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The Ethnic Conflict Research Digest

2005, Vol. 5 No. 1 .


The Conquest of Ainu Lands: Ecology and Culture in Japanese Expansion, 1590 - 1800
Brett L. Walker

Berkeley and London: University of California Press, 2001
344 pp HB $40.00 / 26.95 ISBN 0-520-22736-0.


On the 8 May 1997 the Asahi Evening Times reported that Japan?s parliament had taken ?its first giant step? towards ending racial discrimination against the Ainu, a minority indigenous to northern Japan. Parliamentarians in the Diet voted into law a bill guaranteeing promotion of Ainu culture and traditions. This development from the Japanese government came five years after the United Nations had passed a resolution that recognised the Ainu as Japan?s aboriginal nation. The implementation of these measures were some of the first moves, in recent years, towards a acknowledgment of the cultural, political and human rights of a people who, for over 2000 years, have dwelled in Japan?s northern islands.

The modern Ainu are descendants of an ethnic culture that traditionally sustained itself through fishing, hunting and food gathering. Historically, the Ainu are indigenous to Hokkaido, the northern part of Honsku, the Kurile Islands and much of Sakhalin and south of Kamchatka peninsula. Early contact with Japanese expansionists was resisted but trade relationships did develop and through these interactions the Japanese came to dominate the Ainu. The Ainu continued to resist Japanese settlements in their territory, and they engaged in a number of unsuccessful wars in 1457, 1669 and in 1789.

Walker?s impressive study examines the transformation of the Ainu?s relationships with the Japanese between 1590 and 1800, focusing on the cultural and ecological worlds of this indigenous people before and after two centuries of sustained contact. The Japanese were not solely responsible for the influence that shaped Ainu culture and destroyed much of their traditional way of life. Contacts with the expanding cultures of China and Russia and with other indigenous Japanese societies contributed to the reshaping of Ainu political and social structure.

Walker provides an interesting account of how the Japanese exploited the Ainu through the manipulation of the Ainu ritualized gift giving ceremony, and in a chapter on disease and medicine he discusses traditional Ainu medicines and the epidemic diseases that spread among the Ainu from contact with their colonizers. The spread of epidemic diseases such as smallpox, measles and syphilis was a direct outcome of Ainu contact with other cultures. The spread of syphilis amongst the Ainu, in particular, not only increased infant mortality rates and birth defects, it also crippled the Ainu ability to reproduce and to resist their Japanese conquerors.

Walker?s book is a skilful scholarly attempt at explaining the mechanisms and logic of Japanese expansionism into Ainu lands between 1590 and 1800. He charts how an indigenous culture through exploitation and military suppression was transformed into a society solely dependent on its colonizers. Walker?s methodology is derived from the approach of New Western history that centres the frontier as a place rather than merely a point of contact.

In recent decades, much like the Amerindian and other indigenous populations, the Ainu have found that positive change can occur through political activism. Today, the Ainu are active in political campaigning to preserve their native lands and to achieve racial equality. Walker?s volume helps us to understand, from an indigenous perspective, how culture and ecology is transformed through colonial expansionism.


George Sweeney, NICEC, INCORE, University of Ulster



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