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Indigenous Theatre, Imperialist Museum: Meeting Menoko Mosmos and Amareya Theatre in Hokkaido, 2022

In mid-November, I traveled to Sapporo to meet members of Menoko Mosmos and Amareya Theatre, as well as their collaborators,  in person. When I arrived, these organizations were busy preparing for the collaborative performance, “Polish and Ainu Forefathers’ Eve,” Which premiered on stage in Sapporo on November 23, 2022. Preparations included a dinner and conversation prepared by members of Menoko Mosmos in their community center. The entire affair was recorded by Ainu filmmakers Asano Yumiko and Fujino Tomoaki. Over plates of Ainu food, members of both organizations and CEMiPoS did discuss plans for the upcoming performances, but much of the conversation consisted of casual conversation and laughter. At one point during the night, Menoko Mosmos leader Tahara Ryoko’s laughter spread across the room and couldn’t be contained. After sharing this moment, Amareya representative Katarzyna Pastuszak remarked that the serious academic work of CEMiPoS and indigenous reclamatory work of Amerya and Menoko Mosmos needed to be balanced with ample moments of joy. Tahara Ryoko later complemented the remark, reminiscing that Ainu communities used to laugh as we had in times of joy.

After making introductions on the first night, I attended a lunch and press conference with Katarzyna Pastuszak, Jadwiga Rodowicz-Czechowska (Deputy Director of the Józef Piłsudski Museum in Sulejówek), Asano Yumiko and Fujino Tomoaki, Hiroshi Maruyama, and other members of Amareya Theatre. At lunch, I separately asked Katarzyna and Yumiko a few questions about their motivations for working with their respective organizations, and for collaborating. For Yumiko, filming the collaborative process is a creative outlet and a form of self-expression. Yumiko is a deeply and consistently creative person whose work in hanga-e (woodblock printmaking), film, and other mediums reveal the intricacies of her creative thought, which often syncretizes imagery from spiritualities found across the globe. Fujino similarly expressed that filmmaking, particularly the operation of cameras, microphones, and other technology is a fun and intricate procedure that stimulates his creativity.

For Katarzyna, collaborations with Menoko Mosmos was also an endeavor in creative self-expression, and more precisely, in anticolonial creativity. Katarzyna began her reflections of the current projects with a history of Amareya Theatre and Menoko Mosmos’s joint work. The projects “Mowi ONNA: She Speaks” and “Requiem for Ainu and Kamui” are two major projects recently developed by Amareya Theatre and Menoko Mosmos. Held during the pandemic, these webinars provided spaces to discuss the Poland-Ainu connection through ethnologist Bronisław Piłsudski, and the indigenous exchanges fostered between Ainu Mosir and Poland. Jadwiga and Katarzyna iterated that human relations are one of the strongest forces that need to be fostered in order for us to preserve our humanity in spite of, in the context of, and across the borders of national conflicts. These are the themes that have guided joint works such as the latest “Polish and Ainu Forefathers’ Eve”.

After providing this brief overview of the work, Katarzyna commented on its purposes for Ainu and Polish women. She emphasized that theatrical performance is a form of self-affirmation for all the women involved. In these performances, Ainu and Polish women embody and show their own identities, which do not abide by colonialist imaginations of Indigenous Peoples as existing only in the past and in their historic territories.

This self-affirmation has been misinterpreted by outsiders. Katarzyna told me about a Polish male theater critic who misinterpreted Inuit artist Louise Fontaine’s performance in Inuit clothing at Amareya as a “decontextualization” of her indigeneity, or an appropriation of her culture. This was devastating for Katarzyna to hear, because it reflects a colonial idea that Indigenous Peoples can only exist in the places, times, and cultural contexts that colonial minds have traditionally imagined them. Importantly, this critic’s perspective also implies that Indigenous Peoples are not autonomous agents who can decide how and when to share their culture and how and when to express themselves in collaboration with others, and that Indigenous Peoples do not live and work in the contemporary globalized world which privileges the perspectives of individuals like this critic.

Misinterpretation is endemic to the work of Indigenous artists who perform in front of audiences from beyond their communities. Even so, these performances remain an opportunity to dismantle the colonial gaze and replace it with self-determined indigenous representations, which do not necessarily have to be comprehensible to non-indigenous viewers. For the public, Amareya’s collaborative theater is a space to learn about Ainu women from Ainu women. It is also a space to witness what the performers have learned about each other in private. For example, Amareya can incorporate the knowledge that Kimura Fumio ekasi, an Ainu leader, has been demanding access to his ancestors’ remains from institutions like Upopoy. Amareya members learned this information in conversation with CEMiPoS researchers Leni Charbonneau and Maruyama Hiroshi, who were told about these struggles by Kimura ekasi himself. Performance offers a space for Ainu individuals to retell stories like this in a creative way that makes sense to them, and that is self-affirming. Another example comes from Kimiko Naraki, an Ainu woman and performer, who carries her ancestors’ experience of being forcibly relocated from Karafuto to Hokkaido with her. She expresses aspects of this historical and familial story with her performance, and that is self-affirming. It is the real-ization of a story that informs who she is and whom she loves, but which is systemically silenced - often by the audiences to whom she performs. Amareya justifies its collaborations with Menoko Mosmos by framing itself as a stage for Ainu self-determination and exchange.

Given my personal research interest in anticolonial museology, I chose to accompany Asano Yumiko, Sakikawa Shinichiro and Naomi, and Jadwiga Rodowicz-Czechowska to a few museums on my last day. Asano Yumiko was especially kind enough to describe various artworks and objects related to Ainu history to me. We had quite a lot of fun, and I learned a lot, even though my limited Japanese prevented me from grasping every detail she shared.

The first museum we visited was the Hokkaido University Museum. I should preface that all opinions expressed here are my own, and that I did not have enough conversations with members of Menoko Mosmos to ascertain their personal relationships to this museum. In any case, I will share what I observed.

At the Hokkaido University Museum, Indigenous Peoples of the northern Hemisphere are exhibited in the Faculty of Letters hall. Books and CDs produced by Indigenous individuals, textiles/clothing, many mouth harps, (placed next to one another to insinuate the proximity of their producing cultures), and linguistic study results are displayed in glass cases and narrated on wall mounted posters. Wall mounted posters are usually written in both Japanese and English, though not every object plaque was translated.

The Faculty of Letters exhibit represents Indigenous Peoples as extant peoples, but also as peoples who are primarily characterized by unique languages, relationships with arctic climates, and inheritors of culture. Indigeneity is deeply tied to territorial and cultural inheritance, but in the ongoing colonial era, Indigenous Peoples must often commit political action to defend their inheritances. From what I could tell, Indigenous Peoples’ political activities are not thoroughly narrated here - save for some commentary on environmental defense and regeneration against climate change. I do wonder how the Indigenous communities represented collaboratively designed this exhibit, and whether they requested that their cultures be represented sans overt political commentary. Given how ardently Ainu activists have criticized the Upopoy National Ainu Museum for committing a similar depoliticization of Ainu life, I suspect there may also be some criticisms of the Hokkaido University Museum’s Faculty of Letters exhibit.

The Faculty of Letters exhibit is not the only one narrating a history relevant to Ainu Peoples. Various exhibition design choices reveal that the Museum has not critically analyzed its place in colonial history, and its contributions to ongoing colonial legacies. This lack of critical awareness is obvious from the moment one walks into the Museum. An early exhibition describes its founding by Kuroda Kiyotaka, Director of the Kaitakushi (Hokkaido Development Commission), and William S. Clark, cofounder of the Massachusetts Agricultural College (now University of Massachusetts, Amherst). While memorializing Clark’s inauguration speech, the exhibit does not remark, at least in English, that Sapporo Agricultural College was one facilitator of a larger project to colonize Hokkaido. The opening of the school is celebrated as a moment of progress, Yet, neither the Kaitakushi’s role in colonizing and eliminating Indigenous Peoples through agriculturalization, nor Japan’s collusion in the global imperialism that causes ongoing climate devastation and oppression of imperialized peoples, are commented upon.

Further into the museum, the Arctic Research Center’s exhibit contains many posters that describe the Center’s findings. On one poster, a small blurb about climate change and the extreme changes it imposes upon Arctic Indigenous Peoples indigenous lives sits right under reports about the University’s crude oil extraction research. Another poster outlines designs for an arctic city that overcomes, rather than adapts to or regulates, the increasingly extreme climate. Indigenous approaches to working with and renewing the natural landscape are not mentioned as an alternative to this industrialist approach to urban design. As in the exhibits in Hokkaido University’s founding, this exhibit does not mention that research on crude oil extraction or urban development are tied to extractivism in indigenous territories and deterritorialization of Indigenous Peoples. The exhibit reiterates the lack a self-critical understanding that Hokkaido University’s history and current activities contribute to the ongoing colonization of Indigenous Peoples whom it claims to respect in the Faculty of Letters’s exhibit. In line with this lack of critical analysis, the Faculty of Letters exhibit is located just across from an exhibit about medical and anatomical research. These disciplines, in Hokkaido University specifically, have long violated Indigenous Peoples’ dignity through race pseudo-scientific studies. Even today, Ainu elder Kimura ekasi is demanding that the University and accomplice institutions repatriate the remains of his ancestors, which figures sponsored by Hokkaido University exhumed in the 20th century. Today, many remains are stored at Upopoy’s ossuary, but the history of colonizers exhuming Ainu remains is deeply tied to Hokkaido University.

Before arriving at the second museum of the day, we stopped at the Karafuto Ainu memorial gravesite in Ebetsu. The memorial is dedicated to those Karafuto Ainu who were forcibly relocated to Ebetsu and Tsuishikari and passed away as a result of the cholera pandemic. It was erected in the late 19th century at Honganji Temple, per the request of Ueno Tadashi, a representative of the Union of Karafuto Ainu Laborers. It consists of a hakaishi, or Buddhist gravestone, into which a phrase written by Mr. Keitaro Sakuma, the head of Nishi Honganji's Hokkaido Branch Office at the time, is inscribed:「樺太移住旧土人先祖之墓」(“"The gravestone of the aboriginal ancestors immigrated from Sakhalin").

Despite the memorializing intentions of the monument, its content reiterates colonialist harm. The word 「土人」(“dōjin”) in its inscription is particularly troubling. According to Professor Sakikawa Shinichiro, this phrase is a discriminatory way to refer to Indigenous Peoples like the Karafuto Ainu. Much like the exhibits seen in museums which are not operated by Ainu communities, this inscription reflects colonialist attitudes which dehumanize Ainu Peoples, rather than Ainu attitudes that respect and affirm Ainu Peoples. Though it is a memorial gravesite, it fails to correctly attribute Karafuto Ainu ancestors’ passing to Japanese colonization, instead reproducing colonial harms by using discriminatory terminology.

Even so, contemporary representatives of Honganji express sympathy for the historic struggles of Karafuto Ainu, and Ainu descendants have utilized the memorial in annual remembrance ceremonies since 1979.

In a 2022 interview with Professor Maruyama Hiroshi, Sekido Ryosei, the chief priest of the Honganji Temple, shared the following:

Almost all of the Karafuto Ainu, who lost their lives in Tsuishikari, Raisatsu, and other places in Hokkaido due to the pandemic of cholera and smallpox and other reasons, were buried in a mound near our temple Honganji. Since then, our Honganji Temple has held a Buddhist service for those Karafuto Ainu every year for more than 130 years. In the 1960s, half of the mound was levelled by the Hokkaido Electric Company for business, leaving around a hundred Karafuto Ainu human remains. A research group at the Hokkaido University ran away with those remains for research.

We departed the memorial site and made our way to the Hokkaido Museum. The Museum is accessed by a winding road that climbs a forested hill. At a clearing, the Museum’s imposing facade makes use of the materials emblematic of Hokkaido’s industrialization: brick and steel. Inside the first floor exhibition space, visitors are met with an entire room dedicated to historical and contemporary Ainu objects and stories. It is a large room with high ceilings and wood floors. It features clothing, material culture, and reproduced dwelling spaces and other structures.

Similarly to Upopoy, the exhibit is organized thematically rather than chronologically. Those themes include Ainu culture, language, and spirituality, as well as contemporary Ainu life. What this exhibit fails to address are two themes intimately tied to indigeneity: colonization and resistance. The section on contemporary life implies that Ainu Peoples transitioned from precolonial to postcolonial lifestyles, but it only mildly recognizes that this change was forced under colonialism. It paints Ainu colonization as something that happened in the past,without recognizing its ongoing legacies of oppression, and claims Ainu are now mostly assimilated and living well without complaints.

When narrating Ainu Mosir’s colonization, the plaques often use the term “development and settlement” instead of colonization, and say these forces “greatly impacted Ainu life” instead of “systematically deterritorialized and eliminated Ainu”. There is some mention of forced relocation, and a mild recognition that the Protection Act was in the interests of Wajin rather than Ainu. and therefore did not alleviate Ainu oppression. However, there is no explicit admission that Japan colonized and eliminated Ainu people. The museum downplays the colonial history further by tracing the Meiji empire’s colonization to the Matsumae clan’s involvement, which started as a trade domination ordered by the Tokugawa, and which started prior to that as free trade between Ainu, Wajin, and others. In my opinion, by tracing colonization chronologically to the era of free Ainu-Wajin trade, and by tracing that back to the emergence of the Okhotsk and Jomon cultures of peoples settling into Sakhalin, Karafuto, and Hokkaido, the museum implies that Japan’s expansion into Hokkaido was an organic, flowing historical development rather than an active choice made by successive imperial governments. The museum exacerbated this implication of organic historical development by using passive verbs to describe Ainu colonization as a condition of Ainuness - an Ainu problem. For instance, one plaque narrates that Ainu began to “lose their freedom” through successive trade interactions with the Matsumae, failing to mention how the Matsumae and Tokugawa gradually dominated Ainu Peoples and their territory by controlling trade.

Having visited these museums, and spoken with members of Menoko Mosmos and Amareya Theatre, I left Hokkaido with a new research question: how can we design museums that center exhibited peoples’ voices without altering those voices to make them palatable, relatable, or comfortable for certain visitors? Can a museum survive if it refuses to tailor subaltern experiences to the expectations of privileged visitors, and instead takes on the purpose of teaching visitors empathy for experiences that are not their own  - even if aspects of that experience makes oppressor class visitors uncomfortable? How can we make empathetic antiracist and anticolonial interactions between subjectivized peoples and visiting peoples the core purpose of a museum? These are the questions which will guide my ongoing studies. What questions do these museums’ exhibits spark for you?