The Ainu’s Modern Struggle

Skye Hohmann

Ainu Mosir is a country of sweeping vistas: forested slopes reach up to steaming volcanic peaks, waterfalls plunge down rugged mountains, and plains stretch to the horizon. Its forests team with wildlife. Migratory cranes overwinter in coastal marshes, foxes wander the hills, and the deeper wilderness is the habitat of the brown bear. Tourists flock here in winter for skiing and hot springs, and in summer for hiking and clear air.

Ainu Mosir is known to most by another name: Hokkaido. The northernmost of Japan’s main islands, it is also the last remaining homeland of Japan’s indigenous people, the Ainu.

Hokkaido is not a rich land. Outside cities and tourist destinations, the houses are small, shabby clapboard buildings. Nibutani, a little-known and less-visited backwater near the southeastern coast, is, for Japan, noticeably poor: the train runs infrequently from the gritty port town of Tomakomai through a rocky scrubland dotted with run-down factories before passing into an even emptier stretch of farmland. Few guidebooks include the area, and those that do merely glance over the town, mentioning the high proportion of Ainu living here and recommending the museum and cultural center. None suggests that Nibutani is currently at the nexus of a change that reaches far beyond the borders of Hokkaido.