands as the top available reference on the Ainu, and comes highly recommended. The word "Ainu" means human. This volume's greatest success is its human portrait of this indigenous people.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

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