Japan's indigenous Ainu battle for return of ancestors
By Simon Scott 5:30 AM Saturday Jun 22, 2013
Japan's long marginalised and little known indigenous people, the Ainu, are engaged in a protracted and symbolic struggle to have the remains of their ancestors brought home.
The results of a one-year survey released by Japan's Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology this year revealed that the bones of over 1,600 Ainu individuals are being stored at 11 different universities across the country.
The remains were taken from Ainu grave sites primarily in Japan's northern island of Hokkaido, but also from the Sakhalin and Kurile Islands (now part of Russia) between 1873 and 2011 for anthropological research, especially on the skulls.
At the centre of the controversy is Hokkaido University, which is holding the majority of the remains - those of 1027 individuals - and a lawsuit has been filed against the university by a group of Ainu from the Kineusu kotan seeking to have the bones returned.
Kotan means both village and tribe in the Ainu language, and was the central unit of social organisation in traditional Ainu society.
The plaintiffs originate from Kineusu, a historic Ainu village on the southeastern coast of Hokkaido, and are demanding the return of remains taken from their kotan on the basis of tribal affiliation.
According to lawyer Morihiro Ichikawa, who is representing the group, this is a landmark case in Japan in terms of indigenous rights.
"This is the first case where the Ainu people have argued for their aboriginal title to be recognised in a Japanese court, and also the first time they have demanded the return of their ancestors' skulls and bones.
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