Behind the camera #2 – My Personal Bond with the Ainu Community

During the three months between my first and second visits to Biratori, I took my first trip to Colombia to donate some second-hand video equipment and to teach filmmaking to the Nasa people who live on top of the Andes Mountains. 

This was my first close encounter and living experience with indigenous people. The place I visited was a refugee camp that was formed after the explosion of a sacred volcano, called Grandfather by the Nasa people. The volcano awoke after 500 years of sleep. 

I learned many things but I will have to save the details for a future post.

After my trip to Colombia, I flew to Hokkaido and stayed at the Kawananos, who are the people who offered to let me stay at their house.

I told them about my experience in Colombia and showed them some photos and videos. They were impressed and Kazunobu, the husband, called someone and told this person “An interesting woman is staying at my house. I want you to meet her.”

Soon after Kazunobu took me to visit the Nabesawas, who later became the second subject in my film.

The Kawananos

Tamotsu Nabesawa is half Ainu and half wajin (a non-Ainu person living in Japan). He is one of the rare people who can actually speak Ainu and grew up surrounded by Ainu culture. 

He loves making  crafts influenced by Ainu culture for himself. When I started talking about the Nasa people, who live on the other side of the world, he found similarities between the Ainu and the Nasa, especially some customs in certain rituals.

Over the next ten years, I often visited the Nabesawas, and they sometimes offered to let me stay over.

Mr. Nabesawa usually spoke in Japanese, but he often spoke Ainu as well. One day, he asked me something in Ainu, and I had no idea what he was saying.

Then he laughed and told me “When someone visits, the first thing an Ainu asks the visitor is whether you will stay over or not. If they’re just visiting, we offer non-alcoholic drinks. If they are going to stay over, we offer alcoholic drinks and food and get ready for a long chat.”

I don’t remember how many nights I stayed over at the Nabesawas,  but I remember sitting next to him, chatting, laughing, eating, and drinking. 

He knew more about the Ainu than most of the community.

I didn’t film him much until 2016, when I started making my documentary about the Ainu. However, I wish I had started filming him as soon as I met him because he passed away in 2018.

But at the same time, because he and I had a bond before filming, he felt much more comfortable when I did film him.

Mr. Nabesawa is a farmer

Behind the Camera Story #1 from Ainu – Indigenous People of Japan

So far, Ainu – Indigenous People of Japan has had screenings at over 20 places all over the world. I am glad that many people are interested in the Ainu, and I think my job is to keep learning more about the Ainu and disseminating information about what the indigenous people in my home country are doing.


One of the questions I have been asked the most is why did you choose this particular town, Biratori because there are other towns that are famous for their connection to Ainu culture. Back in 2008, I was co-running a non-profit organization, Cinemiga, to teach filmmaking and co-produce films with indigenous people around the world, and the first location was Colombia. One day, my colleagues asked me about the indigenous people of Japan, and it made me realize that I didn’t know anything about the Ainu. 

August, 2009

Therefore, I started searching for information about the Ainu, and I found out there was a small Ainu radio station in the town of Biratori, where the late Shigeru Kayano is from. Mr. Kayano had done extraordinary work to preserve the Ainu language and culture, including putting together and publishing an Ainu-Japanese dictionary and writing more than a hundred books and articles about the Ainu. On top of this, he also recorded native Ainu speakers sharing oral history, information about themselves, and general conversations. In addition, he started an Ainu radio station and the first community based Ainu language class in Japan. It was a no brainer for me. Of course, I would base my learning in Biratori. First, I visited the language class. At that time, Mr. Kayano had already passed away, and his son was running the class as well as the radio station. Around 15 people were in the class when I visited, and I didn’t know anyone.

Nibutani Ainu Language Class, 2009

At the end of the class, I thanked everybody for letting me observe the class, and I was about to leave to go to my room at a local ryokan, a traditional Japanese inn. Then, a man approached me and said “I’ve never seen you before. Where are you from?” I answered that I was from Hyogo (around 670 miles from Hokkaido). Then he said, “If you are interested in learning about the Ainu, come back often.” I thanked him, and I decided to be honest with him. I said, “I would love to come back more often, but I live in New York and it’s really expensive to come to Biratori from there.”  He said, “Then, you can stay at my house instead of at a ryokan, and use my car instead of renting a car.” I was very surprised because we had just met and had talked for only about five minutes and this man was offering to let me stay at his house. That’s how my close relationship started with the Ainu living in Biratori.  (to be continued)

With the host, Mr. Kawanano, August, 2009