Ainu scholar and artist Kanako Uzawa on the power of having a voice in museums

Ainu scholar and artist Kanako Uzawa on the power of having a voice in museums

In this blog, Ainu scholar, artist, and activist Kanako Uzawa discusses the representation of Japan’s colonial history in museums and public spaces for our Cipiyak Project.

Kanako Uzawa. Photo by Mats Gangvik and courtesy of Kanako Uzawa

Our community’s complicated relationship with museums

The Ainu ekasi (elder) Uesanasi was my great-grandfather. He was an Ainu sculptor and one of the locals who started selling Ainu handicrafts in the Nibutani community. His work is stored in the Biratori Museum, the Hokkaido Museum, and the National Museum of Ethnology in Japan. It is reasonable to assume that his work has also been collected and stored in museums abroad.

The first time I saw his work in a museum setting was at one of the national museums in Tokyo. It felt somehow strange to see his work being showcased. I felt a sense of disconnection to the object. My mind wondered, how did this object end up being here?

The Ainu people and culture have been always a vital part of my life, just like Japanese people and culture. As a child, I travelled between Tokyo and Hokkaido several times a year, due to my mother’s work in Tokyo. In Tokyo, no one spoke a word of Ainu, while everything was about the Ainu language and culture in the Nibutani community in Hokkaido. This dual life that I lived was something exciting but also strange; something that taught me to be adaptable to two very different environments and cultures.

During my youth, I remember feeling both fear and excitement whenever I spoke about the Ainu. It was scary to talk about the Ainu because I never knew how people would react. It could be either positive or negative, but I was afraid of insensitive questions like ‘are you Ainu?’ and ‘how could you be Ainu?’. At the same time, it was exciting to receive so much attention because of my heritage. It gave me an opportunity to communicate with many guests from all over the world who wanted to explore Ainu culture and learn about the Nibutani community.

It was only later that I became more critically aware of why the Ainu originally became such popular research objects for many researchers around the world.

How Ainu became research objects*

Ainu Studies is a vast research field with a long history. It is estimated that thousands of volumes related to Ainu Studies have been written in Japanese.

After Japan’s opening to the West with the Meiji Restoration (1868), Japan began to import theories of race and the new science of evolution from Europe and the Americas in the late 1800s. This activity, which we can now understand as academic colonialism, had a devastating and violent impact on my community.

The popularity of Social Darwinism and racial discourse influenced the field of Ainu Studies from the late nineteenth- to the mid-twentieth centuries. Around the turn of the twentieth century, the Ainu came to be perceived as a “dying race” which remains the general norm in Japan even today. Japanese “salvage anthropologists” organised collecting trips to Hokkaido and targeted Ainu communities, as they believed that these items would no longer persist as Ainu “disappeared.” The Ainu were considered easily accessible domestic research objects and therefore, as Richard Siddle explains it, “tailor-made material for research” used in the development of anthropology, archaeology, and linguistics in Japan (1).

Under the influence of Social Darwinism and racial typologies in Europe, many scholars became fascinated by the theory of the Ainu being distant ‘Caucasian’ brethren residing in Asia (2). This resulted in the stealing or collecting of Ainu human remains and funeral accessories from Ainu cemeteries in Hokkaido, often without any consent of family members or communities, through to the mid-twentieth century (3).

Two important figures stand above all others in this discourse: Kodama Sakuzaemon (1970) who led osteological research on the Ainu in the twentieth century and “collected and analysed more than a thousand Ainu skeletal remains” (4) and Koganei Yoshikio (1935), also known as the father of Japanese archaeology. He collected Ainu skeletal remains in order to produce racial typologies and discussions of the ethnogenesis of the Ainu in Japan (5). Such unethical practices persisted into the twenty-first century and research on the Ainu continues to traumatise our community, persisting in the living memories of Ainu elders even today.

Most of the human remains collected during this period have been stored at Japanese universities. In recent years, there has been an effort to secure the return of Ainu human remains to their original communities, but many unreturned human remains continue to be stored at Japan’s new national Ainu museum, The Upopoy National Ainu Museum while they wait for further identification of human remains.

Nowadays, these lines of research on the Ainu are seen as being highly problematic. Further attention is needed to reassess how this history has influenced the development of present research and the effect it has had on the general public discourse of the Ainu, both within Japan and around the world.

Carrying on our elders’ activism

One part of our history that is not widely discussed is the fact that the Ainu took part in the so-called “human zoos” featured in colonial exhibitions such as the 1903 Human Pavilion in Osaka, Japan, the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis, United States, and the 1910 Japan–British Exhibition in London, United Kingdom.

As I was doing research on this topic, I came across historian Kirsten Ziomek’s 2014 article, The 1903 Human Pavilion: Colonial Realities and Subaltern Subjectivities in Twentieth-Century Japan. What struck me the most when reading this article was a statement by an Ainu elder, Fushine Kōzō ekasi:

“The reason why I am here in Osaka this time is to appeal to you for a helping hand in fulfilling my hopes. I can say that being Ainu, we feel that we are Japanese. At this very moment, we Ainu can now appear for the conscription examination and loyally serve his Majesty the Emperor. It is sad, however, that we cannot become decent soldiers because we Ainu do not have education. It has been my goal for many years to strive however I can to enhance Ainu education.”

Kōzō ekasi was an influential person in the Ainu community. He was fluent in both Ainu and Japanese languages and took on the role of spokesperson for his people. He became the main Ainu figure in the 1903 Human Pavilion in Osaka. What touched me deeply in his statement was that he used the opportunity to claim his people’s right to education (Ainu traditionally practice oral tradition). His argument was that he felt his people were Japanese as well as Ainu, and should receive education so that the Ainu could serve his Majesty the Emperor as decent soldiers. He emphasised the point that, because the Ainu did not receive an education, they were unable to do so:

This speaks to my own story with my grandfather, Tadashi Kaizawa, who was a leading figure of the Ainu political movement but who never had a chance to receive higher education. He devoted his life to the Ainu activism, and helped his children and grandchildren to receive higher education, with which he believed we would eventually be able to stand on an equal platform as Japanese.

I used to look up to him as a child and tried my best to follow his guidance. Now, I am one of a few Ainu women who holds a PhD from an institution outside of Japan (who identify as Ainu). I finally understand the lessons of Kōzō ekasi and my grandfather.

The bittersweetness of living abroad as an Ainu woman in the diaspora

The sound of wood carving always brings back old memories of sitting around the fireplace with my relatives in Nibutani (Ainu community) during a return trip home.

In this memory, the crackling sound of burning wood, my favourite sound, forms the backdrop of our conversation. While I struggle with Ainu embroidery, other male family members work on wood carving Some sit around a table, and some sit on the floor enjoying tea, snacks, and conversation. This is the best moment for sharing our stories. I take the chance to ask questions. Fortunately, one of my aunts offers to share her stories, but even she sometimes looks tired of all my questions.

Since I have been living abroad for over a decade, moments like these are worth everything to me. They reconnect me to the past, present and future through dialogue and inspiration, and make me feel as though I am one with other Ainu through time and space.

International museums as platforms for Ainu to tell our own stories

The year 2021 was a remarkable year for me as I was invited as an Ainu scholar and artist to contribute to the exhibition, A Soul in Everything / Encounters with Ainu from the North of Japan, at the Rautenstrauch-Joest Museum (RJM).

There are about 203 Ainu objects and 80 historical photographs stored at the RJM. These objects were mainly collected by the German antique dealers, ethnographers, and world travellers, Wilhelm Joest and Johann Friedrich Umlauff, as well as the Polish photographer Bronislaw Pilsudkski. I was asked to open the exhibition and contributed some of my work reflecting on the history of colonial exhibitions.

During my very short speech, I reminded the audience of the colonial history in which the Ainu were displayed as living objects in the “human zoo”. I emphasised the point that, back then, we did not have a voice in the exhibition. Over 100 years later in 2021, I stood at the exhibition in Europe. But this time, I was not part of the display as a living object, but as an Ainu who has both a voice and an education.

Kanako as part of the ‘A Soul in Everything / Encounters with Ainu from the North of Japan’ at the Rautenstrauch-Joest Museum in Cologne, Germany. Photo courtesy of Kanako Uzawa

The teachings of my grandfather and his emphasis on education have given me an opportunity to understand and recast Ainu Indigeneity in the 21st century. We have the freedom to choose and create a chance to explore the Ainu artefacts collected in the past through different perspectives. This gives me an opportunity to communicate with myself and my people back home, trying to understand the hidden stories of the collection by bringing in the living stories of the Ainu.

As a member of the Ainu diaspora, I am slowly discovering the hidden stories of the artefacts and envisioning how I can retell past stories, and connect them to the present life and to our future.


*This section draws on writing adapted from my doctoral thesis: Kanako Uzawa, Crafting Our Future Together; Urban Diasporic Indigeneity from an Ainu Perspective in Japan. (Philosophiae Doctor), UiT The Arctic University of Norway, Tromsø, Norway, 2020. Retrieved from

(1) Richard Siddle, Race, resistance and the Ainu of Japan (New York and Oxfordshire: Routledge, 1996), 76-77.
(2) Josef Kreiner cited in ann-elise lewallen, ‘Bones of Contention: Negotiating anthropological ethics within fields of Ainu refusal’. Critical Asian Studies, 39, 4, (2007), 513. DOI:10.1080/14672710701686026. For the original source, see Josef Kreiner, European studies on Ainu language and culture, vol 6 (Munich: IUDICIUM Verlag,1993).
(3) Mark J. Hudson, ann-elise lewallen and Mark K. Watson, ‘Beyond Ainu Studies: An Introduction, 1-22, in Hudson, lewallen and Watson (eds.), Beyond Ainu Studies: Changing academic and public perspectives (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press).
(4) Ibid.
(5) See ann-elise lewallen, ‘Bones of Contention’.

1 Comment

  1. Enjoyed the Article by Ainu scholar Kanako. Thank you.

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