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Stolen Ainu skull kept in Germany since 1879 given back to Japan

Alexander Pashos, chairman of the Berliner Gesellschaft fur Anthropolgie, Ethnologie und Urgeschichte (BGAEU) research institution, right, returns the Ainu skull in a wooden box to Tadashi Kato, executive director of the Ainu Association of Hokkaido, center, and Hirohide Hirai, head of the Cabinet Secretariat's Comprehensive Ainu Policy Office, at the Japanese Embassy in Berlin, on July 31, 2017. (Mainichi)

BERLIN -- The skull of an Ainu person that was stolen from a Hokkaido grave in 1879 and then taken to Germany was officially returned to the Japanese government during a ceremony here on July 31.

The return of the skull, some 138 years later, is the first time that human remains have been sent back to Japan via diplomatic channels, in accordance with the United Nations' Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Tadashi Kato, executive director of the Ainu Association of Hokkaido -- who was at the ceremony -- said, "Today is a historical day."

In addition to Kato, chairman of the Berliner Gesellschaft fur Anthropolgie, Ethnologie und Urgeschichte (BGAEU) research institution, Alexander Pashos; and head of the Cabinet Secretariat's Comprehensive Ainu Policy Office, Hirohide Hirai, were also present at the ceremony.

Prior to the return, the skull had been stored by Berlin University professor Rudolf Virchow, who was instrumental in the establishment of BGAEU, after the skull was stolen from a Sapporo cemetery in 1879 by German tourist Georg Schlesinger -- an incident that the Mainichi Shimbun brought to light in August 2016.

Commenting on the return of the skull, Pashos said, "Not only did the theft and movement of the skull violate the law of the day, it also represented a lack of consideration toward the Ainu people." Meanwhile, Hirai stated, "It is regrettable that the skull had been stored outside of Japan for more than 100 years," but he expressed his gratitude toward the decision to return the skull to its country of origin. He added that, "This is a huge step. We want to keep striving toward the return of similar remains from overseas to Japan."

The three men also signed a certificate marking the return, and the skull itself was officially handed over in a white wooden box by Pashos to Kato and Hirai at the ceremony venue, the Japanese Embassy in Berlin. Kato is keen that similar returns are achieved in the future, stating, "I hope that any relevant parties can show (similar) consideration toward the rights of indigenous peoples." He added that he hopes to see future negotiations on this issue take place between the leaders of Japan and Germany.

After arriving back in Japan, the skull will be temporarily placed in a charnel house on the grounds of Hokkaido University in Sapporo on Aug. 2. After that, a traditional Ainu-style memorial ceremony known as "Icarpa" is scheduled to take place on Aug. 4.

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