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Ainu skull stolen from Sapporo grave to return home

BERLIN -- A German academic association is set to return the skull of an Ainu person to Japan, after finding that it was acquired through a grave robbery, the Mainichi Shimbun has learned.

    The Ainu Association of Hokkaido, which has been demanding the return of remains of the Ainu -- Japan's indigenous people -- from different countries, has told the Mainichi that the Berlin Society of Anthropology, Ethnology and Prehistory (BGAEU), currently in possession of the skull in question, has confirmed that the piece was robbed from a grave in the 19th century. The German organization plans to send the skull back to Japan, having judged that it was acquired through a means that was ethically unacceptable.

    While remains of Ainu people have been taken to several countries including Germany, this is the first time an overseas organization has expressed its wish to return them to Japan. BGAEU will negotiate the process with the Japanese government.

    In December 2016, the German organization found four sets of remains marked with the initials "RV," which stand for German scientist and University of Berlin professor Rudolf Virchow (1821-1902) who collected the bones. According to the group, one skull marked "RV 33" was confirmed to have been stolen from a grave. Historical documentation said that a German traveler provided Virchow with the skull.

    The traveler behind the stolen skull reported in a journal on anthropology published in 1880 that he acquired the skull from a cemetery in Sapporo at night. The article included data on the size of the skull, and it reportedly matched that of the RV 33 piece.

    BGAEU first said that the skull could have been mixed up with other human remains, but later confirmed that it had been in fact stolen after measuring the skull with the article provided by the Mainichi Shimbun as a reference.

    With regard to returning skeletons of the Ainu people, research institutions in Germany require proof that the remains were "wrongfully" collected, based on its domestic guidelines.

    Tadashi Kato, the director of the Ainu Association of Hokkaido, expressed appreciation for the German group's move, saying, "If this becomes the first case of Ainu remains returning home, that's some big news. I want the Japanese government to start negotiating (with the German side) at an early date."

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