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Excavation of Ainu remains was banned in 19th century: Austrian travelogue

A copy of "In the Far East" is seen here, bottom left, together with an essay by Gustav Kreitner, right. (Mainichi)

The Japanese government apparently issued an "order" banning the excavation of Ainu graves in the late 19th century, the Mainichi Shimbun has learned. The finding comes as the dissipation of Ainu peoples' remains overseas has emerged as a serious problem.

    The order was brought to light after a travelogue called "In the Far East," which was first published in 1881, and written by the Austrian Ainu researcher Gustav Kreitner (1847-1893), was recently made public. The travelogue also includes information about an Ainu-related research exploration that took place in Hokkaido in August 1878.

    If it can be verified that an anti-excavation order was indeed in place around this time, it will prove that any Ainu peoples' remains that are currently being held overseas were obtained in an inappropriate manner, which is prerequisite for the remains to be returned.

    According to the travelogue, when Kreitner and his fellow researchers went exploring in Hokkaido in 1878, they approached the Hokkaido Development Commissioner -- who oversaw the prefecture at the time -- requesting permission to excavate Ainu graves. One of their main intentions was to acquire the skull of an Ainu person to conduct further research on Ainu people. Their request, however, was quashed. The Development Commissioner responded by saying that, "There is a strict Japanese government order which prohibits people from touching the graves of Ainu people."

    Kreitner's travelogue does not touch on the date or the specific details of the order. However, the document does refer to the Sapporo-based German agricultural expert Louis Boehmer, as well as to an explanation that Boehmer gave to Kreitner regarding the theft of some Ainu remains in the Hakodate area in 1865. Apparently, the theft was carried out by a British person -- incurring the wrath of local residents -- and subsequently, excavations became much more difficult.

    In response to the revelations recorded in Kreitner's travelogue, Ainu studies specialist Dr. Hans Dieter Oelschleger of Bonn University commented, "The theft of the Ainu remains in 1865 was a huge scandal. It ultimately led to the resignation of the then British consul. It is safe to assume that an anti-excavation order was in place at that time."

    With regard to Ainu remains currently kept in Germany, Oelschleger states that an investigation will be necessary to ascertain whether or not the remains were obtained inappropriately, before judging whether or not the artifacts should be returned. "If it can be shown that the Ainu remains that were brought overseas were done so during the anti-excavation order, then it can be said they were obtained inappropriately," the academic adds.

    A private academic institution in Germany has already expressed its intention to return one Ainu artifact -- but there is uncertainty about what to do if it cannot be confirmed whether or not the Ainu artifacts were obtained inappropriately. Meanwhile, the Comprehensive Ainu Policy Office of the Cabinet Secretariat in Japan plans to investigate the anti-excavation "order" further.

    The Ainu people are regarded as the "most primitive ethnic group." It is said that European anthropologists started to develop an interest in Ainu culture from around the 1860s, and began "collecting" artifacts from Hokkaido and other places for further research.

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