Ainu exhibition in London

A 5-month exhibition, ‘AINU STORIES – CONTEMPORARY LIVES BY THE SARU RIVER,’ is currently happening at Japan House London. It started November 16, 2023 and will end April 21, 2024. In conjunction with the exhibit, Japan House London has held in-person Ainu-related events: language workshops, dance performances, craft demonstrations, food tastings. These were led by people from the Ainu community of Biratori where I filmed my documentary ‘Ainu-Indigenous People of Japan’. They held two screenings in January, and both screenings were sold out!! I couldn’t attend the screening but the staff emailed me about the feedback, which was 100% ‘Excellent’ or ‘Good.’ I was really happy to hear that. 🙂 Here are some of the comments.

-The film was simply excellent!  Very informative.

-It deepened my understanding of the Ainu in an enjoyable way.

-We have been to Hokkaido and we enjoyed watching the documentary, reminiscing about our time in Japan, and learning about the Ainu people.

-I’ve not heard much about the Ainu before except for derogatory comments. This showcased efforts to prevent loss of their culture.

In January, my Ainu friend told me that a fourth group from Biratori was going to London to perform an Ainu dance and cook Ainu dishes, so I decided to go to see them at the end of February.

First of all, I was really happy to be reunited with my friends from Biratori. As they had some free time before their performance in the evening, we went sightseeing, had lunch, and caught up. One of the most important things I learned from my friends was that many young people have started living in Biratori and working to preserve and promote Ainu culture.

The exhibition and events were just fabulous!!! All of the events were completely sold out. I was especially impressed by the exhibition. Their main emphasis is on modern Ainu culture, which is rare. Japan House London shot new video material in Biratori, and interviewed many people ranging in age from 20s to 80s about various topics, from crafts to language to hunting to cuisine.

Since my film’s focus is on elders, some people may think that when the time comes and these elders pass away, Ainu culture will disappear. However, these events and the exhibition are proof that Ainu culture is alive and well because young people are working with these elders and adding their own modern twists; for instance, using Ainu patterns on cellphone cases and water bottles.

During the final period of the exhibition, another group from Biratori is going to be in London on March 21 to hold a workshop about wood carving. In April, they will show two short films about canoe making and traditional Ainu sake featuring Shigeru Kayano, the first Ainu  member of the Japanese Parliament. The date just has announced! It will be April 16, 6pm-7:15pm. Please see here for more details.

It was thrilling to see my friends from Biratori in the spotlight and being applauded. I want this kind of event to happen all over the world, including Japan.

This exhibition will end on April 21st. But… I understand that everyone cannot make it to Lonodon. HERE IS GOOD NEWS!!! You can see the virtual exhibition here.

Nibutani Ainu Crafts Exhibition in New York City

I was very excited when my friend in NYC informed me about this exhibition. The gallery was having a reception the following day. Right away, I sent an email to my friend’s contact at the gallery to see if I could attend the reception, and they said yes!

When I got there, I was surprised and happy to see how good the turnout was because I hadn’t seen any publicity about this event in any Japanese news sources in NYC. 

They selected a perfect combination of traditional and contemporary crafts. I recognized many familiar names from the Nibutani region in the town of Biratori, which is where I made my documentary.

The highlight of this exhibition is the Nosaku project. These are contemporary crafts and are just-finished products. It’s the first time these artworks have been displayed in the U.S. 

In fact, I didn’t see or even hear about the project in Nibutani when I visited last summer.

i-sapte, Tableware Collection

The artwork is tableware made from tin. It’s a collaborative project between Nibutani and Takaoka City, Toyama Prefecture, an area that has been known for its metal casting for over 100 years. The complete information is here.

I was especially happy to see that most of the artists are young people. They use traditional Ainu patterns that are unique to Nibutani. As I was leaving, the gallery gave me a cutlery rest, as a souvenir which I am now using at home. You can purchase these crafts if you’d like.

Cutlery rest/Toshiya Kawanano

This is a unique opportunity to see Ainu crafts in person, so, I strongly encourage you to go to see the exhibit.  For more information about Nibutani Ainu Craft, see here.

Nibutani Ainu Craft Exhibition

When: March 1-11, Wednesday – Saturday, 12pm-5pm

Where: Onishi Gallery

521 West 26th Street Lower Level, New York, NY 10001

The first embroidered garment is made by Maki Sekine, the second one is made by Sumire Kaizawa

Ainu’s traditional dance at the Tokyo Olympics

I have never seen Ainu dance like this!! This is a special dance performance created for the Tokyo Olympics.

I knew that some Ainu people from each region  had practiced for a few years before 2020 to perform at the opening ceremony but the Ainu dance was eliminated from the program in the winter of 2020 because of the time limitation, according to a newspaper I read.

After postponing one year due to the pandemic, Ainu dancers gathered with more participants from each region in Sapporo, where the marathon races took place.

In each region has unique Ainu pattern. Please pay attention to the clothes when you watch all videos.

Ainu doesn’t have a written language, so dances have an important role in communication. What do you see from the dance?

No translation needed. Just feel and think, and enjoy.

Stage 1 | Tomakomai | August 5th, 3pm

Stage 2 | Sappro | August 5th, 7pm

Stage 3 | Mixed regions | August 6th, 3:30pm​

Stage 4 | Biratori&Urakawa | August 7th, 5:50am

Stage 5 | Obihiro & Lake Akan | August 8th, 6am

These are 30 seconds TV commercials from different regions.


Tokyo/Nibutani *Nibutani is a region in the town of Biratori


Lake Akan & Obihiro


Ainu documentaries on NHK World

I’d like to introduce you to some new documentaries on NHK World. NHK is the public broadcaster in Japan. It’s free! Please watch before they’re disappeared. 

Rediscovering Ainu Heritage Part1 and Part2

It’s about the lives of young people who have Ainu roots. Mai Ishihara has a mixed ethnic background and identifies herself as a Hidden Ainu. Daiki Kuzuno learns the Ainu language from a Japanese man who had learned the Ainu language from Daiki’s grandfather.

Ainu Culture in Asahikawa

It features Marewrew, three Ainu singers who mostly sing Upopo, which is singing in a round. This is a beautiful short documentary.

Giving a Voice to Minorities: Fukunaga Takeshi

This is an interview with Mr. Takeshi Fukunaga, who made Ainu Mosir, which won Best Feature at the Guanjuato International Film Festival, and Best Narrative Feature (Special Jury Mention) at the Tribeca Film Festival. This interview contains behind the camera information and why he decided to make this film.

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

Two Ainu films on Nippon Connection Film Festival

Sorry about the short notice. Remember? Ainu – Indigenous People of Japan was selected on the Nippon Connection Film Festival 2020 in Germany last year, and Replay! this year?

This year, it’s happening right now, again online so you can watch some films.

They included two Ainu films. Please check this out.

  1. Ainu Neno An Ainu – it’s shot in the town Biratori where I filmed too. You will see familiar faces. World premiere. I met the director when I was filming over there.
  2. Ainu Mosir *This one is not available in the US but you can watch it on Netflix. The director’s interview is on Youtube (only available until June 6, so hurry!) I also met the director at Biratori when he was doing script scouting. It’s a well-done narrative and the first film that Ainu people (non-professional actors) play the main role.

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

Japanese Radio Exercise in Ainu Language

How many of you know about the Japanese Radio Exercise number1 (This link is the English version)

In general, everybody who grew up in Japan learned this exercise at school. According to the Wikipedia, the current version started in 1951. I had practiced this exercise at least for 12 years at school.

Now, we have the Ainu language version! The narrator of this clip is Kenji Sekine, the translator/supervisor for “Ainu- Indigenous People of Japan” Great job Kenji-san!

The final Ainu sentence of the video is “tanto ka arikiki anro.” It means “Let’s give it our best today” or I could translate it little more casually, “Have a nice day.” Hope you like the exercise!! 

I found the transcription in below from the website of  Foundation for Ainu Culture

© Foundation for Ainu Culture
© Foundation for Ainu Culture

Recording of the online discussion in London

Thank you to the Native Spirit Festival and Japan House London for organizing a group discussion about the Ainu on October 15th.  I was fortunate to be a part of this global community which included panelists from the UK, USA, and Japan.  In addition, around 200 people from across the world viewed the event and asked questions.

In fact, due to popular demand, the Native Spirit Festival just extended the availability of “Ainu: Indigenous People of Japan” until November 15th.  (Very excited about this!) 

Participating in this festival was the perfect opportunity for me because I have been wanting to have a virtual screening and discussion with the Ainu community.   I am looking forward to many more because I think it is very important to keep the dialogue going.  I encourage anyone who wants to host a screening to please contact me for details.

And just an FYI:  Should you watch the discussion, I mistakenly said that the year I started making my film was 2004, but in fact it was 2015. I must have been nervous.  The year 2004 was when I arrived to the US from Japan!