Beyond Primitivism: Indigenous Religious Traditions and Modernity

By Jacob K. Olupona | Go to book overview

Chapter 16

Rethinking indigenous religious traditions

The case of the Ainu

Katarina V. Sjöberg


Introduction

This article discusses the religious tradition of the Hokkaido 1 Ainu, Japan’s indigenous people. It focuses especially on transformation processes, including aspects regarding development and modernization. Research into the situation of the Ainu has been done with the focus on strategies of assimilating the Ainu. The standard position in Japan, when talking and writing about its culture, is that it is homogenous, despite the fact that there are actually a number of different ethnic groups in Japan. Disregarding the fact that Japan has recently recognized the Ainu as a religious and cultural minority, most literature dealing with the general issues concerning the Ainu way of life maintains the idea that the Ainu, as a group of people, has ceased to exist, implying that their religious tradition has disappeared. 2

My argument in this article builds on the finding that the religious tradition of the Ainu is alive and well; the Ainu have never forgotten their religious beliefs and values. By this statement, I do not mean that I take an ahistoric static view. Rather, the perspective I have chosen implies an exploring of the religious beliefs and the practicing of them as a social process with various phases: some phases consist of periods when they are relatively stable; during other phases, they are elaborated and enriched; while during still others, they are subjected to retrogressions. The design of the different phases depends, of course, on the surrounding context, that is to say, the conditions the Ainu face during different time periods.

The material used in this chapter comes from my fieldwork among the Hokkaido Ainu, conducted during the years 1985-8, a follow-up study conducted in the year 1995, and archival, historical and more contemporary sources that have provided me with updates concerning the situation since my visits. The main methods used lie within the field of qualitative research techniques, including participant observation, interviews, and the collection of life histories.


Approach

Focusing on the heterogeneity that the Ainu face when interacting with the larger society, and the strategies they employ in coming to terms with new and alien values, allows for an understanding of the multiplex interplay between the Ainu and the dominant ethnic group in Japan, the Wajin. 4 As there are several actors in the arena, there are also several strategies in dialog and encounter with one another. Ainu contact with values and norms belonging to the dominant ethnic group in Japan has taken place over a long time span, and during intervals the Ainu have maneuvered in various ways and on different levels,

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