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Kaleidoscope of the Heart: Convey Japan's indigenous Ainu culture to the world

Rika Kayama (Mainichi)

When people hear the word "Upopoy," there may not be too many who know exactly what it means.

Upopoy is in fact the familiar name given to the National Ainu Museum and Park that is due to open in the town of Shiraoi in Japan's northernmost prefecture of Hokkaido on April 24 this year. According to the facility, which is set to serve as a base for the restoration of the culture of Japan's indigenous Ainu people, Upopoy is an Ainu term meaning "singing in a large group."

The sprawling attraction will feature the National Ainu Museum, and a park where visitors can see Ainu dance and experience cultural programs. There will also be a facility to pay tribute to the souls of Ainu people who have passed away. I am from Hokkaido myself, so I'm really looking forward to going to Upopoy.

In a separate development for the northern prefecture, it was recently announced that the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters baseball team would introduce uniforms featuring Ainu patterns for a limited time. These uniforms are said to express unity between the team, its home prefecture of Hokkaido and fans. With their unique impact, the uniforms are attractive.

With this development and the launch of the Upopoy facility, enthusiasm has been mounting in Hokkaido over a restoration of Ainu culture. But cold water was recently poured on the mood with the announcement that organizers of the opening ceremony of the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo this summer had informally decided not to adopt traditional Ainu dance during the ceremony.

This was in spite of the fact that the Ainu Association of Hokkaido and other bodies had earlier asked the government to incorporate Ainu dance into the ceremony and Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga had said he wanted to "provide active support." Many people had taken Suga's statement as a forward-looking stance.

In actual fact, Ainu dance practice sessions had already begun, and an acquaintance of mine living in Hokkaido, who is Ainu, had been practicing as a member of a dance group. Ainu dance differs from region to region, so it is apparently hard to compile it into a single form, but my friend had told me, "Everyone is doing their best so it is seen by people across the world at the Olympics."

News reports said the reason given was that time was limited, making it difficult to incorporate such a performance. My friend and those with her were no doubt disappointed by the announcement, as their objective was not merely to unveil a dance, but to convey to the world the message that Japan has indigenous people known as Ainu, and that they have a unique culture.

Is there no way for Ainu dance to be incorporated into the opening ceremony somehow? I think it would be a good chance for the world to come into contact with a richer part of what Japan has to offer. What do you think?

(Japanese original by Rika Kayama, psychiatrist)

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