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Reason to Hope

May 11, 2009

I remember back in my college days in Pennsylvania reading the poetry of Gary Snyder, who had a heart for the native peoples of the Americas. His poetry was spiritual in the way it respected nature and the native peoples. I was touched deeply, both because of the way it filled me with a sense of awe toward nature, and because it helped me to reflect on Western "civilization" and the sometimes blatant abuses inflicted upon nature and human kind. One recurring theme in Snyder's poetry is summed up in these words; "Walk gently on the earth!"

This March I stood in a snow covered graveyard with some of my students from the Sendai Student Youth Center, learning about the indigenous people of Japan, the Ainu. We were on a ten day study tour of the northern island of Hokkaido. With us for the day was Rev. Miura of the Ainu People's Information Center run by our partner church, the Kyodan. He had brought us to the graveyard to see the Ainu graves. Noticeably different from Japanese graves, Ainu graves are indicated by one small carved pole sticking straight out of the ground. We could see that each pole was carved with different designs, but there were no names inscribed on them.

We had studied the history of the Ainu people, and how the Japanese came from the south about 150 years ago to colonize Hokkaido. The Ainu were denied their cultural practices and the right to speak their own language. Rev. Miura opened our eyes to the many cultural differences which exist between the Ainu and the Japanese. One difference is the way the Ainu think about death. Japanese build solid stone graves, and visit the graves at least once a year to show reverence to the ancestors. For the Ainu however, once they bury the dead that is the end. They never return to the grave site. The deceased is buried along with personal tools, dress and ornaments, and is sent away to heaven.

Rev. Miura also shared with us a sad chapter in the history of the church in Japan. A well known Japanese intellectual and Christian by the name of Inazo Nitobe was a young professor at Hokkaido University in the late 1800s. He was responsible for digging up over 1400 Ainu graves, taking the remains and precious ornaments back to his labs in Sapporo. Nitobe also traveled to the US to study how to colonize indigenous peoples. The policies this famous Christian leader tested against the Ainu, later became the cornerstone of Japan's imperial design for colonizing Asia.

The Ainu graves are a silent reminder that we need to walk gently on this earth. In June of 2008, under much pressure from the international community, the Japanese government for the first time recognized the Ainu as the indigenous people of Japan. Presently, there is a committee of nine (only one of which is Ainu) which is responsible for deciding what new measures will be taken if any to recognize the rights of the Ainu people. The Kyodan stands in solidarity with the Ainu as they strive to regain their dignity in this land. The Ainu People's Information Center is committed to the struggle of the Ainu people to regain their rights in Japanese society. They provide scholarships for Ainu children, and plan programs to educate churches and the public about the Ainu struggle. The Ainu population is estimated to be around one million. Will they gain the right to elect their own representatives to the Japanese government, as the Maori people do in New Zealand? Will the Ainu language be recognized as an official language of Japan, the way 14 different indigenous languages have been recognized in Taiwan? It is easy to be pessimistic, but I must say, there is reason to HOPE. The church is never THE solution. The church is always at its best when it is a sign; a sign of HOPE; a sign of how God might want the indigenous peoples of the world to regain their dignity on this earth.


Jeffrey Mensendiek

Jeffrey Mensendiek serves with the Council on Cooperative Mission, assigned to the Gakusei (Student) Center in Japan.  He serves as Director of Gakusei (Student) Center in Sendai, Japan.


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