My Experience Researching Ainu for International Translation Day 🔎

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This column was written by Sarah Alys Lindholm, Translation Manager at Funimation.

Since 2019 is the United Nations International Year of Indigenous Languages, the International Federation of Translators set 2019’s theme as “Translation and Indigenous Languages.”

As an anime translator, the first thing I thought about was how Japan’s indigenous languages of Ainu and Okinawan have gotten so much awesome exposure in anime lately.

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Both of these languages are endangered, so any opportunity to learn about them is precious. When I learned about Ainu for the first time as part of my linguistics major at Bryn Mawr & Swarthmore Colleges, it was already considered to be one of the world’s most endangered languages.

Linguists think about language extinction in the same way biologists think about species extinction. The processes happen in much the same way, for much the same reasons, and any extinction of a language represents permanent losses to the world’s collective scientific knowledge. It can also hurt the very heart of a culture, because with indigenous languages in particular, these languages don’t “die” so much as they are exterminated. Behind many endangered languages, like Ainu, lie long histories of persecution.

In Ainu’s case, for many years the Japanese government systematically oppressed the Ainu people, forcing many of them to abandon their own cultural practices and language. It was only in 2008 that the Diet passed a non-binding resolution “calling upon the government to recognize the Ainu people as indigenous to Japan, and urging an end to discrimination against the group.”

And it was only this year, in May 2019, that a binding law went into effect obligating the government to “adopt policies to facilitate people’s understanding of the traditions of the Ainu and the importance of the diversity that ethnic groups contribute to society. In addition, the government must adopt measures to ban discrimination against the Ainu.” After so many years without recognition, to people of Ainu heritage, the death of the Ainu language would be another blow in a long line of blows to their culture.

That’s why I was so deeply moved when the manga and anime Golden Kamuy came out, exposing people in Japan and around the world to Ainu words and cultural customs. I can’t even express what a HUGE DEAL this is without using all caps! It would have been unthinkable in my parents’ generation, when Japanese students weren’t even taught about the Ainu at school.

Before my generation, most linguists outside of Japan knew more about the Ainu culture than the average Japanese person. And now we can watch Golden Kamuy. What a sea change.

I’d like to share the story of my trip to Hokkaido in 2016. As a linguist, I’d always wanted to travel there and see if I could learn a bit more about the Ainu culture and language. I was incredibly lucky to have the chance visit two museums devoted to the Ainu, and even have a long conversation with a museum worker who has Ainu heritage.

First, I visited Hokkaido University’s Botanic Garden in Sapporo. It was recommended to me as a nice place to take a walk, but it turned out to have a little two-room Ainu Museum I hadn’t even known about!

This museum contains a collection of Ainu artifacts assembled by John Batchelor (1855–1944), a Christian missionary from the Church of England who spent much of his career trying to improve the harsh conditions imposed upon the Ainu. He also wrote various books and papers about the Ainu language and culture. Of course, he saw those things through an outside lens, and there were a lot of times he didn’t get the facts quite right. But his humanitarian work and documentation of what he saw were incredibly important, and are commemorated here in Sapporo where he lived for a long time.

It was a treat to see all the artifacts and to read a museum booklet (in Japanese) explaining the history of the collection, as well as what it does and doesn’t teach us about the history of the Ainu.

Here are some photos I took at the botanic garden museum:

The second place I visited was Shiraoi Ainu Museum (Porotokotan), which has since closed, but is set to reopen in a new location in 2020.

I got lucky once again, and my Airbnb host was willing to drive me there and tour it with me for the cost of the highway tolls. She enjoys visiting because she loves traditional musical instruments, and because she wasn’t taught about Ainu culture in school despite living in Hokkaido for her whole life.

Porotokotan was a “village” constructed in the style of a traditional Ainu village (although they skipped the mud floors these buildings would have had, installing tatami or hard wood instead). In each building, volunteer museum guides spoke about the uses of that building and answered questions. They also performed recitals on Ainu instruments and did ritual dances for visitors. At the end was a modern museum building with exhibits. (Controversially, a live bear and dogs were kept on the grounds, although I didn’t know that at the time.)

The volunteer I spoke with the longest was a woman of Ainu heritage whose parents had refused to teach her any of the Ainu language they knew, because they didn’t want her to be bullied at school. But she said they tended to swear in Ainu when they got emotional, so she knows a collection of Ainu profanities.

As children, she and other people who had Ainu blood were encouraged to “pass” in Japanese society, and not say any Ainu words or talk about the Ainu culture around ethnically Japanese people. Being Ainu was looked down on, and their parents gave them this advice to help them avoid discrimination.

The coolest thing I learned was about burial markers. When Ainu villagers died, wooden markers were stuck in the ground for them. They believed that when the marker fell to the ground, that meant the spirit of the deceased person had been reincarnated into a new body.

A museum volunteer who was in the process of making a traditional burial marker told us that when an Ainu child or teen died an unnatural death and the villagers thought they hadn’t had the chance to live their intended life span, the marker might “happen” to be planted in the ground a bit less securely than normal, so that it would fall faster.

The last exhibit in the museum taught us a bit about the Ainu people who lived outside of Hokkaido, as well as Hokkaido indigenous peoples who weren’t Ainu.

And although my trip was before the Golden Kamuy anime came out, as you can see, the manga was sold in the museum gift shop!


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