Ainu Stories: Contemporary Lives by the Saru River – New Exhibition at Japan House London

Meet Japan’s indigenous people, the Ainu, who were the earliest settlers of Japan’s northernmost island, Hokkaido and their descendants still live there!  Japan House London’s new exhibition gives you a rare opportunity to experience first-hand  how Ainu people are living today.

 

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♬ Sengoku warlords, history, Japanese-style orchestra(964220) – Scoring Heroes

  

Who are The Ainu?

 

Ainu Stories - Contemporary Lives by the Saru River

Photo: Urban Adventurer

 

 

The Ainu were the earliest settles of Hokkaido, the northernmost island of Japan. Their culture is considered to have been created between the 9th and the 13th centuries.

 

The Ainu people live in the Saru River basin in South Hokkaido, and they were officially recognised as indigenous people in Japan in June 2008. The Ainu population was 13,118 in 2017 and 210 in the rest of Japan in 2011 (Source: IWGIA). In the second half of the 20th century many Ainu moved to Japan’s urban centres, so experts assume that the actual Ainu population is much higher.

 

The Ainu culture has a distinctive language, traditions, belief, and clothing that are unrelated to the Japanese.

 

Ainu Stories: Contemporary Lives by the Saru River

 

Golden Kamuy Manga - Ainu Stories- Contemporary Lives by the Saru River Exhibition at Japan House London

Photo: Urban Adventurer

 

 

The exhibition offers a rare first-hand opportunity for visitors to experience Ainu culture as it looks like today. Unlike other exhibitions, this exhibition focuses on the present instead of the past.

 

Visitors will see original woodcarvings made by members of the Ainu society, robes they wear in special occasions, a manga series (‘Golden Kamuy’ and it has a very popular anime series, too), inspired by the Ainu and much more.

 

The exhibition is free to visit from 16 November 2023 – 21 April 2024 and there will be talks, demonstrations, and workshops, such as cuisine, arts & crafts, dance and more.

 

Most of the workshops and demonstrations are free, just check “what’s on” and book your session on Japan House London’s website.

 

The exhibition is divided into multiple sections, from textile, to woodcarving to food and language. Visitors can learn more about Ainu culture and traditions through interviews and short clips shown on screens.

 

Woodcarving

 

Woodcarvings Ainu Stories- Contemporary Lives by the Saru River Exhibition at Japan House London

Photo: Urban Adventurer

 

 

Woodcarving plays an important role in Ainu people’s lives. ‘Nibutani Ita’ are carved wooded plates, decorated with elaborated patters ‘morew’ (gentle spirals), ‘ayus’ (thorns), ‘sik’ (eye shapes) and ‘ram-ram’ (fish scales).

 

Traditional woodcarving techniques and patterns are passed from generation to generation. In the exhibition, you will see wooden plates carved by younger woodcarvers and their masters.

  

Textile and Clothing

 

Textile and Clothing Ainu Stories - Contemporary Lives by the Saru River Exhibition at Japan House London

Photo: Urban Adventurer

 

  

Today there are only a handful of weavers in Nibutani who produce ‘attus’, a fabric woven from the inner bark fibres of elm and linden trees. Because of its durability, breathability, and water resistance, ‘attus’ has been a very popular form of workwear for fishermen.

 

The Ainu wear robe or ‘amip’ made from ‘attus’ for ceremonies and special occasions. These robes are richly decorated with embroidery and each region has its own unique style.

 

Dance and Songs

 

Traditional Dance Performance - Ainu Stories- Contemporary Lives by the Saru River Exhibition at Japan House London

Photo: Urban Adventurer

 

 

Singing and dancing are important elements of Ainu life. Each region has its own characteristics. Biratori region dances, for example often refer to birds.

 

Singing and dancing are vital parts of the Ainu’s everyday life to maintain and express their culture and is carried out for enjoyment rather than entertaining others.

  

Food

 

Food - Ainu Stories- Contemporary Lives by the Saru River Exhibition at Japan House London

Photo: Urban Adventurer

 

The Ainu have extensive knowledge of plants and how to cook them as well as how to use them as medicine. Most of the ingredients of Ainu dishes come from the wild. They use wild vegetables that they season with fish oil and animal fat.

 

It’s a fundamental etiquette in Ainu culture to only take what you need. The Ainu are determined to maintain a sustainable relationship with the environment and ensure they leave the roots untouched when harvesting mountain vegetables.

 

Their traditional soups are ‘ohaw’ and ‘rur’ that contain wild onions, salmon, and deer or bear meat.

 

Language

 

Ainu Language Books - Ainu Stories- Contemporary Lives by the Saru River Exhibition at Japan House London

Photo: Urban Adventurer

 

 

Ainu language is distinct from Japanese, however, there are some aspects of word order that are similar. Ainu language is purely verbal. Stories and legends have been passed orally from generation to generation. It is, however, now transcribed using Latin alphabet and katakana.

 

UNESCO listed Ainu language as endangered in 2009.

 

Evidence of the Ainu language can be found in names of places throughout Hokkaido, such as Poroshiri, the highest mountain in the Hidaka Mountains. The name of the mountain is derived from the words of ‘poro’ (large) and ‘sir’ (land).

 

Some Japanese words also have Ainu origins. For example, ‘rakko’ (sea otter), ‘konbu’ (kelp seaweed) and ‘tanakai’ (reindeer).

 

Ainu Baby Born in London

  

The Japan-British Exhibition was held at the Great White City in London between May and October in 1910.

The exhibition celebrated the ongoing Anglo-Japanese Alliance promoting Japan as a ‘modern civilised’nation and was visited by over 8 million (!) people.

 

Part of the exhibition was ‘Ainu Home’, which was basically an Ainu village where 10 Ainu people helped showcasing the village life. However, 10 Ainu arrived in London, and 11 returned to Hokkaido because a baby was born during the time of the exhibition.

 

The baby was given the name of Kaizawa Hidehiro, written in Japanese uses two characters which can mean ‘Britain’ and ‘exhibition’. He was the first Ainu baby born in Europe.

 

 

 

All performers at the ‘Ainu Stories: Contemporary Lives by the Saru River’ at Japan House London are members of the Ainu community in Biratori. They help maintain their cultural heritage through skills and knowledge, including dance, sing, woodcarving, language, and cuisine: Kimura Hiromi, Harada Rino (one member of singing duo Ankes), Monbetsu Atsushi, Hiramura Daiki, Kimura Manami, Sasaki Tomoyo, Yamada Sakurako, Hiramura Harumi, Yūki Riku, and Nishiyama Ryō.

 

Woodcarvings, robes, and artworks are available to purchase in Japan House London’s shop upstairs.

If you’re interested in traveling to Japan, make sure you visit ‘Travel Zone’ staffed by Japan National Tourism Organisation offering free travel advice and leaflets.

 

 

 

 

Ready for your next adventure? If you’re looking for kids activity related to Japan, Young V&A Museum’s very first exhibition: ‘Japan: Myths to Manga’ opened this October.