The Kuril Islands and a brief oversimplified sketch of Ainu history

Given that this started out as a Twitter thread, I am going to apologise in advance for the impressionistic and cursory nature of this brief sketch of Ainu history. However, given that the Kuril Islands are now a major part of geopolitical news, I thought it was rather high time to give a brief treatment of the history of the Kuril Islands, Sakhalin and the Northern Japans.

Why are the Kuril Islands a big part of geopolitical news now? Well, Japan’s Foreign Minister, Hayashi Yoshimasa (LDP), made comments to the effect that the islands are ‘primordially Japanese’, ‘territories to which the sovereignty of our country extends’, and ‘also our ancestral territories’. These comments are not only nonsense; they are irresponsible and dangerous nonsense.

These statements come after the Russian invasion of the Ukraine, and have more than a whiff of opportunism about them. Though opportunism—like defamilialisation, historical revisionism, hatred of immigrants and contempt for the elderly—is a long-standing hallmark of the Liberal Democratic Party of Japan, these statements are a particular slap in the face to the Ainu people who live in the Kurils.

To understand why, however, we need to discuss the (pre-)historical angle before we get to the political one.

Jômon and Yayoi

First of all, Mr Hayashi’s statement is simply wrong from an anthropological perspective. Even Japan is not ‘primordially Japanese’, let alone the Kurils, and the Urheimat (‘ancestral territory’) of the Yamato people is located on the Korean Peninsula. The consensus anthropological view is that the Yamato people, the culturally- and politically-dominant ethnic group of Japan, are not even actually indigenous to Japan. The overwhelming part of their ancestry comes from a group of religious exiles from Korea, the Yayoi, who came to Japan between 2,300 and 1,800 years ago. The Yayoi largely displaced the native Jômon people, who were the true indigenous inhabitants of the islands. Those they didn’t murder or expel, they enslaved uh, sorry, ‘intermarried with’. As a result, modern Yamato ancestry is between 85%-90% derived from the Yayoi migration from Korea, with the remainder being from the indigenous Jômon population and later Kofun Era (300-700 AD) settlers from mainland China.

It’s worth remembering, as well, that medieval ‘Japan’ did not cover the entire archipelago. The Yayoi settlement, which came to call itself by the ethnonym of ‘Yamato’, was largely confined in political terms to the fertile area in central Honshu running from Osaka in the southwest, through Kyôtô, Nagoya and Tôkyô to roughly around Fukushima in the northeast. The rest of the islands were inhabited by various indigenous peoples descended from the Jômon. Fans of the Studio Ghibli film Mononoke-hime might remember that Prince Ashitaka came from the Emishi people, whom Miyazaki-sensei creatively reimagined for the Muromachi Era (much the same way Ovsyanki reimagined the Merya people in a modern context) as a bearded, tattooed people similar to the Ainu, who domesticated red deer.

Ezo and the Ainu

Hokkaidô (historically: Ezo), the northernmost big island in the Japanese archipelago, lay entirely outside the political control of the Yamato peoples until that same Muromachi Era in which Mononoke-hime takes place. Even local clan leaders claiming to be Yamato in origin did not reliably swear fealty to the Emperor and the Ashikaga clan, and were outside of the territorial control of Japan. The rest of the island lay in the hands of the Ainu, an independent tribal people primarily descended from the indigenous Jômon. In the mid-1400s, one such largely-independent warlord, Takeda Nobuhiro, settled on southern Ezo for the purposes of trade. A misunderstanding over the ownership of a sword escalated out of control and resulted in a war between Takeda and the Ainu chieftain Koshamain, which ended with Koshamain’s death and the defeat of the Ainu in battle. Takeda’s descendants, the Matsumae clan, became the nominal overlords of Ezo. Even so, Hokkaidô remained mostly in the hands of the still-independent Ainu, with the Yamato people controlling only a handful of fortresses and trading posts on the southern tip of the island.

There were several more wars between the Ainu and the Yamato, with major incidences in 1670 (Shakushain’s War) and 1789 (the Menashi-Kunashir War). The English-language treatment of these wars is actually a bit less fair than the Japanese treatment of them, as Japanese historians have generally been much less coy about calling them wars (tatakai) rather than revolts (hanran). The language of ‘revolt’ would imply that chieftains like Koshamain or Shakushain (who led the major military campaign against the Yamato in 1670) were the legal subjects of Japanese Emperors. In many cases, they simply were not, or had no reason to think themselves as such. The relations between Yamato and Ainu were largely ones of trade and negotiated resource rights, even if that trade and those rights tended to be fairly one-sided and exploitative.


In fact, full Japanese sovereignty over Ezo was established only after the Meiji Restoration… and that, only because the Russians were there! This is acknowledged in the actual Japanese primary sources of the time. (Actually, read this whole article on that subject. It’s a careful, scholarly and balanced treatment of the rival imperial ambitions of Tsarist Russia on one hand, and the Tokugawa bakufu and later the Meiji regime on the other.)

The people who bore the full brunt of the expansion of these two rival empires’ political frontiers, including the Kuril Islands, were the people who lived on them and gave them their names: to wit, the Ainu. The very name ‘Kuril’ derives from the Ainu self-descriptor kur, meaning ‘man’. The names of many of the islands derive from the Ainu language: Urup, Iturup, Paramushir, Shumshu, Kunashir, Sikotan, Matua, Rasshua.

Meiji Japan’s policy toward the Ainu was particularly brutal: genocide by starvation, or assimilation. The approach that Meiji took to the Ainu seems to have been directly inspired by the United States’s approach to the American Indians on the frontier—an irony not lost on Rintarô, who treats both subjects in The Dagger of Kamui.

The first thing the Meiji government did in order to establish its political dominance over the Ainu on Ezo was to change the name of Ezo to Hokkaidô: literally, ‘the northern island’. This is a name which by its very structure implies subservience and peripheral status to Tôkyô. It also figured heavily into state propaganda for the Meiji regime, as a ‘virgin frontier’ which was open to Yamato-Japanese ‘exploration’ and settlement.

From Golden Kamuy, 2018

The second thing the Meiji did was to starve the Ainu into submission. It was official Meiji policy to forbid the Ainu to fish for salmon or hunt for deer, which were the primary ways by which the Ainu sustained themselves. We don’t know the death toll for certain, but between 1858 and 1874 the Ainu population in eastern Hokkaidô decreased by roughly three quarters—from 10,000 people (recorded) to about 2,500. It’s notable that these policies were much less effective at killing the Ainu, at least at first, in western Hokkaidô. But it’s also very likely that the death toll was much higher than this in eastern Hokkaidô, because records from earlier dates are more likely to be fragmentary, while the Meiji set more exacting standards for record-keeping after gaining control of the territory. This is very similar to—and in fact directly parallel to—what happened to the Lakota during the buffalo extermination campaigns in the Great Plains. It also runs parallel to what happened to the Siberian ethnic groups like the Evenkil under Stalin’s forced collectivisation policies. But we will get to Stalin himself in a bit.

And the third thing the Meiji regime did was to enrol Ainu people in a programme of forced resettlement and assimilation, beginning with the ratification of ‘protection’ laws in 1899. The Ainu men who survived were forced to adopt a sedentary lifestyle and become farmers. Ainu children were forced to attend boarding schools. They were forced to adopt Japanese names, forced to convert to Shintô or Buddhism from their native beliefs, and forbidden to speak the Ainu language or adopt traditional Ainu clothing or body art (facial tattoos for women, earrings and long beards for men). If this sounds a lot like the residential schools system in America, there is a good reason for that. Indeed, as my Twitter acquaintance @hakkastan correctly comments: ‘This was done in careful imitation of the practices and technologies of US settler colonialism. They even hired Americans like William Smith Clark to show them how.

Ainu in traditional dress

The status of the Ainu became a geopolitical football between Russia and Japan at this point. Both Russia and Japan claimed to extend a paternalistic protection over the Ainu, while at the same time denying them their traditional cultural rights, exploiting them in trade, and attempting to conscript them as members of the Russian and Japanese civilisations. The political pressures on the Ainu to ‘choose a side’ reached a head with the 1905 Russo-Japanese War. Most Ainu supported the Russians in this conflict, owing to the (relatively) more lenient cultural policies employed by the Tsarist state—again, we will get to those shortly. However, the Russians abandoned their Ainu allies in the wake of defeat, leading to a new round of anti-Ainu repressions by the Japanese state.

The Ainu under the Tsars and under the Soviets

So far we’ve talked about the dark side of Japanese imperialism over the descendants of the Jômon in the north. But the other side of the geopolitical question—Russia—is, to say the least, not exactly innocent in their own treatment of the Ainu, despite the Ainu historically having considered them the ‘lesser evil’. In general, the policy of the Cossacks who made contact with the Ainu in Sakhalin, Ezo and the Kurils was the same as their policy everywhere else. Namely: get them to swear fealty to the Tsar; tax them; and then cheat them in trade. The Cossacks didn’t really care that much—at least at first—about taking away their land or their traditional resources and means of sustenance. Despite the twin drives toward modernisation that mirrored each other in Peter’s Moscow and Meiji’s Tôkyô, even the Cossacks’ frontier fortification and settlement policies were more similar in nature to the Matsumae clan model than to the Meiji one. By 1905, it was a fairly natural choice for the Ainu to choose the Tsar over the Mikado. Many of them converted to Russian Orthodoxy and adopted Slavic surnames for themselves.

Orthodox priest in Kamchatka, 1901

However, this was something of a Sophie’s choice for the Ainu. Even before 1905, the Tsarist authorities were already skittish enough about Japanese imperial expansion that they desired to squeeze the Ainu living on their own imperial frontier, and guarantee their loyalty. To do this, they outlawed the Ainu ethnicity. Even to this day, Ainu ethnicity is not recognised in Russia: the reason for this is because the Japanese claimed sovereignty over all lands inhabited by the Ainu.

After the 1917 Revolution, things eased for the Ainu a bit; it seems they gained official recognition, for one thing. However, the Pacific War happened, and the Ainu in the Russian Far East came under Stalin’s suspicion of being Japanese sympathisers. At Stalin’s orders, the NKVD rounded up the Ainu and herded them into inland prison camps. (Sound familiar? It should.) Stalin embarked on a cultural suppression campaign against the Ainu that mirrored the Meiji Emperor’s in its ham-handed cruelty. Even to mention that you were Ainu would be enough to get you sent to a camp.

After Stalin’s death, again things eased up for the Ainu… a bit. In modern times, many Ainu have registered themselves under the catch-all Potemkin-village ethnic designation of ‘Kamchadal’, or have chosen to identify with their linguistic and cultural cousins on Kamchatka, the Itelmen people. These choices at least allow the Ainu to regain some legal protection for their traditional cultural lifestyle: fishing and hunting. For many Ainu this is an acceptable loophole; they’re happy to self-identify as ‘Kamchadals’ or Itelmens if it means they can keep their way of life. Others self-identify as Russian or as Japanese for the political benefits. However, for the Ainu who want to self-identify as Ainu, and preserve the intangible aspects of their culture—like their language—they don’t find any friends in the Russian government. It’s a catch-22: the Russian government simply denies that they exist, and when the 100 or so people who self-identify as Ainu in Russia (a very small fraction of the actual Ainu in Russia) petition the government for recognition, they are asked to take a stand on the Kuril Islands issue!

Aleksei Nakamura

’Nobody wants us’: desiring neutrality and not getting it

Ironically, given that one condition that Russia is giving for peace in the Ukraine is neutrality, this war—and specifically Japan’s involvement in it on the Ukrainian side—may actually end up denying the possibility of neutrality for a beleaguered ethnic minority on the far side of the country.

Aleksei Nakamura, the leader of the Ainu community in Kamchatka and one of the primary supporters of Ainu identity in Russia, has long been calling for the Ainu people to embrace geopolitical neutrality, and for the Russian and Japanese governments to allow that neutrality. In Nakamura’s own words:
The tragedy of my people is comparable only perhaps to the tragedy of the indigeneous people of North America, the Native Americans… Between the two large countries, the Ainu people have historically suffered bitter treatment from the both nations. I now hope that the international community will increasingly recognise the necessity to appreciate our fertile culture, history and language.
But that recognition is not forthcoming, from either government. Why? In Nakamura’s heart-breaking words, it’s because ‘nobody wants us’.

And Hayashi Yoshimasa’s despicable, dishonourable re-ignition of the geopolitical question of the Kuril Islands issue seems to have proven Aleksei Nakamura’s tragic suspicion correct. The Japanese government bears full responsibility for this recent escalation, and Hayashi has dropped the hot potato in the Ainu’s hands yet again, to their material and spiritual detriment on both sides of the border. The Ainu are the sacrificial goat that Japan offers to the Western alliance for the Ukrainian ‘cause’. The Ainu do not want their home to become a geopolitical flash point, much less a warzone—who would? But more than that, Hayashi’s crude and nationalistic way of expressing this position, saying that the Kurils are Japan’s ‘ancestral territory’, is obscene in its erasure of the Ainu completely from the picture. In a war which seems to be rife with cruelty as it is, the fate of a few thousand indigenous people on a string of small, chilly islands in the north Pacific may seem insignificant. But it is a cruelty nonetheless.


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