Ainu. Pathways to Memory directed by Marcos Centeno Martín

Ainu. Pathways to Memory
Directed by Marcos Centeno Martín
Released in 2014

Official website

Review by Susan Meehan

Marcos Centeno Martín is a lecturer in Film Studies, Department of Japan and Korea at SOAS, University of London. In 2014, he released Ainu. Pathways to Memory, “which portrays the problems of identity and assimilation of the Ainu people in Japan and means of preserving and disseminating their culture” (1).

Concern about the preservation of the Ainu and Ainu culture is nothing new. In 1910, The Daily News reported, “The politest people of earth came to London yesterday. They were a party of Ainu, relics of a dying race, which is said to have once occupied the same position with regard to the Japanese as did the Saxons to Britain…”. These ten Ainu had come to be exhibited as a living display at the Japan-British exhibition of 1910 (2).

Fortunately, the Ainu still exist, though numbers have severely dwindled. The official number of Ainu in Japan stands at 25,000 though it is likely that only 20,000 exist.

Centeno’s thorough research into the Ainu over the last ten years has fed into his film. It is a mixture of informative documentary and interviews with Ainu specialists in Japan and Europe and with Ainu in Japan. His aim is to shed light on and to support the Ainu community as it attempts “to regain its culture and dignity” (3).

Centeno’s voice-over and interviews with three Ainu specialists from the University of Hokkaido (Dr Okada Mayumi, Dr Wakazono Yushiro and Dr Ochiai Ken’ichi), establish the basics – the Ainu are an indigenous people of northern Japan, Sakhalin, the Kurile Islands, and the Kamchatka Peninsula. Those living in Hokkaido were stripped of land and their culture when the island was incorporated into Japan in 1869 by the Meiji government, which came to power in 1868, marking the end of feudalistic Japan and the emergence of the modern Japanese state. Many Ainu customs were prohibited and salmon fishing and deer hunting, which the Ainu relied on, were restricted. The Meiji government asserted its control over Japan by affirming that Japan was socially and culturally homogeneous, ignoring its minority populations. An 1899 regulation promoted the assimilation of the Ainu through learning the Japanese language and engaging in agriculture (rather than the hunter-gatherer ways of the Ainu). This law was only abolished in 1997.

An interviewee remarks that former Prime Minister Nakasone, as recently as 1986, said, “Japan is a racially homogenous nation, and there is no discrimination against ethnic minorities with Japanese citizenship.” This comment bothered and politicised many Ainu at the time, keen to redress this perception (4).

Centeno finds it imperative to show how the Ainu’s lifestyle and culture were suppressed by the Meiji government and how they were dispossessed of their lands. A number of Ainu are concerned with remedying this obliteration of their culture by making efforts to reassert it. These “paths to memory” – as some of the Ainu revive or restage ancient ways of life and share their history and culture with the younger generations, both Ainu and wajin (non-Ainu Japanese) seem to be a source of self-worth.

The film doesn’t provide any clues as to whether the non-Ainu Japanese care much about landmarks for the Ainu such as the Japanese Diet recognizing the Ainu as indigenous people in 2008, but my sense is that most feel that the Ainu have largely assimilated.

While the first half of the film shows Centeno’s interviewees addressing the frailty of Ainu culture and the discrimination the Ainu have encountered, the latter part focuses on concrete efforts to revive the Ainu language and Ainu culture.

Centeno visits various cultural centres and museums which are promoting the preservation of the Ainu culture including the Ainu Culture Centre in Tokyo, the Museum of Ainu culture established in 1992 in Nibutani and the Shiraoi museum which dates back to the 1970s. The museums in Shiraoi and Nibutani look like 19th-century Ainu villages replete with chise or Ainu-style houses made of wood and thatched roofs. This was done, it is suggested, to recover an old way of building houses.

Though these museums are one way for the Ainu to present their culture, there is often a theme park element to them. Some of the Ainu who promote Ainu music or culture at these sites tend to live a somewhat dual existence straddling their current life and this other romanticised version.

It is amiss to suggest a collective identity for contemporary Ainu, who are such a diverse group of people. The very end of the documentary hinges on the fact that Ainu culture still exists and can be expressed in many ways, not just through Ainu dance, and that many young Ainu are looking towards a new future. This is certainly worth further investigation.

There is no question that Centeno is a passionate advocate of Ainu culture and I would agree that it is important to maintain diversity and different types of culture and ways of life which embrace a range of thinking and encourage the acceptance of a variety of lifestyles. While Centeno presents a platform for the interviewees and refrains from providing ready-made conclusions, his choice of interviewees is limited and they largely share the same opinions. There is also a lack of young Ainu representation.

The exchanges with the Japanese academics are a bit dry, and fairly historical rather than reflective of the present situation. The interviews are divided up into short segments and interleaved with one another, making it all feel rather patchy. The soundtrack is a mish-mash as well, partly Ainu music and partly fusion, merely adding exotic background music.

Nevertheless, it is undeniable that many Ainu are justifiably and demonstrably seeking to recover or even reconstruct their culture before the last few remaining Ainu-speaking members of the community die out. In many cases this is from a sense of pride, identity and validation. The importance to them of their Ainu identity cannot be underestimated.

Political activism has been a factor in rescuing languages from extinction, so the Ainu should not lose hope as their precious language and/or way of life can be salvaged if there is a will. As Judith Thurman points out in a fascinating article for The New Yorker, the BBC finally launched a Welsh language radio station in 1977 and since 1999 Welsh language instruction for students up to the age of 16 has been mandatory in Welsh state schools, leading to a revival of the language. In 2011, 19% of the Welsh population were found to speak Welsh (5).

Though few speakers of Ainu exist, the language seems to be undergoing something of a renaissance and it is through films like Centeno’s that this interest can be encouraged amongst Ainu and non-Ainu alike.


(1) From the documentary’s official website,

(2) Miyatake, Kimio, “Ainu in London 1910: Power, Representation and Practice of the Ainu Village”, in Hotta-Lister, Ayako and Nish, Ian(eds.), Commerce and Culture at the 1910 Japan-British Exhibition, Centenary Perspectives, Global Oriental, 2013, p.112.

(3) From the documentary’s official website,

(4) In a retrograde step, I discovered that as recently as 2014, a member of the Hokkaido Prefectural Assembly stirred controversy by stating it is “highly questionable” that the Ainu are an indigenous people of northern Japan (“A Shameful Statement on Ainu”, The Japan Times, editorial, 17 November 2014).

(5) Thurman, Judith, “A Loss for Words – Can a Dying Language be Saved?”, The New Yorker, 30 March 2015.

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