The Cipiyak Project – stories of Japanese connections with Aotearoa

The Cipiyak Project – stories of Japanese connections with Aotearoa

Curator Grace Gassin introduces a new project highlighting taonga in the national collection belonging to Ainu, an indigenous people of 日本 Japan, as well as stories of Japanese migration to Aotearoa New Zealand.

Some projects are born in an instant. Others require a combination of slow-burning thoughtful discussion and the right opportunities to come together. This project, it’s safe to say, falls into the second category.

Inspirations behind the Cipiyak* Project

Its first seeds were sown when I came across this beautiful Meiji era matampus (Ainu textile) in our collection in 2019. One of our volunteers, Nancy, correctly noted that it had been mislabelled in our records, prompting us to bring the entire collection out of storage to review.

I, a relatively new Te Papa curator at the time, couldn’t help but wonder how this collection, originally belonging to an Ainu community in Hokkaidō, had ended at the museum. What histories lay behind these various objects? Were there still Ainu communities who would know about or be interested in this collection? How did they end up in Aotearoa New Zealand and what uses have they been put to?

Over the next few years, I would meet several Ainu scholars and students who showed great interest in the collection and learn much about the histories which connect us.

A black headband with an embroidered design on it
Matampus (Ainu headband), about 1904, Japan, maker unknown. Gift of Mr K C Bibby, 1956. CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. Te Papa (FE003039)

Around the same time, I stumbled across a thesis on the history of early Japanese women migrants in Aotearoa New Zealand. Many had come here after marrying New Zealand soldiers who had served in the J or K forces; some had survived the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima – all were remarkable women.

After contacting the author, Mutsumi Kanazawa, I was put in touch with several descendants of these women. In spite of the Covid-19 pandemic which subsequently consumed our lives and everyone else’s, we connected (in person and virtually) over tales from their mothers’ and grandmothers’ lives and our own personal explorations of what it means to be ‘Asian’ in Aotearoa. We agreed that while histories of Aotearoa New Zealand’s Japanese diaspora remain marginal in public forums and, indeed, in most of our museum collections, they have the potential to greatly enrich our understanding of both Aotearoa New Zealand and Japanese histories.

Shining new light on under-represented Japanese Aotearoa histories

The Cipiyak Project brings into focus both the objects and histories of Japanese New Zealand diaspora communities and those which link Aotearoa New Zealand and Japan. These are two distinct areas of history, but they share in common the fact that they are both highly relevant to New Zealand’s history and yet are under-represented in our collections.

This project trials a new approach to our Asian collections broadly, one which prioritises material that centres historical and contemporary histories relevant to indigenous communities (in this case Māori and Ainu) and the under-represented histories of Asian diaspora communities in Aotearoa. It takes inspiration from those indigenous and Asian activists, community leaders, and scholars who have shown us how museums wield power, including the power to address silences in our histories that normalise who matters and who doesn’t.

Japan and the West

日本 Japan has been an important focal point in Western discourses about Asia. Descriptions of 日本 Japan in newspapers, travel books, and movies have formed much of what many of us would recognise as an exoticised (East) ‘Asia’ or ‘the Orient’. Images and designs inspired by an orientalised Japan, meanwhile, have provided material for much local home décor or fancy dress.

Japan has also served as a source of anxiety, for instance, following the Russo-Japanese War 1904-1905 and during the Second World War. In Aotearoa New Zealand and elsewhere, the impressions left behind by these varied versions of ‘Japan’ in high and popular culture have often been so great as to crowd out any space for local Japanese diaspora stories and localised forms of Japanese culture to be appreciated and documented.

Through this project, we hope to help widen that space and develop our own collections to be able to better tell Japanese New Zealand stories.

Shared histories of colonisation in 日本 Japan and Aotearoa

While we are much more aware these days of how settler colonial narratives of history have dominated our understanding of Aotearoa New Zealand, this lens is still not the default through which we view the histories of other nations. 日本 Japan’s history of imperialism in Asia during the Second World War, for instance, is much better known than those processes of colonisation which have occurred within 日本 Japan’s present-day borders such as those experienced by Ainu.

These legacies of colonisation continue to impact upon the (mis)representation and marginalisation of Ainu identity, history, and culture. As I have discovered in my own attempts to learn more about the objects in our collections, they also marginalise important histories that connect Ainu to the rest of the world and to Māori as indigenous peoples with shared struggles.

A new eye on our Japanese collections

For all of the reasons outlined, our Japanese collections deserve careful interpretation and development. Over the next few months I’ll share with you some reflections on my recent and ongoing work, and you will also hear directly from the individuals and communities whose stories we are working to better represent, including some of the Ainu knowledge holders and Japanese New Zealanders who originally inspired this project. Among the themes we will explore are:

  • the historical and present-day relationships and connections relevant to our Ainu and Japanese collection objects
  • the telling of object stories – whose stories and on what terms?
  • Japanese New Zealand diaspora histories and Ainu-Māori histories, the gaps and silences in our collection, and how we’re addressing them.

We want to hear from you!

If you have specialist knowledge of Japanese New Zealand histories, Ainu-Māori histories, or would like to offer the museum objects that relate to these areas, please feel free to get in touch with us and let us know of your interest in this project. We look forward to hearing from you.


*Cipiyak is the Ainu name for the Latham’s Snipe or the Japanese Snipe. The cipiyak breed mainly in Hokkaidō – where many Ainu and their ancestors are from – and often feature in Ainu stories and dances. Though the birds migrate principally to eastern Australia, they are also rare travellers to parts of Aotearoa New Zealand.

A sincere thank you to Dr. Kanako Uzawa (Ainu Today) and Kenji Sekine for suggesting the name ‘Cipiyak’ as a metaphor for the exciting connections and explorations we hope will emerge through this project.

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