Staunton, October 10 – Most Russians think the Ainu live only in Japan – and the vast majority do -- but there is a small Ainu community in Kamchatka, one Russian officials typically have ignored but more recently have repressed as Vladimir Putin has tightened the screws on Russia in general and as tensions with Japan over the Kurile Islands have intensified.
According to the 2010 Russian census, there are 109 Ainu on the Kamchatka peninsula, while there are as many as 100,000 in Japan. The Kamchatka Ainu, who are sometimes called the Kamchadals, speak a distinctly different dialect, although the language is only semi-literary and the Russian government has not supported it in the schools.
There was a rebirth of the community after the end of Soviet power, but over the last five years, the Russian government, in order to help fishing and timber companies, has sought to force the Ainu to stop their traditional sea fishing; and in the last two, it has disbanded the Ainu’s main social organization and blocked its celebration of its national traditions.
Aleksey Nakamura, the former head of the Ainu Community on Kamchatka, tells the Nazaccent.ru portal that the situation of his pepe is now “critical.” Its members have been blocked from their traditional fishing, and they have been told that if they ignore the government’s ban, they will be imprisoned (nazaccent.ru/interview/95/).
The Ainu have tried to use Russia’s court system and even suspended the activity of their organization to cool things down, Nakamura says; but nothing has helped. The Russian authorities continue to block them from fishing and from marking their traditional national holidays.
He suggests that the reason the Ainu are now unable to defend themselves, in contrast to the other numerically small peoples of Kamchatka, is that they alone are not included in the list of numerically small peoples maintained by the Russian government, a gap that reflects their large numbers abroad.
“A Rubicon” has been passed, he continues; but the Ainu are not about to give up. And they are being supported by an alliance of the other numerically small peoples there – the Itelmens, the Koryaks, and the Evens – who are allowing the Ainu to fish on their lands even though the Russian authorities have banned this.
The Kamchatka Ainu are also working to defend their language and culture, Nakamura says, and are preparing on their own means a textbook and dictionary of the Kamchatka dialect of Ainu. Unfortunately, it isn’t likely to appear anytime soon because the community is so small and has few resources.
All this is particularly shameful, the Ainu activist suggests, because the name “Kamchatka” is of Ainu origin, however much Russians and Cossacks try to suggest otherwise.