1st Issue of 2008 No.146

(from "Minority Women -Standing Up and Linking Together")

Observations from the Survey - Ainu Women 

Hokkaido Utari Association, Sapporo Section

1. Introduction

The Survey of Minority Women in Japan was conducted with Ainu women. Respondents were all members of the Hokkaido Utari Association and 77% were aged over 40. When we called on the various sections of the Utari Association to cooperate with us in the survey, we failed to ask them to involve a variety of age groups.

The lack of preparation by the organizer was also attributable to the narrow age stratum. In conducting the survey throughout the Hokkaido Island, we organized a meeting in which ten women attended and answered the questionnaire. The task of arranging schedules accordingly was more difficult than expected.

2. Education

2)-1. Educational Background

60% of respondents had either completed elementary or junior high school. Only 4% had graduated from college (including junior colleges). This could be due to the age of respondents.

24% of respondents aged under 40 completed schooling at or above high school. This reveals some improvement achieved through administrative initiatives run from 1965 to 1974 by the Hokkaido local government, which created an educational support program for Utari children. Also, since 1975, the national government has provided Ainu children with educational support funds under the Outfit Allowances for Ainu Children Entering High Schools program. This has also helped to increase the rate of high school entrance among Ainu children. The 2006 survey of Ainu conditions revealed a high school entrance rate of 93.5% for Ainu children.

During our interviews, however, we sometimes discovered that respondents who stated they had graduated from junior high school had not in fact attended a school at that level. A woman in her 50's who attended the survey analysis meeting said:

“When we were young, we received elementary or junior high school diplomas even if we did not go to a school simply because of the compulsory education system. When I was a child, Ainu girls living in our village who were born around 1945 would perform any kind of work, such as construction, assisting fishermen, or working as packhorse drivers, to help their families. We did not feel this to be a hardship or painful because we had expected such conditions to be part of our daily lives since we were very small. I did not remember that I was give a school diploma.”

Another woman said, “Every day I was made to weave Atsushiori (a traditional Ainu woven material made with tree bark). I hated it. Now, I regret not having learned Ainu culture. If I had foreseen today's conditions I would have made an effort to learn Ainu culture.” According to the woman, she attended school only very sporadically as she was occupied with household chores.

Another woman said she had regularly been sent out to perform day labor and therefore had no time for school. Another woman described the harsh reality of Ainu discrimination in school. She said, “I was treated very badly not only by other children, but also by teachers. When I performed well, much better than other Japanese children, the teacher would ask me, 'Did you really do this work by yourself?' in front of the other children. I therefore always pretended not to understand what was being taught.”

Poverty was the cause of other reasons that Ainu children were unable to attend school. Parents could not afford to buy clothing, shoes, school utensils, or lunches for their children. These conditions were directly connected to discrimination against Ainu people. The comments section of the questionnaire included the following comments:

“I was unable to attend school. After I divorced, I found work, but had to use a computer in my job and could not read or write Roma-ji (English letters). My boss ridiculed me for this. I now attend a computer school.”

“I am single mother. I am realizing my limitations in trying to provide a good education for my children.”

With changes in family conditions due to factors such as divorce, Ainu women sometimes revisit the reality that they have not received an adequate education. The survey has helped us to realize that we need to conduct a deeper analysis of the relationship between the familial environment, education and employment of Ainu women. Many opinions were raised by respondents pointing out the importance for Ainu women to learn about Ainu culture besides engaging in formal education. Ainu women discussed their understanding and knowledge of Ainu culture and history in the following ways:

“The public sometimes insults us. However, I have realized I do not know anything about the Ainu people. I have just lived my life without learning our language or traditions. I want to learn our history.”

“I admit it is true that we, including myself, have learned nothing about the history and culture of Ainu, even though we are direct descendants.”

Having become aware of their lack of knowledge about Ainu culture and history, Ainu women now understand the importance of Ainu cultural education:

“I need to learn about our culture. I want the Association to focus on the education of Ainu women.”

“I want to engage in more education, study other cultures, and understand and appreciate Ainu culture.”

“I want to learn more about our people, and involve myself more pro-actively in Ainu activities.”

2)-2. Literacy

72% of respondents reported no difficulties in reading, and 67% reported no difficulties in writing. We cannot judge if these percentages are similar to or lower than those of the general population because there is no data available on national literacy rates. Some respondents answered that they are “able to read and write normally” in vague way, or provided answers that suggested they did not understand the question. We sometimes see our female members experiencing difficulty filling out forms when we gather together for meetings. Though the proportion is very small, some of those who did not finish basic school education reported not being able to read or write at all. It is presumed that these figures closely connect to the status of Ainu women in employment, and their economic and marital lives.

3. Employment of Ainu Women

3)-1. Employment:

56% of respondents answered “yes” to the question, “Do you currently have a job?” However, 26% of respondents said they are employed on a part-time basis, and 10% said they are self-employed (which includes farmers). 12% said they are employed in a family business, work as temporary staff, or do piecework at home. Only 6% are full-time employees.

3)-2. Occupation

12% of respondents, representing the largest group, work in the service industry, followed by 8% in production and 8% in sales. The fact that more than half of respondents did not answer this question could be due to their occupations not fitting any of the given fields. Also, some respondents appeared not to have understood the question. 4% answered they were “professionals.” This could include people engaged in woodcarving or embroidering.

3)-3. Work Hours

24% of respondents said they work “less than ten hours per week.” This is due to the fact that many respondents work part-time.

3)-4. Income

Work hours and occupations are reflected in income levels. 70% of respondents reported an annual income from employment of “under two million yen.” Regarding annual family income, 32% earn between one and three million yen, and 9% earn less than one million yen.

3)-5 Work Satisfaction

23% of respondents said they are “satisfied” with their work, while 19% said they are “fairly satisfied.” It is assumed that Ainu women with poor education and qualifications are satisfied with their present occupations as they are in the only lines of work available to people with their educational background. This assumption was made from the comments we have often heard from Ainu women who expressed a desire to reeducate or obtain qualifications that would make better job opportunities available.

3)-6. Employment discrimination

Just 11%, an unexpectedly small proportion, reported feeling “discriminated against in job seeking.” The real proportion is presumed to be higher. In the 2006 survey into the living conditions of Ainu people, 16.8% said they had experienced discrimination, and 13.8% said they knew others who had. Our question focused on discrimination in seeking employment, which may be experienced mush less for women seeking part-time work in their communities than when seeking permanent employment. There are also many women in our communities who started restaurant businesses by themselves due to a lack of job opportunities. Behind responses of “do not know” and “no answer,” may be many concealed stories that cannot be uttered.

4. Ainu and Gender Discrimination

Many respondents stated, “I have never been subject to discrimination,” or, “I have never felt discriminated against.” One respondent wrote, “I have never felt discriminated against due to being Ainu or a woman. I was shocked to find in the survey that women were portrayed as being very passive. Today, women are much stronger. However, though the number is very small, there are still women who are subject to discrimination, and I feel angry at this reality.” There were other similar comments:

“I have never been subjected to discrimination (maybe I have, but I have not felt it). After finishing school, I started to work. I have continued to work very hard.”

“Until now, I have never been subject to discrimination in employment, relationships or marriage. One exception was during my elementary school days. I was told, “Gee, you are hairy! Just like a monkey. You are Ainu.” I remember feeling hurt, but I did not tell my mother about the incident. I probably did not want to make her upset.”

Women repeatedly state they have never been subject to discrimination or felt discriminated against. Should we take these comments at face value? A woman involved in our activities spoke about the insensibility of Ainu women to discrimination:

“Ainu people in Hokkaido have long been subject to discrimination. Discrimination against us in Hokkaido is much stronger than outside Hokkaido where people do not know you are Ainu. We are repeatedly exposed to discrimination from the time we are small children and become numb to it. Each of us has eventually been made to believe that, as Ainu, we deserve to be discriminated against. Reading these comments, I strongly feel that when we are directly discriminated against, we pretend as if we are not hurt, and at the bottom of our heart, we believe we deserve the discrimination."

Another Ainu woman discussed her experience:

“Being born Ainu, I have believed it was desirable for me to lead a life without particular distinction. Looking back at my life, I think I have been subject to discrimination. But, honestly speaking, I grew up without feeling that I was discriminated against. Now I think I have become numb to discrimination. Fortunately, I was brought up without having any worries. After I married, the circumstances around me changed completely. While my parents protected me, I spent my life without feeling discrimination. When I entered into the real world, I encountered an incident and discovered 'people around me saw me in that way and it was only me who did not realize it after all.' Eventually I married, and then one day discriminatory words were thrown at me by my husband. It was the saddest incident I ever experienced. The person I believed understood me best subjected me to such cruel words. It was very shocking. Later, we separated on the basis of that incident. Reflecting on those days, yes, the incident was the primary reason. I never told this story my parents because I believed I should not make my parents upset.”

What constitutes discrimination varies from person to person. Some people may have given up, believing they deserve the discrimination against them and accepting it. Another Ainu woman involved in the survey spoke about the importance of standing up against racism and discrimination.

“When I first attended a gathering on the topic of multiple discrimination, and minority women, I did not understand what the other attendees were discussing and understood nothing of the problem. I started without any knowledge of multiple discrimination. Another member kindly taught me about the issue, and I thought about it by myself. I gradually realized we should not permit any environment that allows discrimination. We should stand up and speak out.”

In another description, a woman stated she had never recognized gender discrimination:

“I had more to learn. I believed discrimination in Japan meant Ainu discrimination. Now, I realize there are various types of discrimination against women. I will learn more.”

Other Ainu women stated their thoughts over the discrimination their female ancestors experienced:

“Obviously, I do not know exactly how our elderly women suffered from discrimination. But, when I pictured their lives during times in which it was not unusual for women to be forced into back-breaking labor, and sometimes treated not as human beings but as tools for the sexual satisfaction of men, I could not stop crying or continue reading the book.”

“I know what I will have to do. Based on the fact that Ainu women experienced such cruel discrimination, and that there are still many who are subject to such discrimination, I will continue my activities according to what I believe is a better direction for Ainu women.”

Ainu women are subject to discrimination. Discrimination against women and that against Ainu cannot be divided. In reality, the two forms of discrimination intertwine in a multi-layered way at one time, and in a compound way at another. In the past, activists in the feminist movement misunderstood and believed, “Women belonging to minority communities should be sensitive to gender discrimination.” Many people lack adequate knowledge and understanding about the reality of multiple discrimination to which minority women are subjected. It is very difficult to remove gender discrimination from the multiple discrimination experienced by minority women. It is expected that women themselves will create a survey through which the reality of multiple discrimination will become better understood.

5. Social Welfare and Health

5)-1. Public Pensions

87% of respondents subscribe to a public pension scheme. The fact that 47% subscribe to the national pension scheme reflects the fact that many respondents work on a part-time basis. This also includes people who are self-employed or unemployed. It is a shocking fact that 16% of respondents are not covered by any kind of public pension scheme. We assume not only unemployed people, but also those working part-time cannot afford to pay the subscription fees, which are now very expensive. It is feared that greater numbers of people will not be entitled to pension benefits in the furute. Respondents made the following comments:

“What's going on with the social welfare programs? My child and I are disabled.”

“I want to live in a safe area when I become older. We, as descendants of Karafuto Ainu, have to till the peat land, which our ancestors received from the government. We cannot grow rice there. In spring, water from melting snow flows into our farmland, which turns into swampland covered by rivers of water. Some of our neighbors fled the area. My parents used to live there, and I also lived there with my husband and children for a while, but we finally left and moved into a town because we found it very difficult to survive. In the town, we found jobs and sent our children to school. Now, we live on public assistance.”

5)-2. Public Assistance

29 out of 241 respondents (12%) said they are currently receiving public assistance. 21 (9%) said they received public assistance in the past. The 2006 Survey of the Living Conditions of Hokkaido Ainu revealed that 38.3 permillage of Ainu received public assistance, compared to 24.6 permillage of the general public. As the two survey systems differed, it is difficult to make a simple comparison, but according to our survey Ainu women are now under more difficult conditions than those revealed in the 2006 survey. Despite the fact that 16% of respondents reported not being entitled to pension benefits and 12% reported being on public assistance, no comments were made about social welfare so we cannot know the experiences women have had in relation to social welfare from the survey. It is also probable that respondents lacked adequate knowledge. We will therefore need to conduct another survey to obtain more details.

Regarding health conditions, 31% of respondents said they have a chronic disease. Among these, 14% said they do not go to a medical institution when they need treatment. Reasons for this included economic reasons, which accounted for 20% of respondents. Lack of insurance was also a reason for some women, though small in number. 10% of respondents said that they did not have health insurance. There are indications that the educational backgrounds of women relate to their employment status, which relates to income level, which then relates to educational status and health condition.

6. Violence

6)-1. Experience of Domestic Violence

17% of respondents said they have been “beaten, kicked or battered” on many occasions, while 20% said they have experienced such violence “once or twice.” The survey revealed that 37% of Ainu women have experienced violence by husbands in some form. We cannot judge whether or not this figure is high or low. It is, however, certain that there are some women who have suffered violence.

6)-2. Consultation

Those who have experienced domestic violence were asked if they had “spoken about your suffering with somebody else, or had asked for advice?” 14% of respondents went to doctors for advice. A lower proportion consulted relatives or friends. This is probably due to people seeking treatment for aftereffects (both physical and mental due to verbal abuse) from doctors. There were cases in which Ainu women were verbally abused by their husbands and suffered trauma resulting in self-depreciation and lost self-esteem. This indicates a need for shelters that can be easily accessed by battered women. It should be noted that although there was an option to answer, “I have not been to any place or person to seek advice,” 64% of respondents gave no response. We are not certain what this figure suggests, but it is important to consider the possible reasons respondents would have for giving no answer.

6)-3. Legal knowledge

64% of respondents said they know “there is a law prohibiting domestic violence and protecting victims.” However, we did not ask if people knew what the law specifically prescribed.

7. Ainu Culture and Identity

7)-1. Ainu Culture

Many respondents commented on Ainu culture. These comments included feelings of pride in Ainu culture, the importance of preserving Ainu culture, and a desire for non-Ainu people to gain some knowledge of Ainu culture.

“For Ainu women to be genuine Ainu, Ainu culture should be absorbed by Ainu women themselves so that the pride of being Ainu women can be also preserved.”

“Ainu culture is great and is not inferior to other the cultures of other nations or states. We have nurtured an amazing culture. We should aim to live with pride as Ainu people.”

“I believe that we must learn the history of our ancestors, recognize the pride of being a wonderful people, and help each other.”

Ainu women also emphasized the need to preserve Ainu culture:

“Personally, I feel I have Ainu blood. Whenever the Ainu in me starts to stir (especially when I see or listen to Ainu dances or songs) I naturally sing or tap along with the rhythm. I am determined we should not lose Ainu history or culture.”

“I want to see a gathering of Ainu women, who retain a dim and yet warm-heated recollection of their grandparents, in which we can sing and talk together.”

“I think we should teach younger generations the history and culture of Ainu.”

“Please forgive me for my ignorance, but I am only now learning the history and culture of Ainu through listening to stories and reading books. I have much more to learn.”

While there are indications of desire for Ainu culture to be preserved and transmitted to future generations, there are also voices that indicate the difficulties of preserving and transmitting Ainu culture, such as, “In our daily lives, it is virtually impossible to find spare time to preserve and transmit Ainu culture.” Women also indicated their desire for Ainu culture to be understood and appreciated by non-Ainu people:

“I hope Japanese people will build a better understanding of Ainu culture.”

“I hope that Ainu people will be at the forefront of indigenous peoples and not remain at the back. As residents of Sapporo City, one of the 12 major cities of our country, we should raise our strong voices to announce widely that Ainu people are here in the Ainu motherland!”

The understanding of culture and history relates deeply to the establishment of identity of Ainu women. It will be important for Ainu women to accept themselves as Ainu.

7)-2. Identity as Ainu Peoples

Some comments were made regarding the identity of Ainu women. For Ainu women, Ainu identity is a two-edged sword. While they are proud of being Ainu, they also feel “shame” for being Ainu and want to stay away from other Ainu.

Those women who accept themselves as Ainu in a negative way made the following comments.

“I still feel pain for being Ainu.”

“Some people see me as Ainu. I have to accept it. When asked if I was Ainu, I answered yes. I cannot think of the issue of being Ainu deeply because I have to survive.”

“During my childhood, I was identified by my friends as Ainu. This deeply hurt me. Now, I cannot explain to my children that Ainu blood runs in them. I recently revealed our Ainu identity to my eldest child, but my youngest does not yet know. I feel ashamed to tell my child.”

The assimilation policy has penetrated our community so widely and deeply that Ainu women are often no longer aware of their Ainu identity. A woman who works at an office that engages in Ainu culture described her current position: “I never expected [to have a job related to Ainu culture]. To be honest, I always wanted avoid Ainu influence, and tried to remove myself from it.” Just like her, the identity of Ainu women as Ainu is something they feel proud of, but at the same time something they want to deny. We need to explore the issue of why Ainu women see their identity in a negative way from different perspectives. This is because it is not “their problem,” but a problem of Japanese society.

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