By Tetsu Joko / Yomiuri Shimbun PhotographerSAPPORO — Late at night in a small restaurant near Lake Akan in eastern Hokkaido, traditional Ainu music fills the air with warmth.
Operator Fukiko Goukon, 38, begins to play the tonkori, a traditional Ainu string instrument, by the counter in the restaurant, which serves Ainu cuisine. Her sister Emi Shimokura, 40, sings an upopo, or Ainu song.
Born in the Ainu village, or kotan, by the lake, the sisters grew up listening to upopo sung by their mother and their huci, or grandmother. At their grandmother’s house, the sisters also learned the traditional dances that accompany upopo as the adults in the community sang.
Having had children of their own, the sisters started activities three years ago to promote traditional music, hoping to pass Ainu culture on to the next generation.
The government recognized the Ainu as an indigenous people six years ago. In the process of forming Japan’s modern state, the Ainu culture was severely damaged, and the Ainu language has become critically endangered. Efforts to revive Ainu culture have only just begun.
In June, the Cabinet decided to establish the first national center to introduce and promote the Ainu culture, with hopes of it opening by March 2021.
In the Hokkaido town of Shiraoi, the location for the planned center, young people learn the traditional rituals and language of the Ainu. Yuki Arata, 28, said: “There’s so much to learn from my ancestors, who were always grateful for the blessings of nature in their everyday life. I’d like to live my life with pride in being Ainu.”
In the town of Shin-Hidaka, Hokkaido, Ainu people gather for a memorial service for their ancestors. Children energetically perform pattaki upopo, a traditional Ainu dance whose movements were inspired by grasshoppers.
The children belong to a group based in Obihiro, Hokkaido, that carries out activities to preserve traditional Ainu dance.
Group leader Nanako Sakai, 63, said: “Before, I couldn’t imagine seeing an increase in the number of young people who want to learn about Ainu culture. These youngsters will definitely hand our culture down to the next generation