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Remains of Sakhalin Ainu, who faced troubled history, set to return to Japan for 1st time

Mamoru Tazawa, chairman of the Enciw bereaved families association, talks about the troubled history of Sakhalin Ainu in Sapporo in September 2022. (Mainichi/Norikazu Chiba)

The Japanese and Australian governments have agreed that the remains of four Indigenous Ainu people held in Australian museums will be returned to Japan, government sources have told the Mainichi Shimbun.

    One set of remains was recorded as having been collected in "Karafuto" as the island of Sakhalin, now Russian territory, is referred to in Japanese, and an association representing bereaved families had requested that the remains be returned to Japan. As early as in May, government representatives and others including the representative of an Ainu group are expected to travel to Australia and receive the remains.

    Japanese universities also keep a large number of remains of Sakhalin Ainu people, known as "Enciw," for research purposes, and it is possible that the return of those remains could also progress in Japan in the future.

    It is the first time that Sakhalin Ainu remains are set to be returned. The government is poised to recognize the Sapporo-based Enciw bereaved families association as an organization eligible to receive returned remains.

    Ainu remains have been collected for research purposes in the past but there have been cases in which remains have been removed from graves without permission, and since the 1980s, this issue has become a problem. Following lawsuits by Ainu organizations and other objecting groups and subsequent settlements, starting in 2016, some of the remains kept at universities have been returned to local communities. In many cases, however, remains have been taken overseas. In 2017, one set of remains that was found to have been stolen was returned to Japan from Germany.

    A survey conducted by the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology, whose results were announced in April 2019, found that 1,574 sets of Ainu remains and 346 boxes of unidentifiable Ainu remains disinterred in Hokkaido and other areas were being kept by 12 universities in Japan. Of these, 1,323 sets of remains and 287 boxes were transferred to a memorial facility at the Upopoy National Ainu Museum and Park located in Shiraoi, Hokkaido, by October 2020. The remains of Sakhalin Ainu make up much of the remainder.

    In Australia, the National Museum of Australia in Canberra holds one set of remains while three sets are held at a public museum in Melbourne. The bones were provided to scholars in the country between 1911 and 1936 by Japanese medical doctor Yoshikiyo Koganei (1859-1944), a professor emeritus at Tokyo Imperial University known for his Ainu research, in exchange for the bones of Aborigines. The exchange was uncovered by Hirofumi Kato of the Center for Ainu and Indigenous Studies at Hokkaido University and others, who examined documents attached to the remains along with Koganei's diary.

    Three of the four sets of remains will be received by the Ainu Association of Hokkaido, which will coordinate their transfer to the memorial facility at Upopoy. The Enciw bereaved families association has requested that the other set of remains recorded as having been collected in southern Sakhalin be buried on the island, but because Sakhalin is now Russian territory, the bones will instead be stored temporarily at a public facility.

    The Cabinet Secretariat's Comprehensive Ainu Policy Office commented, "Coordination with various related organizations is progressing, and we can't talk about it now."

    'Acknowledge our existence'

    Mamoru Tazawa, the 67-year-old chairman of the Enciw bereaved families association, who resides in Sapporo, reflected on the difficult history of Sakhalin Ainu, saying, "We've finally moved a step forward. But our existence has still not been accepted."

    The Enciw, a minority Indigenous people on Sakhalin, had their own language and culture differing from that of the Ainu people of Hokkaido and the Kuril Islands (known in Japan as the Chishima Islands), but they were left at the mercy of war between Japan and Russia. Their language and land were lost, and even the remains of their ancestors were collected and traded as research material.

    Sakhalin was home to many ethnic groups, but under the Treaty of Saint Petersburg in 1875, the whole island became Russian territory. The Enciw people were temporarily shifted to northern Hokkaido and then to Tsuishikari, in the present-day city of Ebetsu in Hokkaido. After that, about half of them are said to have died in an epidemic. Following the Russo-Japanese War, southern Sakhalin became Japanese territory and some residents returned to their homeland, but they were forced to relocate again when the former Soviet Armed Forces invaded at the end of the Pacific War.

    Over history, the bones of Ainu were collected by scholars at Japan's imperial universities for research purposes to trace the origins of the Japanese people. This included the remains of the Enciw people. In the 1920s, anthropologists at Kyoto Imperial University unearthed graves on Sakhalin, and Tokyo Imperial University and Hokkaido Imperial University also collected a large amount of remains. The total number has not been publicly released, but it is believed that there are at least 150 sets of remains at universities across Japan, including at Kyoto University and Hokkaido University.

    Tazawa and other descendants have sought the return of the remains, and in 2018 they formed the Enciw bereaved families association. The word "enciw" comes from the language of the Indigenous people of Sakhalin, and like the word "ainu" means "human." The group's wishes, however, have not been readily accepted. Members were asked to prove their backgrounds through family register records, but due to repeated relocation and confusion at the end of the Pacific War, the government retained family register records for only six villages on Sakhalin. Most people have no records of their ancestors.

    Tazawa's grandmother and others fled for their lives at the end of the war, and lived in settlements in northern Hokkaido. They were poor and "everyone wanted to return to their homeland," he said. In 2019, the Ainu Policy Promotion Act, which recognized Ainu as Indigenous people for the first time, came into effect, but it did not include indigenous rights, such as the right to use natural resources.

    It was a law pertaining to all Ainu people, but Tazawa strongly feels that "during the discussion process, the Enciw people, who were a minority among minorities, were left outside."

    When the bereaved families' association becomes an organization that can receive returned remains, it may be possible to proceed with the return of remains held in Japan, but Tazawa feels that there is still a way to go. "I want the government and universities to return the remains to their original lands with sincerity. Until then we Enciw people will remain unrecognized as human beings."

    (Japanese original by Norikazu Chiba, Kyoto Bureau)

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