As he escorts yet more visitors through Shari, a town of fish and icebergs on the northern tip of Japan, tour guide Yoshiji Ishii stops and folds inward his outstretched arms.
“When entering an abode of the gods, you have to pray like this,” explains Ishii (60), one of Japan’s indigenous Ainu people.
The Shiretoko Peninsula here, just across the water from the Russian-ruled Kuril islands, is renowned as the southernmost place that sees ice from the Arctic Ocean and in July was named a United Nations World Natural Heritage site.
As more tourists come in, the Ainu are seizing the opportunity to show to the rest of Japan their rapidly fading culture, in which brown bears and fish are deities and where food, clothing and housing are regarded as divine gifts.
It can be a clash of cultures. When his tour group stopped to see a famous spot where salmon run just outside the Heritage site, the dozens of visitors shouted with joy.
But there is a small dam stopping salmon from the upper course of the river and a narrow stream that traps them into a preserve for fishermen.
“This is the way to Auschwitz,” Ishii whispers at the sight of the artificial stream. “The Ainu’s way of fishing is different. Using harpoons, we catch just a few, the amount we eat. The rest would be reserved for the gods.”
“I am one of the last survivors of the Ainu people,” said Ishii, a civil servant who comes here on weekends to promote his culture.
In the 19th century, the Ainu people, who are ethnically distinct from other Japanese, used to live across the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido as well as the Sakhalin and Kuril islands now ruled by Russia.
But with a rising population and a threat from Russia, Japan encouraged immigration of ethnic Japanese northward, depriving the Ainu of their lands and banning their language and culture.
Only 24Â 000 Ainu people now live in Hokkaido, according to the island’s government, and almost none of them keep a traditional way of life. Others have left for cities such as Tokyo, where they have integrated, or disguise their identity.
Despite Japanese perceptions of Hokkaido as an untamed wilderness, the dense forests of the 19th century now cover only a small part of the island, including the Shiretoko Peninsula, with the rest turned into farmland.
“People coming from Tokyo often erupt with statements such as ‘Hokkaido is so rich in nature!’ But that’s not true,” Ishii says with a hint of sadness coming across his smile.
A fading way of life
With Japan, the land of the Kyoto Protocol on climate change, portraying itself as a leader in environmental protection, activists for the Ainu are sensing an opportunity to popularise a culture in decline.
Shigeo Nishihara (32) is ethnically Japanese, but through an NGO, the Shiretoko Indigenous People Eco-Tourism Research Union, has set up tours like Ishii’s to teach Japanese visitors about the Ainu.
He said that with less Arctic ice floating here each year due to global warming, the Ainu’s environmental model would be increasingly attractive.
“It is a perfect foil to the mass consumer society,” Nishihara says.
Ishii, who is also known by his Ainu name, Pompe, holds no grudge against modern culture, but he also believes he can show people another way.
“This is a tree used for stomach aches,” he explains to the visiting tourists as he points to plants.
He shows how the Ainu recycle everything in the ecosystem.
“This is for syrup and jelly,” he says. “This is for clothing, for making threads.”
He is quick to find a hole dug by brown bears.
“It is essential for us Ainu to notice any small change in the forest for the sake of surviving,” he says.
The Ainu involvement in the tours that began this year was requested in a report by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources, which consults the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Agency that named the Shiretoko Peninsula a heritage site.
“It is important to study the culture of the Ainu people … in order to determine the methods to preserve, manage and realise sustainable use of the natural environment,” the evaluation report says.
Even for some Ainu, the tour can be an eye-opening experience.
Koji Yuki (41) knew almost nothing about Ainu culture. He was brought up in a suburb of Tokyo as his family, like many other Ainu, moved out of Hokkaido to escape discrimination.
He is now helping out with the tour programme as a culture guide for the Research Union NGO and is a traditional woodblock artist.
“I am delighted, as are so many regular tourists, to come across Yezo deer which don’t run away from human beings,” unlike most wild animals that are afraid of people, Yuki says.
Yuki, who in his youth did not have any particular interest in his origins, learned to appreciate his culture after returning to Hokkaido in 1998.
“I realised there was unlimited potential in the Ainu culture, including a way of living and arts,” says Yuki.
The NGO is hoping more young Ainu people will follow his lead, especially with the growing interest in the Shiretoko Peninsula.
The number of sightseers to Shari town surged by 15,7% from last year in the three months to September, in part perhaps due to the government’s Yokoso Japan (Welcome to Japan) campaign to boost domestic travel by foreigners.
“I don’t need apologies from the ethnic Japanese, because people of the current generation are not responsible for what their ancestors did to us,” says Yuki. “But I do want them to know the history and want to share with them our culture, which will be a lot of fun.” — AFP