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October 24, 2002 Scholar speaks on Ainu of Japan



by Barbara Castrovillo Seasholtz

Yolanda Munhoz had always felt a pull towards working with indigenous populations in her native Mexico, but when tragedy struck and she could no longer walk to visit the native communities she had been helping, she turned in another direction.

She travelled half-way around the world to connect indigenous Mexicans’ struggles with those of the Ainu, a Japanese indigenous group.

Munhoz, a PhD candidate at El Colegio de Mexico who holds a master’s degree in Japanese studies, spent six months recently at the University of Tokyo studying the Ainu people. On Jan. 30, she was invited by Concordia’s Simone de Beauvoir Institute to share her findings on resistance and change among Japanese Ainu women.

Munhoz had previously worked for the Mexican government’s indigenous radio broadcasting system, the President’s Office for People with Disabilities and the Mexican National Institute for Women.

Addressing the 25 students and professors who gathered in the Dragonroot Centre on Mackay St., the champion of indigenous and disabled rights summarized her presentation “Representation versus Counter-representation: Resistance Literature of Ainu Women” with one glaring fact. “The Ainu of Japan are not recognized and they do not have written rights” in Japan, she said.

Located primarily in the north of the country, in the Hokkaido area, the Ainu once possessed a rich culture but experienced a steady decline after their land was annexed by the Japanese. Munhoz, showing slides of the Ainu, drew parallels between their fate and that of many Mexican indigenous populations. Impoverished by the dominating culture, “the Ainu were considered barbarians by the Japanese,” similar to how the conquering Spanish saw native Mexicans.

“The Japanese then tried to ‘civilize’ the Ainu by teaching them the Japanese language and culture,” she continued, and gradually the Ainu found that identity more beneficial to their survival. Ainu traditions suffered and the Ainu themselves began to move away from their native land in the early 20th century. It was only decades later, through the persistence of Ainu women in putting their oral literature to paper, that Ainu culture was revived.

Munhoz said, “The Ainu made the Japanese realize that they were not homogeneous.” She believes that this is important for the Japanese because it creates a “construction of plurality within society.”

However, the Ainu still have much more ground to cover, since they continue to struggle for even the most basic rights within a very conservative society that hesitates to recognize them.

A discussion period followed, with students pointing out the relevance of Munhoz’s findings in relation to First Nations groups in Canada.

Munhoz’s talk on January 30 was the first in a series of speakers in Dr. Sima Aprahamian’s seminar on Women Organizing Resistance and Change. The next seminar speaker will be Allison Griffith, leader of the Craft Church, on Feb. 13.