Episode 38 – Dr. Katsuya Hirano (UCLA)

Originally published on June 27, 2018
[This transcript has been edited for clarity.]

Tristan Grunow: This is the Meiji at 150 Podcast. I’m Tristan Grunow. On this episode, I’m talking with Dr. Katsuya Hirano, Associate Professor in the Department of History at the University of California-Los Angeles. Dr. Hirano is the author, recently, of “Settler Colonialism in the Making of Japan’s Hokkaidō,” in The Routledge Handbook of the History of Settler Colonialism, published in 2016, as well as in Japanese, “Meiji Ishin no naihasuru hetoroguroshia – Ainu no keiken to kotoba” in the May 2018 special issue of Gendai Shisō. Dr. Hirano, thank you so much for talking with me today.

Katsuya Hirano: Thank you.

TG: One of my goals with this whole podcast is to look at the Meiji Restoration from as many perspectives as possible, and consider how what’s happening in the Meiji period is impacting different areas of the Japanese islands and certainly different people in the Japanese islands. Recently, your research has been talking about Japanese settler colonialism in Hokkaidō in the Meiji period and the dispossession, deracination of the Ainu, so with this in mind, what is the perspective of the Meiji Restoration when we’re looking at it from, say, the northern borderlands and for the Ainu people especially?

KH: So first of all, thank you so much for inviting me to this interview. I’m really excited to talk about the Meiji Ishin from the Ainu perspective. In my current research, I’m interested in the question of what role did settler colonization of Hokkaidō play in the racialization of the Ainu people and the formation of modern Japan? In this sense, my view is different from the typical understanding of the colonization of Hokkaidō as an origin of Japanese imperialism. I try to examine how the creation of Meiji Japan was predicated on the politics of racism or racialization of the Ainu people, and the capitalistic enterprise.

In other words, racialization is always a social and relational process and therefore, worked for the formation of both Ainu and Japanese people as a mutually constitutive process. It is a configuration of two races in a relational way. It was a racialization of Japanese that made possible the racialization of Ainu and vice versa. Of course, we must not forget the real drive for the colonization of Hokkaidō came from the Meiji leaders’ attempt to determine Japan’s sovereignty (i.e. the territoriality against Russia, which also had an ambition to colonize Hokkaidō), and to explore and exploit resources such as coal, trees and fish on the island for their project of industrial capitalism. Meiji Japan’s view of Hokkaidō as a terra nullius (which means no man’s land and in Japanese, you can actually find this term in actual documents: it’s called mushuchi) worked as a decisive rationale for the expropriation of Ainu peoples’ lands, and subsequent migration policy known as Kaitaku (meaning “opening the land”).

These sort of colonial policies as a mode of occupation was also crucial for Japan’s claim of sovereignty over the island. It was based on this conception of empty land that legitimized Meiji Japan’s claim to be the master of the island. In other words, racialization played a decisive role in both the expropriation of the land and the construction of sovereignty. It allowed for the Meiji leaders to claim the Ainu people to be an “inferior race” who possessed no ability to cultivate and utilize the land for Japan’s capitalist development as well as to protect Japan’s border against Russia. It was this racialist characterization of the Ainu that naturalized the Japanese people as a “superior race” and thus, the ownership of Hokkaidō.

As much as one’s possession cannot be separated from others’ dispossession or someone’s freedom cannot be separated from others’ un-freedom, the positive racialization of the Japanese cannot be separated from the Ainu’s negative racialization. They are mutually constitutive. It is in this sense that the Ainu Association (called Hokkaidō Utari Kyōkai) has argued that the so-called “Ainu program” (that means the century-long economic, political and cultural Ainu discrimination and impoverishment) has been a shameful part of Japan’s modernization.

So my contention is that the Japan-centric view of Meiji Ishin cannot demonstrate this mutually constitutive process of racialization. Rather, it tends to reify Japan with the Japanese, the given subject of history as the driving force for the making of modern Japan. A late Ainu activist Kaizawa Tadashi always asserted that the modern history of Japan and Hokkaidō has been written exclusively from the Japanese perspective. That is, it violently omits and silences the perspective of those who are conquered and colonized. It is extremely important to bring a so-called “backstory” of Japan’s modernization to the forefront, and explore the processes and logics of the formation of the modern world from a relational perspective or perspective of the interaction between the colonizers and the colonized.

TG: You mentioned the role of Japanese capital accumulation in the process of colonization. Could you elaborate on that a bit more?

KH: Right, so in the case of Hokkaidō, clearly, capitalism didn’t kick off right away. I think the importance of settler colonialism in Hokkaidō was to first of all, take the land from the Ainu peoples so that it could be utilized for, firstly, migration policy therefore bringing labour power from the mainland to Hokkaidō. That was really the first phase in the move towards capitalist development in Hokkaidō.

Actually, it was not quite until the Russo-Japanese War that you began to see the intensive capital investment in Hokkaidō, and zaibatsu would put lots of money into Hokkaidō. The initial phase of migration policy was not a very successful one because not many people wanted to move there due to the weather and lack of infrastructure, so it’s really a steady and slow process through which, I think, Meiji Japan managed to finally implant some of the features of capitalist development in Hokkaidō.

TG: And this focus on Kaitaku, the opening of the land, seems very important. The introduction of railways, other infrastructure, mining, all other types of exploitation of the land, as you mentioned, all seem to be common not only across the Japanese main islands, but in Taiwan and Korea as well.

KH: Yes, exactly. I think one of the reasons why I’ve started paying attention to the Ainu in Hokkaidō case was precisely because of its importance in the larger picture of the development of the Japanese Empire. I think many of the things that were implemented in Hokkaidō would later be applied to the colonization of Taiwan and Korea. At the same time, we shouldn’t assume that all these three different places had exactly the same experience with colonization.

In the case of Taiwan, there was really no settler colonization. I mean, Japanese people sent police officers and of course, colonial bureaucrats there, but they didn’t really promote massive migration from the mainland to Taiwan. Japanese attitudes towards Indigenous Taiwanese was very different from the one they had towards Ainu. The Taiwanese case was extremely violent, as you know. The Taiwanese had originally refused to submit to Japanese rule. There were a lot of violent clashes, whereas in the case of Hokkaidō, I think that kind of violent conflict between the Japanese and Ainu people had only taken place during Tokugawa times. And you can really see the rapid decline in the Ainu population towards the end of Tokugawa times already. So by the time Meiji Japan decided to really formally colonize Hokkaidō and declare it to be terra nullius in the name of “Emperor’s land,” the Ainu population was much smaller compared to the earlier Tokugawa times. The Ainu people didn’t put up the sort of violent resistance that the Taiwanese aborigines did. There are many differences but at the same time, I think in so many ways, Hokkaidō was really the first modern colony within the Japanese Empire that Japan really experimented with, so it has a lot of ramifications and significance.

TG: And as you mentioned, in this process of opening the land, it also requires the deracination of the Ainu population, what David Howell, of course, called “the ethnic negation” of the Ainu people. So, could you expand a bit more on what is happening to the Indigenous inhabitants there during the Meiji period?

KH: Yes, so once again, it’s very hard to generalize because I think different Ainu groups experienced different kinds of violence. But I could try to simplify it. So in 1899, the Japanese government implemented the Former Natives Protection Law, which of course had its own problems because it really forced Ainu to be farmers with the condition that they leave voluntarily. So, they’d accept being farmers, as the Japanese government was not going to support or help them out otherwise. Also, the Ainu people had a hard time transforming themselves into farmers. But before the implementation of that law, the Japanese government really didn’t do much to “protect” Ainu or provide alternative ways for the Ainu people to survive. Instead, they implemented a series of laws, which really banned Ainu’s traditional way of life (certain practices such as fishing and hunting). They were severely restricted, and then they were displaced from their original habitation, and moved to a deep, deep forest where they probably couldn’t make much of a living out of hunting and fishing.

They struggled for nearly 30 years since 1869 (that’s the year when the Ainu’s land became “Hokkaidō”); in those decades, the Ainu were left alone. Some Ainu, for example, forcefully relocated from Karafuto to Hokkaidō, and then some of them died of disease. You can really think of so many different cases of tragedy and violent treatment on the part of the Japanese government. If I try to simplify these 30 years, just borrowing some Ainu scholars’ words, they’re literally abandoned, displaced and abandoned for 30 years. That’s how, often times, people like Kaizawa or Chiri Mashiho describe the Ainu experience: dislocation and abandonment until 1899.

TG: You’ve recently published this article in Gendai Shisō, rethinking the Meiji Restoration. And so, when we look at the Meiji Restoration and keeping in mind this history of the dispossession, deracination of the Ainu that you were just describing, what is the significance of the Restoration within Japanese history more broadly?

KH: You know, there are so many reasons why the Meiji Restoration is important or significant for global history. But given my current interest, I’d say the significance of Meiji Ishin is precisely its connection to the global process in which racialization and capitalism gave birth to the modern world. One of the ways in which we can underscore the global nature of Meiji Ishin is what I’d like to call “the irony of liberal humanism.”

Meiji Japan’s policies are filled with the language of emancipation and liberation, as you know, but at the same time, they’re equally about a new form of domination and enslavement. As Lisa Lowe recently said of the making of the modern world: “Colonized peoples created the condition for liberal humanism.” Racialization of the world and international division of labour emerged simultaneously as parts of the global regime of nation-states that were constitutive of humanism. As I said a moment ago, someone’s right to freedom is predicated on other’s dispossession of the land and denial of the rights to self-determination.

In the case of displaced peasants who became industrial workers, their liberation from the feudal mode of agricultural production was a path towards a new form of “un-freedom,” or as some historians call the complication of labour power. Utilization is not antithetical to enslavement, but it is often times predicated on the latter in the making of the modern world, and Meiji Japan is no exception.

1868 is a date that represents the Meiji government’s perspective. For example, for the Ainu peoples, it could be 1869 (the year of formal colonization) or even 1899 (the year of the implementation of the Former Natives Protection Law that marked the beginning of modern time). And this so-called “beginning” meant a beginning of conquest, dispossession, displacement, poverty and struggle for survival. In other words, for the Ainu people, the Meiji Ishin signifies the beginning of colonization, thus the destruction of their communities, the negation of their long established relationship with the land and nature, and permanent marginalization within imperial Japan.

Similar things can be said about the Okinawan people, and my earlier work on popular culture and its relationship with the process of Japan’s modernization also suggests that ordinary people in the Meiji period had a different understanding of the Meiji Ishin, and therefore different conceptions of time. It is absolutely necessary to investigate, in my view, the politics of chronology or temporalization.

Chronology always contains epistemic violence. It structures otherwise very messy and deeply over-determined historical processes from a specific point of view. It is absolutely crucial to not only pluralize the meaning of the “beginning,” but also explore the implications of multiple “beginnings” that are overlooked or silenced by a master chronology. In this way, we can overcome the national history paradigm and resurrect deeply contingent, heterogeneous and relational history.

TG: You mentioned before the permanent discrimination of the Ainu peoples certainly in the Meiji period, but this also continues until today, is that right?

KH: Yes. Again, I think there are many different phases to the Ainu peoples’ struggle, but if I just talk about the contemporary scene, there was a little bit of revival of Ainu activism as a result of the Japanese government recognizing Ainu people as an Indigenous people in Hokkaidō. But I think at the same time, the real point of contention right now is whether the Japanese government actually accepts Indigenous rights for the Ainu peoples. I think that indigeneity and Indigenous rights are very different, at least the difference that the Japanese government is consciously making.

When the Japanese government recognized the Ainu as an Indigenous people, they’re basically referring to the Ainu as a culturally distinct people who had inherited the island for many centuries, well before the Japanese moved there. I think that’s, of course, a very important step forward, but when I talked to some Ainu activists, the sentiment I received from them was that the most important matter was whether they can have a decent life. Whether we are talking about economic rights or social rights, they still feel structural discrimination in terms of jobs, education and income levels.

These are mundane daily matters, but I think that’s where they truly feel that the legacy of colonialism is still persistent, and the only way to overcome that sort of unevenness and discrimination between Japanese people and Ainu is that the Japanese government recognize the Ainu peoples’ Indigenous rights to the land. And in some way, Ainu people get the rights back to some form of self-determination, how they want to run the economy, how they want to manage their land. There are still a lot of restrictions legally imposed on the Ainu peoples, so I think this seems to be a kind of battleground right now.

Another episode which happened recently is the returning of Ainu peoples’ bones from major Japanese universities. As you know, the major Japanese universities stole the Ainu peoples’ bones from the graveyard from the Meiji period up until the postwar period to carry out some kind of experiment, checking the DNA and the origins of the remains. There’s this theory that many of the Ainu peoples were actually much closer to Europeans, so there has been this kind of anthropological curiosity on the part of Japanese researchers.

They took so many bones from the Ainu peoples’ graveyard, and they kept them in the universities’ storage houses, libraries. So recently, the Ainu people tried to get them back, saying that they were stolen and the universities should return them to the Ainu community. Recently (in the last couple of years), universities like Hokkaidō University (who initially refused to return the remains) began to return the bones to the Ainu people. So, once again, it’s considered a big triumph and a major step forward for the Ainu people. But still, places like the University of Tokyo and some other major universities do not want to address this problem of keeping Ainu bones in their facilities, and they haven’t really openly apologized or recognized their actions. The best thing they could say is: “We have been taking care of them very well, so don’t worry about it.”

And this is a kind of response that the Ainu people have been receiving from these major institutions. So I think there are still lots of issues to resolve and of course, Japanese politicians always repeatedly make a remark such as: “Ainu people no longer exist in Japan. Ainu people have already died out.” I think that was just last year or a few years ago when they made such a remark. There was a huge protest of course, and eventually, the politicians were forced to apologize, but still, I think lots of Japanese people are not very much aware of the history of the Ainu, what they went through in modern times, not to mention during early modern times. So in terms of the level of public consciousness and public education, I think there’s still a long way to go.

TG: Since I’ve been in Vancouver, I’ve been learning more and more about the similar dispossession and deracination of the First Nations peoples in British Columbia.

KH: Yes.  

TG: And it sounds like a very similar process.

KH: Yes, I think so. I think that’s another reason why it’s important to talk about the Ainu experience as part of global history and ongoing contemporary politics. I think this problem of indigeneity, settler colonialism, dispossession are shared experiences by so many Indigenous peoples around the world, and I think it’s really important to situate Ainu history in that perspective.

TG: Here in Canada, we had the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, where the government acknowledged the role that they played in residential schools in particular, but also in the systematic ethnic genocide of First Nations peoples. So, there are concerted efforts to preserve and revive some of the First Nations’ culture. I understand that in Japan as well, aren’t there attempts to start teaching Ainu in schools again?

KH: Yes, I think some people are doing that, especially in Hokkaidō now, and they tried to make it a part of the elementary school curriculum, but I think this progress is extremely slow. I have to say compared to the Canadian case and the Taiwanese case, the Japanese government’s response to this program for Indigenous peoples has been extremely slow. I think that’s one of the complains that I always hear from Ainu people: “Look at what’s happening in Canada. Look at what’s happening in Taiwan.” Compared to that, the ways in which the Japanese government tried to resolve so-called “Ainu problems” has been what the Ainu see as disrespectful and lacking in sincerity.

You know, the Japanese government is now trying to build a new museum in Shiraoi in 2020 to get ready for the Olympics. Shiraoi already has an Ainu museum, but I think they’re trying to make a bigger and more sophisticated one for the sake of the Olympics. I think that even this attempt to build a new museum has not been very well received by Ainu activists and often times, I hear them complaining that this is simply a gesture towards the international community that Japan is making very important progress concerning Indigenous issues, but this is very misleading in the sense that Ainu peoples’ everyday lives and conditions have not improved or have even been addressed. The Japanese government always stops at the point of promoting Ainu culture, but not resolving the structural problems of economic, social and cultural inequalities. The Japanese government had never said that they had carried out some kind of genocidal or eliminatory sort of politics towards the Ainu peoples like the way the Canadian government acknowledged their atrocities towards the First Nations peoples. So, that’s a really crucial difference.

TG: Even with that acknowledgement, there’s still some of the same structural problems that you were addressing just like in the Japanese case here as well. What is to be done then? I mean, what should the government be doing to support the Ainu?

KH: In terms of what steps they could take, it is completely up to what the Ainu peoples want or how they want to improve their living conditions by working together with the Japanese government and the Japanese people too. As I said, I think the Japanese people’s level of consciousness concerning this whole modern history still has a lot of problems, especially with regard to colonialism in general, not to mention colonialism in Hokkaidō.

I mean, not many people know that Hokkaidō was not a part of Japan before the Meiji period, so I think they can start with that kind of recognition, and then how and why the Japanese government carried out a very aggressive migration policy and the costs of that migration policy. These topics are never quite discussed in the school textbooks if you study Japanese history in elementary school, middle school and even high school. So, I think the whole curriculum needs to be changed to include more about the dark side of modern Japanese history. Starting with that, and then of course going back to the much more important, practical everyday matters.

I think it’s really up to the people who identify themselves as Ainu, who think they are really suffering from this structural discrimination as a result of this long history of marginalization. What they want has to be determined by them.

TG: So when I went to Japan for the first time in 2001. In the early 2000s, I remember that there was a big boom in Japanese punk music.

KH: Okay (laughter).

TG: And they were all Okinawan bands.

KH: That’s right, yes.

TG: And so there was this flourishing of the memory of the Ryūkyū Islands and this kind of distinct Ryūkyūan culture. I remember there was even one very popular brand of jeans that had the characters Ryūkyū on the back.

KH: Right, right (laughter).

TG: So there’s this kind of recognition that it is a distinct culture, and at that time, it was a really “cool” culture. How come that’s happened in Okinawa, but not necessarily with the Ainu?

KH: (Laughter) I think that’s a very complicated question. It’s a really interesting cultural phenomenon too, right? I mean how and why suddenly Ryūkyū or Okinawa became a sort of hot commodity is a cool thing to follow. As you can see also at the time, there are lots of Okinawan singers, pop singers coming, and it swept the pop culture scene too. I don’t know how all that happened altogether. I think there has to be somebody who can give a much better explanation than me (laughter), but I can probably say why it wasn’t happening or it’s not yet happening to Ainu people. Actually, my guess is that it may happen because I think right now (I don’t know whether you’re familiar with manga), there’s a bestselling manga that’s about the Ainu experience in modern times. It’s ongoing, and I think it’s published by Kōdansha.

You can see that now coming out in pop culture, and a lot of young self-claimed Ainu people who are living in Tokyo are forming some cultural groups or they’re singing traditional songs and dancing. And some artists try to transform traditional Ainu song into a more popular style, and I heard often that they gather lots of crowds and audiences when they hold events and concerts. So, again, it may be happening.

I think it’s for good to people to come and recognize that there are different cultural forms that exist within Japan and them becoming interested in the history (I think it’s a good entry point), but at the same time for example, the Japanese government never recognized dōkaseisaku (assimilation policy) as a problem. They say: “Oh, Ainu people are assimilated and yes, we feel sorry that we denied your language and traditional culture,” but they never talk about how and why assimilation even started. I mean that is actually the occupation of the land, taking away the land, and I think that is the most violent process and experience that the Ainu peoples had.

After they are uprooted, now it becomes a question of assimilation. That’s the only way in which that they can survive as part of the imperial Japan, so I think the simple acknowledgement that that’s how history took place is where the Japanese government (and Japan) has a responsibility towards the Ainu peoples. That simple acknowledgement of historical facts and processes is really the important starting point. Compared to Ryūkyū/Okinawa, I think the Japanese government’s acknowledgement and the Japanese people’s knowledge about this process is much much lower. But I don’t know if this is, again, related to their interest in the popular culture phenomenon about Ryūkyū identity and Ryūkyū culture, whether that really helped lots of Japanese people to be much more aware of the history of Ryūkyū and Okinawa.

TG: I guess we need an Ainu “Shima Uta” or “Nada Sōsō.”

KH: Yes (laughter). That’s right, using some traditional instrument and turn that into pop style.

TG: But I wonder if there is a commodity aspect to it?

KH: Because it’s also a commodified culture.

TG: Well, also I mean because Okinawa is a tourist destination now. Hokkaidō, of course, has its tourist appeal, but not that far north, right? I mean, you can go up to Wakkanai or something like that, but you know, a lot more people want to go to Okinawa because it’s the beach and that kind of summer culture.

KH: Yes, that’s right. I think it comes with a tourist culture too, but I think right now, Hokkaidō could be equally popular, and in some ranking, I saw that Hokkaidō is the most favourite tourist destination now even among Japanese people, especially after 3-11 (the earthquake and then the nuclear power plant explosion). They began to renew their interest in the very tasty and healthy food coming from Hokkaidō. I mean, Hokkaidō is always seen as a “kitchen” of Japan (laughter), and provider of all these rich resources.

I heard that after the earthquake, the population of Hokkaidō suddenly went up, and lots of people started travelling to Hokkaidō. So again, I don’t know. There could be some kind of interest in development here in terms of correlated phenomenon with increasing interest in Hokkaidō as a tourist destination, and then all these young people coming out with a sense of pride and identity and then now getting into manga culture. I also heard that manga may be made into a TV series too. So, you never know. Maybe there’s a chain effect there (laughter).

TG: But of course, that also brings other questions, right? I mean there’s another certain type of environmental devastation that happens and cultural essentialism that comes along with repackaging and selling things for tourists.

KH: Yes, exactly. So again, Ainu activists are very much a way of that ambivalence, this kind of cultural industry. They don’t want to be commodified. They always say: “Hokkaidō tourism is always dependent upon the commodification of Ainu culture and Ainu cultural essentialism.” They’re always stuck with this dilemma that on the one hand, in order for them to survive, they have to capitalize on it, they have to take advantage of that promotion of Ainu culture. On the other hand, they have a clear view of the dangers that they’re always made into some kind of object  of curiosity and some kind of, as you said, essentialism or even a strange Orientalism within Japanese culture.

They’re really unhappy about it, and some people do use the term  shōhin ka (“I’m against Ainu bunka shōhin ka”). That’s the phrase that many activists actually repeat again and again as a way to improve or regain some kind of respect and self-respect for Ainu people, so I think there are different levels of identity politics here. One is very much commodified that is so closely tied to this tourism industry, pop culture in Japan. On the other hand, I think for Ainu people, the identity politics is really an assertion of Indigenous rights in relation to their daily life and daily struggle and also, the historical assertion of their presence throughout modern history.

So I think these two politics somehow co-exist in a strange way, and they intersect with each other. I mean, some activists are already aware of this very ambivalence, the politics of ambivalence they have to play. There are so many things that the Ainu can do now to make a living actually, especially in relatively touristy areas. They run shops selling Ainu artifacts, right? I mean that’s how they make a living. It’s a really complicated issue.

TG: The Meiji at 150 Podcast is hosted by Tristan Grunow at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada. This podcast would not be possible without the cooperation of the UBC Centre for Japanese Research and the technical assistance of the UBC Faculty of Arts ISIT. Find out more about the Meiji at 150 Project, including the Meiji at 150 Lecture Series, Digital Teaching Resource and Workshop Series by visiting our website: meijiat150.arts.ubc.ca. Thank you for listening.


*Citation for this episode:

Katsuya Hirano, interview with Tristan Grunow, The Meiji at 150 Podcast, podcast audio, June 27, 2018. https://meijiat150.podbean.com/e/episode-38-dr-katsuya-hirano-ucla/.

The Meiji at 150 Podcast is hosted, produced, and edited by Tristan Grunow, with editorial assistance from Joshua Linkous. Transcripts by Kelly Chan.