What does it mean to be Ainu today? Contemporary perspectives of an indigenous people of Japan revealed in UK-first exhibition.

  • Ainu Stories: Contemporary Lives by the Saru River is the first survey in the UK of the contemporary culture of this indigenous people of Japan.
  • Personal stories of members of the community of Nibutani, in Biratori, offer visitors the chance to experience Ainu culture from the inside through language, song, dance, society and craft.   
  • The exhibition uncovers little-known historical links between the UK and the remote region of Biratori, telling the story of 19th-century British explorers whose legacies live on in the region today.
  • An extensive events programme, led by guests visiting the UK from Nibutani, includes workshops, demonstrations and performances of song, dance, cookery, crafts and language.
  • The exhibition is free to enter.
  • Exhibition dates: 16 November 2023 – 21 April 2024. 
  • Press preview and curator tours: 9am – 12pm 15 November 2023. Space is limited, please book in advance: press.office@japanhouselondon.co.uk 
  • Link to images: https://images.japanhouselondon.uk/assetbank-japanhouse/action/browseItems?categoryId=1019&categoryTypeId=2&cachedCriteria=1

Japan House London is set to reveal the rich cultural diversity of Japan in this UK-first exploration of contemporary Ainu culture, opening on 16 November 2023.

The Ainu are an indigenous people who have been living in northern Japan, especially Hokkaido and the surrounding islands. In the past, members of this community were not able to fully express their distinct culture – a situation which caused many to fear for its long-term survival. During the 1960s and 1970s Kayano Shigeru, who was born in 1926 in the small village of Nibutani in Hokkaido’s Biratori area and was the first Ainu to sit in Japan’s parliament, inspired a movement to celebrate, sustain and develop this distinct and lesser known of the Japanese cultures. This movement continues to gather momentum today, in particular among younger members of the Ainu community in Nibutani.

Ainu Stories: Contemporary Lives by the Saru River has been curated in collaboration with the people of Biratori, an area located in Saru River basin in the south of Hokkaido. The exhibition explores the significance of Ainu culture for this community and the relationships between its people and their surroundings, as well as revealing some interesting historical links between the UK and Biratori. It offers UK audiences the chance to experience first-hand, examples of Ainu culture as it exists today, highlighting its importance in the wider contemporary cultural fabric of Japan.

Twelve in-depth video interviews provide an intimate visual and oral backdrop to the exhibition’s four central themes, which are further brought to life with displays of contemporary Ainu works and film:

  • Ainu Language – Members of the community in Nibutani are particularly dedicated to ensuring the continued life of this largely oral language, named as critically endangered by UNESCO. Visitors to the exhibition can discover examples of the Ainu language in use. 
  • Society and the Environment – This section touches on topics of environmental conservation, contemporary agricultural practices, the largely unknown world of Ainu cuisine and the consultation with members of the Ainu community on major land construction projects such as the recently completed Biratori Dam. 
  • Ainu Textiles, Song and Dance –Through displays, film and hands-on workshops, visitors to the exhibition can discover the importance of song and dance in Ainu culture – not performed for the benefit of others but taking place as part of community life. Richly embroidered robes worn for certain ceremonies tell the story of Ainu textiles and crafts. 
  • Woodcarving and Tourism – Japanese domestic tourism in the 1960s and 1970s inspired the growth of the Ainu woodcarving industry in Nibutani, an area which was already famed for its delicately carved wooden trays, household utensils and hunting weapons. Today, Nibutani ita (carved trays), together with Nibutani attus (woven bark textiles), are the only officially designated ‘Traditional Crafts’ of Hokkaido. Visitors will find a range of these objects on display, including a specially commissioned piece by Kaizawa Toru whose work can also be seen in the British Museum.   

Visitors to the exhibition can also discover historically significant connections between the UK and Biratori. Key figures who forged lasting relationships with the Ainu in the region include missionary John Batchelor from East Sussex, who lived and worked with the Ainu community for many years during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, fiercely advocating their culture and way of life.  He published the first texts about Ainu language in English, including the first Ainu-English dictionary in 1905. The exhibition also explores travelogues of 19th-century explorer and first female member of the Royal Geographical Society, Isabella Bird, whose northernmost point of travel within Japan was Biratori, where she stayed with the local community leader’s family.  Lastly the exhibition uncovers the story of Scotsman Dr Neil Gordon Munro, the local physician in Nibutani during the 1930s, whose work there earned him the love and respect of the Ainu population.

Simon Wright, Director of Programming for Japan House London, said:

“This exhibition and the accompanying visits from members of the Ainu community in Biratori is the first time such a major collaborative undertaking with an Ainu community has taken place in the UK. Many, if not all, exhibitions of Ainu culture in museums have focused on the past. Displays are often made up of old ethnographic collections. This exhibition, with a range of materials made especially for this project, aims to be different. For this venture, at Japan House London we want to show how Ainu culture in the rural district of Biratori is expressed today.’

The exhibition is complemented by a rich programme of events covering Ainu dance, language, cuisine, policy and craft and ranging in format from talks and demonstrations to workshops and storytelling. Taking place in November, January, February and March, each event period will feature visitors from Biratori itself, including from the Nibutani Ainu Language School, the Biratori Ainu Cultural Preservation Society and Biratori Folk Arts Association.

Notes to Editors

About Japan House London
Japan House London is a cultural destination offering guests the opportunity to experience the best and latest from Japan. Located on London’s Kensington High Street, the experience is an authentic encounter with Japan, engaging and surprising even the most knowledgeable guests. Presenting the very best of Japanese art, design, gastronomy, innovation, and technology, it deepens the visitor’s appreciation of all that Japan has to offer.  This year, Japan House London marks five years of bringing the best of Japan to the UK and beyond.  Part of a global initiative, there are two other Japan Houses, one in Los Angeles and the other in São Paulo.