Asia Rights

Journal of Human Rights, Media and Society in Asia and the Pacific


Ainu Elder Ogawa Ryukichi and others outside the Hokkaido University ossuary


Ainu People Seek Redress

On 10 June 2011, about one hundred people gathered at a symposium in Sapporo, the capital city of Japan’s Hokkaido prefecture, to demand the return of Ainu remains held by Hokkaido University and other Japanese institutions. The Ainu are the indigenous people of northern Japan and surrounding islands (see text box below).

One of the participants in the symposium, Ms.Yuri Jonoguchi, now in her seventies, recalled how her grandfather’s grave had been excavated and his remains removed by Dr. Sakuzaemon Kodama, an anthropologist belonging to Hokkaido University’s Medical Faculty, in 1935. “My mother, who is now dead, told me how sad she was that she had never managed to recover grandfather’s remains,” said Ms. Jonoguchi, “Now I am old like my mother, but if I go to heaven without recovering his remains, I feel that mother and grandmother will be angry with me.”

Tetsuya Ueki, professor of philosophy at Tomakomai Komazawa University said “in using their authority to gather Ainu remains, anthropologists inflicted great violence on the indigenous minority. The university must investigate the issue of historical responsibility, take proper steps to identify the relatives, return remains and grave goods to them, and apologize to them.”

The Removal of Ainu Remains by Anthropologists

The story goes back to the 1880s, when some anthropologists and scholars of anatomy began to gather Ainu skeletal remains by digging up the graveyards of Ainu communities. The practice continued until the 1960s. The main motive for these acts of desecration was to conduct anthropometric research in order to define the “typical characteristics” of Ainu people. Many academic papers based on this “research” were published. Graves of close relatives of the living were sometimes excavated without consent, and in some cases valuable grave goods (tamasai) were also removed.

The key figures in this research were Dr. Kodama (1895-1970) from Hokkaido University, Dr. Masakiyo Koganei (1858-1944) from Tokyo Imperial University and Dr. Kenji Kiyono (1885-1955) from Kyoto University. In the 1980s, one of the bereaved families asked the University of Hokkaido for the return of the remains of their relative, which had been held in the Medical Faculty’s Animal Research Center (sic) for years. The relatives and the Ainu Association delivered letters of protest to the University, and as a result, the remains of relatives were returned to thirty-five families. The university built an ossuary next to the university hospital to hold other remains; but the remains of 929 people still lie in numbered boxes in the ossuary.

The university has never apologized to the indigenous people, and nobody knows the whereabouts of the grave goods taken from the tombs. In 2008, Ainu Ekashi [Elder] Ogawa Ryukchi used Japan’s Freedom of Information Law to request the university to release all their papers, reports, letters, notes and other documentation related to this anthropometric research. The university has provided him with 35 pieces of information.

Among the recently released material are lists of excavated Ainu bones, prepared by the university’s Second Department of Anatomy (date unknown). The Research Group on Materials Released by Hokkaido University [Hokudai Kaiji Monjo Kenkyukai], a support group working with Mr. Ogawa, has found certain conflicts between the content of the documents and the material items held by the university. Ogawa Ekashi and the research Group continue to battle for the full release of materials and return of Ainu remains.

Ainu inau (ritual staffs) erected to honour the dead at the Hokkaido University ossuary


The “Ainu Policy Promotion Council” [Ainu Seisaku Suishin Kaigi], created by the government in December 2009, has made the following recommendations to the government:

3-(4) Actions to Respect Ainu Spiritual Culture

  • In relation to Ainu remains held by universities etc.: where it is possible to return remains to relatives etc., each university should return the remains in its possession; where the aim of returning remains to relatives cannot be fulfilled, remains should be collectively placed in a symbolic site under state guidance, and care should be taken to provide the possibility for conducting ceremonies to respect the dead.
  • Where remains are held collectively, steps should be taken, in collaboration with the relevant universities etc., to obtain information on the conditions surrounding the safekeeping of Ainu remains, in order to be able to consider ways to advance the return or collective safekeeping of remains.
  • Where remains are kept collectively, attention should be paid to the holding places established by the relevant institutions, and efforts should be made to obtain the understanding of the local community. With the understanding of Ainu people, the possibility should be provided for collectively held remains to contribute to research that enhances understanding of Ainu history.

However, the Research Group on Hokkaido University Materials argues that this recommendation is too vague, does not give sufficiently strong guidance on the return of remains, does allow for appropriate input from Ainu communities into the control of collectively held remains, and does not sufficiently emphasize the need for dialogue between the institutions and the Ainu community about this issue.

The UN International Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People, endorsed by Japan in 2007, clearly states:

  • Article 11
    1. Indigenous peoples have the right to practise and revitalize their cultural traditions and customs. This includes the right to maintain, protect and develop the past, present and future manifestations of their cultures, such as archaeological and historical sites, artefacts, designs, ceremonies, technologies and visual and performing arts and literature.
    2. States shall provide redress through effective mechanisms, which may include restitution, developed in conjunction with indigenous peoples, with respect to their cultural, intellectual, religious and spiritual property taken without their free, prior and informed consent or in violation of their laws, traditions and customs.
  • Article 12
    1. Indigenous peoples have the right to manifest, practise, develop and teach their spiritual and religious traditions, customs and ceremonies; the right to maintain, protect, and have access in privacy to their religious and cultural sites; the right to the use and control of their ceremonial objects; and the right to the repatriation of their human remains.
    2. States shall seek to enable the access and/or repatriation of ceremonial objects and human remains in their possession through fair, transparent and effective mechanisms developed in conjunction with indigenous peoples concerned.
    (emphasis added)


At the conclusion of the June Symposium, the audience and members of the Research Group on Materials released by Hokkaido University joined in reading a demand addressed to the government, national parliament and university. This states “you must start earnest and careful dialogue with all Ainu people, with a view to returning the remains to the families”


For further information see:

Ainu: The Indigenous People of Hokkaido and Neighbouring Islands

Japan has four major islands and many smaller surrounding islands. Hokkaido is one of the major islands, and is the northernmost and second largest one. It is 78,000km²: a little smaller than Ireland and a little larger than Sri Lanka.

In Hokkaido and some neighbouring subarctic islands, humans have lived for over 22,000 years, relying on the rich natural forest and marine resources. The presence of abundant archaeological remains demonstrates that there has been continuous human habitation throughout this time. Following various ethno-cultural changes, the Satsumon people, who are considered to be ancestors of the present-day Ainu people, became conspicuous around the end of the 12th century CE. Between the 13th and 19th centuries, cultural developments led to the flowering of Ainu culture, based on hunting, fishing, plant gathering and trading valuables with other peoples including the Japanese.

In 1869, the Japanese government in Tokyo established a Development Bureau [Kaitakushi] in Sapporo, Hokkaido. The Bureau began large scale development and colonization of the island. Many settlers (including “soldier-settlers) came to Hokkaido from other Japanese islands. In this process of colonization, the Development Bureau never acknowledged the rights of the “natives”. Ainu people were prohibited from maintaining their own way of life. They were forced to speak the Japanese language, go to Japanese schools, adopt Japanese names and wear Japanese dress. They were deprived of their traditional lands and forced to move from traditional settlements. They lost the right to hunt and fish, and were forced to till the land the land, seek wage employment and perform military service.

Despite the democratization that followed Japan’s defeat in World War II, the government failed to recognize the right of Ainu people to self-determination. It was only in 2007 that the Japanese government endorsed the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People, and also also finally acknowledged the indigenous status of the Ainu people.

The officially recognized Ainu population of Hokkaido is around 24,000.  Some Ainu people also now live in other parts of Japan including Tokyo. Japan has a total population of about 120 million.

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