Wednesday, July 2, 2008
Recognition For A People Who Faded As Japan Grew
Race is always a tough subject to write about. It's difficult to illustrate a race/culture's differences because reporters have to highlight it without making the people look like they are weird.
But this article by Norimitsu Onishi by that appeared on the New York Times website (I stopped receiving the newspaper, but shall hopefully resume my service soon– i miss having the paper to hold in my hands) did neither. It didn't single out the Ainu people by fetishising a "inherently unique characteristic," but it also didn't quite fully explain how they were different from the Japanese.
Onishi led the article by describing the Ainu as a people who hunted and fished and worshipped nature for centuries before the Japanese pushed into the northernmost island that was the home of Ainu and killed the people. I mean, that's a fair and well description, until you realize that the Japanese themselves live on a big island too, which would also make them hunters and fishers too (maybe? Who knows? We certainly don't since there is no clarification of any sort). Also, how vague can "worshipping nature" be? A lot of Asian cultures do that, and I am just not sure how this would distinguish the Ainu from the Japanese.
How the author shows the differences between these two cultures (or races? I can't really tell) is very important because the point of this article is about the Japanese government finally recognizing Ainu as an indigenous people. Because if we, as foreign readers, don't understand what sets these people apart, we just leave the article thinking, "Oh, so is it like how we say black people are black?" And then (especially as Americans) we get confused as to how this isn't an acknowledgment that came sooner.
The author did put in physical descriptions, like how the Ainu people were typically of fairer skin than the Japanese and they have hirsute features (I had to look up "hirsute"– it means for a women to be as hairy as a man) He also said that the Ainu's way of life no longer exists. (If this is true, then why would an acknowledgment be a big deal– or even necessary, for that matter?)
Onishi did not say how the Ainu cuisine is different from the Japanese, how their customs and habits may vary. But they must exist, right? Or else this whole "indigenous people" announcement wouldn't have happened. Anyway, by the end of it, it just seemed like an American man saying that he is Irish, and another American man saying that he's British– the history of their heritage might be different, but they are still just white, American men.
If we look past these discrepancies, and just the politics of it, then I suppose it's pretty interesting. However, it will be hard because the whole gravitas and importance of this announcement lies on the fact that the Japanese and Ainu have had such a troubled past, and that the Japanese are finally acknowledging that they are not an ethnically homogenous nation. So without the differences, readers would just think, "Whatever, they're still basically Japanese."
And what if that wasn't true? What if these people really were as different as how Koreans and Chinese people are?