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Sat, 1 May 1999 17:46:23 EDT
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Smithsonian Explores Ainu Culture

By RANDOLPH E. SCHMID
.c The Associated Press


WASHINGTON (AP) -- The mysterious Ainu of northern Japan, a people whose
culture, language and physical appearance set them apart from other Asians,
are featured in a new Smithsonian Institution exhibition that seeks to tell
their story to Americans.

Once a large trading and fishing people living across a broad region, the
Ainu today number only about 25,000, concentrated on Japan's northernmost
island, Hokkaido. In some ways, their story parallels that of American
Indians, overrun by outsiders in the 1800s, their lands lost and culture
threatened.

Ainu history and culture are featured in an exhibit opening today at the
National Museum of Natural History. Starting in January, the exhibit, ``Ainu,
Spirit of a Northern People,'' will go on tour around the country.

Long a mystery to outsiders, the Ainu look so different from other Asians
that early European and American visitors once speculated that the Ainu were
a lost tribe of Caucasians.

Today most anthropologists consider them descendants of ancient Asian
peoples, explained curator William Fitzhugh, director of the museum's Arctic
Studies Center.

Scholars believe the Ainu stem from the prehistoric Jomon culture, which was
replaced by the forerunners of the modern Japanese about 2,000 years ago.

``They're not Japanese at all,'' said Fitzhugh. The separate Ainu culture was
finally recognized by a 1997 Japanese law, he noted. A revival of ancient
traditions is getting under way.

That's a big change from just over a decade ago, when a joint U.S.-Soviet
exhibition at the Smithsonian featuring the peoples of northern lands
excluded the Ainu at the request of the then-Soviet Union, which didn't want
attention called to having expelled these people from lands it ruled.

Unlike their Asian neighbors, the Ainu are more muscular and have wavy hair
and deep-set eyes. The men tend to grow full, bushy beards and the women
tattoo their lips, arms and hands.

When it comes to language, researchers are at a loss to find good links
between the Ainu tongue and others, though some have suggested Central Asian
roots, some Pacific native languages and even American Indian connections.

``The word 'unknown' still remains the most cogent summary that most Ainu
linguists can agree on,'' the Smithsonian curators report.

The Ainu had Japan's northern Hokkaido Island nearly to themselves for
hundreds of years, hunting, fishing and trading with nearby peoples.

After the Meiji took over the government of Japan in 1868, they opened
Hokkaido to settlement and the Ainu were overrun by new arrivals, falling
into decline.

Eventually, the Ainu were reduced to making animal carvings to sell to
tourists, a craft that proved popular with visitors but conflicts with their
tradition, which banned representations of people or animals.

Ainu clothing, made of finely woven tree inner bark, and tools and weapons
are on display in the exhibition.

A centerpiece is a bearskin illustrating a return of the spirit ceremony.

The Ainu believe all things are physical manifestations of gods and the bear
represents the god of the mountains. When he visits the Ainu, he puts on
bearskin and flesh to be given as gifts to the people. The bear's spirit is
dispatched back to its world with an elaborate ceremony.


AP-NY-04-30-99 0202EDT

Copyright 1999 The Associated Press. The information contained in the AP news
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