Indigenizing the Handsworth Japan Exchange

Last year I wrote a blog post on the indigenisation of education in BC and mentioned in it how I hoped to infuse more indigenous ways of learning into my practice. Having just returned from our annual Japan Exchange, I thought it was a good time now to update that previous post with some fresh perspective.

For the past 8 years I’ve led the our school’s Grade 9 Japan Exchange, welcoming students from Inage Secondary School in Chiba each October, and returning to Japan every April. This past year I endeavoured to add more curricular connections to the itinerary by revising our tour to go through Hokkaido, the ancestral home of Japan’s indigenous people, the Ainu. This was done with the express purpose of better aligning our cultural experiences in Japan with the indigenization of BC’s new curriculum. My intent was to have students think critically about the commonalities between the historical narrative of the Ainu as compared to our own BC Indigenous peoples.

The following are some of my observations from those experiences, but I should stress that my understanding of the Ainu is cursory at best.

Ainu Museum

Our trip took us to the town of Shiraoi in Hokkadio, home to Ainu Museum at Porotokotan. The word ‘Porotokotan’ is actually an Ainu word that means “village by the large lake”. In fact, many of the names around Hokkaido including Shiraoi and Sapporo come from the Ainu language. This is not unlike North Vancouver (and BC more broadly), where places names like Capilano and Klahanie draw their origins to the Squamish language.

And the comparisons only begin there. In visiting the Ainu museum, our group of 30 students and 4 teachers learned a great deal about this once vibrant culture. For example, traditionally, Ainu girls would get large tattoos around their mouth, the result of ash smeared in small cuts, to show their marriage eligibility. Because the tattoos were so elaborate and painful, they were completed slowly over time typically starting at age 7. This was just the first of many examples of practices outlawed by Japan’s government. The Meiji government, similar to the Canadian government, also outlawed the use of the Ainu language. The erosion of Ainu culture and language were, at the time, seen as modern cultural advances – not unlike the dogma prescribed to in Canadian residential schools. It wasn’t until the 1990’s that the Japanese government started to recognize the uniqueness of Ainu culture. In 1997 the Ainu Cultural Promotions law finally recognized the need to preserve their culture. Unfortunately for all intents and purposes it was too little too late.

Ainu Museum

What is even more unfortunate is that today studying the Ainu is really a cautionary tale – they represent, in essence, a dead culture. You don’t go to museums to see living, vibrant examples of culture. You go to museums to see relics of the past, and that’s really what it felt like going through the Ainu Museum. It’s frightening to think how close we came to having the very same end to some of our local indigenous cultures in North Vancouver. According to Wikipedia there are as few as 10 people who can still speak Ainu. As far as I can tell, unless at least a small sub-community is conversing regularly with each other in a language, it is all but extinct.
In Porotokotan we watched dance and musical perfomances in thatched-roof houses, smoked salmon hanging overhead. And although Hokkaido is almost 7,000 kilometers from Vancouver I strangely felt very close to home. Whether it was the song and dance, the hanging salmon, the carved dugout canoes outside or, sadly, the visibly devastating impact of colonialism on this community, it was clear to me that this culture had far more in common than not with Indigenious peoples of North Vancouver. It made me thankful, more than ever, that we are doing everything we can now to preserve and honour the Indigenous culture and heritage of Canada’s First Peoples, and not forgetting them in a dusty museum. 

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Indigenizing the Handsworth Japan Exchange

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