Making ‘invisible’ Ainu visible is photographer’s labor of love

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    Photographer Makiko Ui stands next to her pictures of Ainu people. (Hiroki Nishida)

    Makiko Ui has made it her life’s work to capture the indigenous Ainu people in photographs under a project called “My portrait Myself.”

    The 54-year-old photographer began snapping pictures of 100 Ainu people around the country five years ago. So far, she’s captured more than 70.

    The Ainu mainly inhabited Japan’s northernmost island of Hokkaido as well as the Sakhalin island of Russia. Today, tens of thousands of them live in Hokkaido and elsewhere in Japan.

    Ui’s fascination with the Ainu began as a child brought up in Tokyo. After she became a freelance photographer, she began shooting Ainu, and has published three photo collections on them.

    The catalyst for her lifelong project was a feature on an Ainu woman named Ashiri Rela carried in a magazine in 1992.

    The resident of the Nibutani district of Biratori, Hokkaido, was involved in a movement protesting the construction of a dam while raising many unrelated children.

    When Ui visited the Ainu woman, she realized that ethnic traditions dominated every aspect of her life, including her home, food and prayers.

    Intrigued by her lifestyle, Ui began making repeat visits to learn more, staying overnight there with her own daughter.

    The Ainu take pride in their language and culture, which used to center on harmonious living in nature as hunters, gatherers and fishers.

    However, they were forced to change their lifestyle drastically as they were deprived of their ancestral land under a government policy to develop Hokkaido in the late 19th century and to merge with Japanese.

    Ui could not help feeling a sense of guilt when she was with Ainu people, as the ethnic minority was persecuted by Japanese.

    Before each shooting session, Ui spent a great deal of time explaining what she represents and the purpose of the photography project.

    Her network of Ainu acquaintances expanded as she continued taking portraits of Ainu people, including those living in Tokyo and the surrounding areas.

    She said her sense of guilt has eased as the project progressed.

    What she wants to share with audiences through her works is a sense of wonder that the Ainu people have for things that are not visible to the naked eye.

    When a Sapporo municipal assemblyman made headlines recently by denying the Ainu people’s existence, she became enraged.

    Ui lets her subjects choose the shooting locations and what they will wear. They also introduce her to their acquaintances as prospective photo subjects.

    “It goes forward like a collaboration with the Ainu people,” she said. “It gives you a sense of how they are faring today.”

    Source: The Asahi Shimbun