Flipping through the TV channels the other day I stumbled upon a great documentary on, of all places, the NHK education channel (usually home to shogi and go match broadcasts, foreign language lessons, physics lectures, etc. etc.—hmm, come to think of it those are probably an improvement on usual Japanese TV fare...). It was about a group of Ainu kids who put on a dance and music show in Tokyo to introduce people to their culture. They called themselves the Ainu Rebels.
The Ainu (pronounced 'aye, noo') are an ethnic group living in the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido, different in appearance from the ethnic Japanese, and possessing their own culture and language. In the Jomon period, that is around 14,000-400BC, they lived in the main islands of Japan but after the Yayoi people came to Japan from what is now China and Korea, they were gradually driven north and south. The northerners are now known as the Ainu, and the southerners are Okinawans.
The Ainu's recent history is a tragedy of oblivion: they were made to be forgotten by the Japanese. In the Meiji period (1868-1912) the Japanese government tried to assimilate them into a unified Japanese race, banning their language and restricting their work to farming and fishing. It largely succeeded: now, many people of Ainu descent aren't even aware of their ancestry, often because their elders hid it from them.
However, there's been a movement since the end of WWII to revive the Ainu culture, to learn again their almost-forgotten language, and to take pride in their heritage. The Ainu Rebels are part of that.
Watching the NHK documentary about the Ainu Rebels holding a musical event in Tokyo, what struck me was how different Ainu culture is from mainstream Japan's even though they live in the same islands. Their art and design, for example, look nothing like their Japanese equivalent; the thick, curved lined designs you often see on their traditional clothing resemble Celtic art more than Japanese art (though there's no connection to the former). The Ainu also look different from the ethnic Japanese, to a much bigger degree than I expected before watching the documentary. I think that an Ainu person's appearance would often fall outside of that spectrum of looks that a Japanese person would recognize as one of their own.
The interesting thing about Japan, though, is that in spite of what you hear about the homogeneity of its people, even the main Japanese group is a blend of ethnicities: the native Japanese Jomon-jin appearance mixes with the Chinese/Korean look of the Yayoi-jin look, and, if you look carefully, some people have much more Jomon characteristics than Yayoi, and vice versa. (Some of us got a kick out of the museum exhibition posters that popped up all over Tokyo a couple of years ago showing a representative Jomon girl—on the left in the photo below—and a typical Yayoi girl, to the right.) But all that hasn't stopped the mainstream Japanese from often being racist towards the Ainu anyway.
Which is what one of the Ainu guys featured in the NHK documentary rapped about during the Ainu Rebels' performance: he did a rap about growing up looking different, being called out by the other kids on that, trying to hide and forget that difference. But he has a sister who's much more into her Ainu identity, and one day he finally understands where she's coming from, that his ancestral heritage is a rich and deep one, and it's worth embracing and even letting other people know about it through performances.
It was a moving rap. What would be even greater now is if they go further, beyond telling people about themselves and their culture, and create new art that incorporates Ainu elements. The documentary showed that they're already doing that with their dances, combining modern and Ainu dance styles. In their music and rap it would be very cool if they brought in some Ainu words, traditions, points of view, and so on, and made something that speaks to us. I think that would really be NEW, and something I'd certainly want to listen to.