Masako Kubota leads the 2017 Study Abroad to Japan by the Honors College

By: Masako Kubota, Japanese Instructor at FIU

IRANKARAPTE is the Ainu greeting for hello and it conveys a warm, sincere message of “Let’s start a meaningful friendship.” Our study abroad in Japan was filled with IRANKARAPTE by non-profit community builders and Ainu people.

My encounter with Ainu people started in 2010 when I visited Akan Kotan (village) to meet Ainu elders whom I learned by the Hokkaido News Paper articles. In my Masters Essay: Legacy of Fuchi~Why and how Ainu elderly women maintain their roots, I analyzed Ainu elders articles and their life styles. By the end of my essay, I felt as if I knew them as my life- time friends. Our friendship fulfilled when I invited Ainu elders and artists in 2016, November to the event titled Spirit of Ainu: Super Natural Environment of Kamuy to FIU. This friendship led me to plan a project of 2017 Study Abroad by the Honors College.

Japan Study Abroad this summer included ten days each in Tokyo, Sapporo, and Akan Kotan (village). The trip focused on reciprocity and sustainable communities and cultures in Japan. Our journey began in Tokyo, where we visited a number of non-profit organizations (NPOs) and the community cafés that focus on giving back to their local communities and providing free or low cost services for the elderly. We also visited Sensoji, Zojuji, and Sengakuji temple, Meiji shrine, Kabuki Theater, and old town of Tokyo called Ya-Ne-Sen.

We left Tokyo to travel to Hokkaido, Japan’s northern-most island and the land of Ainu people. We visited the Center for Ainu and Indigenous Studies at Hokkaido University and learned about the history and society of Ainu people by Dr. Kitahara Jirota. Then, at Sapporo University, we have a special lecture by Dr. Honda Yuko about the Urespa project. Dr. Honda started a project for Ainu youth for better education with scholarships, and securing the job opportunities in the prominent industries in Hokkaido. We were very lucky to share our time with Urespa students and learn Ainu traditional dances and how to play the Mukkuri, traditional Ainu mouth harp.

We left Sapporo for a six-hour bus ride to Akan, travelling through spectacular mountains and myriad small farming villages. Akan is a small, rural Ainu village in eastern-central Hokkaido, embracing Lake Akan and surrounded by mountains and natural hot springs. Mr. Onishi, CEO of the Hotel Tsuruga Group: expensive luxury hotel retreats, welcomed us. He encourages maintaining Ainu heritage and proudly displays its culture in his hotels. We were privileged to stay Tsuruga Hotel’s dorms, and immerged ourselves with hot springs that the hotels offer for the tourists. At Akan, we not only immerged ourselves in their Hot Springs, but also traditional Ainu society and culture. We experienced traditional Ainu dance and songs at the community theater, learned Ainu language at the Ainu Learning center, cooked communal food after collecting edible plants on a mountain, canoed on Lake Akan.

Ainu people were very kind to invite us to their memorial ceremony held at Shibetsu. They let us wear their embroidered Kimonos and participate in the ritual ceremonies that were conducted by Ekashi, respected male elders. Towards the end of the ceremonies, all females including FIU students joined to offer foods for the young soldiers who died during the civil war (1680s) between Ainu and Japanese Government.

Through this trip, I wanted students to experience not only the community activities but also appreciate Ainu people’s warm hospitality and kindness in spite of the hardship they went through during Meiji Restauration (1868). After the Meiji government colonized Hokkaido, Ainu people experienced discrimination and forced to live in poverty. They lost their language, and subsequently, Ainu traditions and culture were forced into crisis. However at Akan Kotan, elder women, called Fuchi tried to transmit their traditional dance and songs along their spiritual stories that traditionally teach sustainable society and reciprocity.

The trip ended with IRANKARAPTE festival, a four-hour performance including collaborations with popular Japanese performers and the Ainu artists of the village. There, they introduced the new song that will be promoted for the Olympic in 2020.

“… IRANKARAPTE, IRANKARAPTE What a pleasure to meet you, my friend It is a wonderful day”

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