We are indigenous people and minorities, and there are hardships that come with it. But we are able to face our roots and culture, and to think seriously about the future of our children thanks to this background. We have friends we can meet and activities we can work hard on. If there are people who are trying to take a step forward now, let’s work together towards the future.
Ms. Usa loves to sing and dance and works to have people learn about the history and culture of her Ainu ancestors while having fun. Her path is illuminated by the fact that she is an Ainu living in Tokyo, and through her deep connections with her family and friends. We will trace her path through the stories of her Ainu restaurant, which conveys her grandmother’s wishes through her cooking, and her activities to express Ainu culture.
Name ： Teruyo Usa Community /Country： Ainu / Japan Whrere I currently live： Tokyo, Japan Age： 49 (born in 1972) Current Initiatives/Title： Owner of “Hokkaido Creative Cuisine Harukor” / AYNURUTOMTE
From the 17th to 19th centuries, the Ainu people inhabited a wide area from the northern Tohoku region to Hokkaido (Ezo), Sakhalin, and the Chishima Islands, and developed their own culture, including the Ainu language, which is different from the Japanese language. A spiritual culture in which everything in nature is believed to have a soul, hunting and gathering, oral literature, and embroidery patterns. The Japanese government’s policy of assimilation led to a decline in the succession of language and cultures, it is also causing economic disparity and discrimination. Although the New Ainu Registration was enacted in 2019, the Ainu are still in the process of protecting their rights as indigenous peoples, and much work remains to be done to improve the lives and ways of life of the Ainu people, who have been forced to hide their identities for fear of discrimination which has persisted for many years.
Moving from Hokkaido to Tokyo
“Enjoying” the hardships along with singing and dancing
I was born in Kushiro and moved to Tokyo when I was 10 years old. Both my mother and father were of Ainu descent, but I grew up without knowing anything about Ainu when I was in Hokkaido. When my father and mother divorced, I moved to Tokyo with my mother and five siblings, relying on my grandmother who was working as a cleaner in Tokyo.
My grandmother had formed a group in Tokyo with Utari (meaning “friends” or “compatriots” in Ainu) who had moved to the Kanto region, with the intention of creating a place where everyone could come together to talk about their hometowns, sing, and dance. My mother took me to the meetings, and I began to absorb the songs and dances easily.
My mother was not at home most of the time, so I spent my younger years selling yakisoba noodles in the pedestrian mall in Harajuku, working part-time, and learning to play, but even though I was naughty, I didn’t rebel against my mother and loved to sing and dance. I would ask Ainu seniors to teach me instruments and go to performances. The adults around us tried not to let the children listen to difficult topics such as human rights, and when they were difficult, we would leave them alone and say, “Let’s go and play over there”.
My mother was not able to go to school and was sent to work in various places such as farms and factories. Rather than being discriminated against, we were poor. My mother could barely write her own name, and when we were in elementary and junior high school, she even asked us to write for her.
In Tokyo, she was working as a cleaner, and at first I was on welfare, but she didn’t like it, so she turned it down and worked hard. By the time I was in junior high school, I was already working.
We were poor and had a hard time, but we enjoyed the situation. The water, gas, and electricity were often cut off, but we enjoyed the survival. When I tell this story at lectures, some people listen to me in tears, and when I see them, I think to myself, “Oh, what we went through was something pretty hard” (laughs).
Conveying Grandmother’s spirit through “Food”
My grandmother was a very dignified and strong woman who was strict with her people and kind to those around her. She used to perform in an Ainu kimono, but she always wore big sunglasses and would surprise children by showing them her breasts. She also went to the politicians to make various appeals, but she looked so confident that it was hard to tell who was being asked to do what. I often saw these grandmothers working for the rights of the Ainu people.
She also sang and danced, but more importantly, she wanted to be able to gather together in a place. Other Ainu people in Tokyo shared my grandmother’s feelings. They got together and decided to create an Ainu restaurant and let everyone know about the Ainu culture and situation, since asking the government for help was not going to get them anywhere. They raised funds through performances throughout the country and managed to gather enough money in 2.5 years.。
That’s how they came up with “Lera Chise” (“Wind House” in Ainu language). It opened about 30 years ago in Waseda for about 7 years, and moved to Nakano for about 7 years, but closed in 2009 due to financial difficulties. However, in 2011, we decided to open a new restaurant in Shinjuku, Tokyo, called “Harukoro,” because we didn’t want to let the exchange of ideas that had been born here die out. My mother passed away about a month later, but she continued to teach us how to cook until then.
There is the Tokyo Ainu Cultural Center, but there are many people who hide their Ainu identity and cannot get involved even if they wanted to. However, in the form of a restaurant, they can easily come to eat and drink. In such cases, I feel lucky to have a restaurant.
One day, I saw an old man who seemed to be Ainu, staring at me in front of the restaurant, and I said to him, “Aren’t you Utari (“fellow” in Ainu language)? Come and have dinner with us.” A few days later, he actually came to eat. He talked about the past, smiling with tears in his eyes, while holding my hand. I felt rewarded to have a casual restaurant that allowed us to cross paths. When there is food on the table and we share a meal together, it is easier for people to open up, rather than just sitting down and asking for the story. And I think what comes out in these casual occasions is very important.
Living as Ainu in Tokyo
An Ainu who has left Hokkaido is sometimes “not seen” as Ainu. Unlike those who live in Hokkaido, the Ainu who have left for the Kanto region are not subject to any government programs. Not only the government, but also Japanese people have a strong image of Ainu as people from Hokkaido, so I often get asked if I am from Hokkaido, and when I answer, “No, I live in Tokyo,” the tone of the conversation sometimes drops.
There are many Ainu people who came to Tokyo because there are no jobs or to escape discrimination. But they are excluded from various government programs. People would say, “You’re not from Hokkaido,” but I try to think, “Even if I don’t speak Ainu, I’m still Ainu, and even if I don’t wear the traditional clothing, I’m still Ainu. “I believe that this is the reason why I perform in Tokyo. People may ask, “Why Tokyo?” But I think that I have to find the meaning of what I can do here.
I also have a connection with people from Okinawa who have come to Tokyo. We hold the “Charanke Festival’’. In Ainu language, “charanke’’ means “to decide who wins or loses, or to discuss,” and in Uchinaaguchi (Okinawan language), the word “charanke” also exists, and it means “don’t disappear.” The festival started 27 years ago in Nakano and it’s been continuing.
We also had a chance to interact with Maori children at the restaurant. It’s nice to be able to interact with people while eating together. It’s also a place where we can connect with people from different countries such as the Sami and Taiwan.
Honoring Our Ancestors and Lighting the Way for the Next Generation - AYNURUTOMTE
Apart from my family, I’ve performed Ainu dance, instruments, and singing with people from Sapporo, Obihiro, and various provinces. I have learned a lot from my predecessors, but in the past few years, due to the pandemic, I don’t have many opportunities like that.
I also wanted to pass on the message of respect for our ancestors to the next generation of children, so I created a group called AYNURUTOMTE as a team to express Ainu culture.
I want to cherish the words of our ancestors and the things that our grandmothers and mothers did, and I think that without that history, we would have no meaningful existence, that is why I want the children to know about this and I hope it can be done naturally.
My grandmother, who lived in a time when speaking Ainu was forbidden, never taught me Ainu, and I never spoke it in public. It was hard for me to know that I was not taught the Ainu language, and the fact that my grandmothers had such feelings, and that they did not want their children to know what it was like, that is what motivates me now.
AYNURUTOMTE means “to light the way”. I am very happy that the children are growing up, and I think it is important for us to feel that we ourselves are having fun in order to continue.
A Future where Children can Make Choices and Seize Opportunities
I believe that young people of Ainu descent today are experiencing many more things than when I was a child. At Sapporo University, where my nephew attends, there is a project called the Ureshipa Club, which fosters an understanding of Ainu history and culture and a spirit of multiculturalism. I hope that we can expand the opportunities to connect with people from all over the world and gain all kinds of knowledge.
In the past, even if Ainu living in Tokyo wanted to learn Ainu embroidery, they could not because they lived outside Hokkaido, so they had to move their residence to Hokkaido. Many Ainu children were unable to go to school due to discrimination, and there was a difference in the rate of access to higher education between Ainu and Japanese. In terms of employment and relationships, many Japanese people didn’t want to have anything to do with Ainu people. There are also anonymous slanderous people on social media. But things are getting better than they used to be.
I have a daughter, and I want to create a situation where she can have a choice. When I was little, I had no chance, no choice, no opportunity to learn, only to work. When I heard that Slow Food was going to hold an indigenous people’s event in Sapporo, I said, “I’ll be right there! I would like to create as many opportunities for children as possible.
This picture was taken at the Earth Day parade in Tokyo. While we adults were writing something like “Rights for Japan’s indigenous people,” my daughter came up with a piece of paper and a pen and wrote “Ruino of Ainu” (Ruino = my daughter’s name) on her own. I didn’t explain it to her, but everyone around her was happy to see her writing it by herself. I would like to create a world where children can say things like that without hesitation and without having to think about the painful discrimination.
Usa’s Pride Food
“Ohau” is a soup made with kombu seaweed and salmon, cod, carrots, Chinese cabbage, and potatoes. Some people add miso but it is not traditional. The venison is imported from Hokkaido. The store also offers other dishes that are high in protein and low in fat. My restaurant also serves a high protein, low-fat deer rice bowl. We source deer meat from Hokkaido.
Usa’s Personal History
1972 Born in Kushiro
1982 Move to Tokyo
2011 Open Harukor
2020 Start AYNURUTOMTE