――In Light of the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples――


Ainu Ancestral Remains and Funeral Objects: the Repatriation Controversy in Japan

Below is an account of the background leading to the ongoing court case demanding the repatriation of Ainu ancestral remains kept by the University of Hokkaido. This account was posted in three parts on July 17, August 16, and August 24, 2013 on my currently closed blog "Repatriation Now! -- Issues Involving Ainu Ancestral Remains and Other Human Tissues --."

The Complaint

On September 14, 2012, three Ainu people (Ryukichi Ogawa, Yuri Johnoguchi, and an anonymous person) whose ancestral remains had been exhumed and taken from their graves by Japanese scholars and kept at the University of Hokkaido filed a legal complaint with the Sapporo District Court, demanding the repatriation of their ancestors' remains and the compensation, three million yen for each, for the continuing violation of their religious freedom guaranteed by the Japanese Constitution.

According to the complaint, the University of Hokkaido desecrated the graves and took away not only the human remains but also such funeral objects as tamasai (necklaces) and makiri (knives) that had been buried with the dead.

While saying that they would return the bones to their descendants, the university officials would not allow the plaintiffs into the administrative building of the university on the cold, snowy day in February, 2012. This insincere attitude of the university administration, apparently stemming from its official position that the university would discuss the matter of human remains only through the Ainu Association of Hokakido, prompted the Ainu plaintiffs to take the legal action.

Japanese physical anthropologists and archaeologists have shown great interest in the Ainu ancestral remains currently kept in the repositories of not only Hokkaido University but also other academic institutions across the country as the objects for their DNA studies to trace the origins of the Japanese people. They have expressed their opposition to returning the human remains. The plaintiffs wish to prevent such a treatment of the remains of their ancestors and put their souls at rest where they originally were.

The complaint summarizes the plaintiffs' arguments as follows:
1) The defendant, Hokkaido University, currently holds the remains of the plaintiffs' ancestors;
2) The plaintiffs have the right to the repatriation of those remains;
3) The history of the study of Ainu skeletal remains and the current national Ainu policy have been violating the religious rights of the plaintiffs; and
4) As long as the University possesses the ancestral remains, the plaintiffs are entitled to the compensation for the violation of their religious freedom.

What makes this case historically significant in Japan is that the plaintiffs argue that the right to control the ancestral remains belongs to the kotan of Kineusu and that the plaintiffs succeed to that right as the descendants of the members of the kotan.


How They Got Here -- the Case of Yuri Johnoguchi

The three plaintiffs are all from the Ainu kotan of Kineusu, Urakawa. One of the plaintiffs, Yuri Johnoguchi, made her oral argument in the District Court of Sapporo on November 30, 2012. She explained why she had decided to sue the University of Hokkaido. She said she was carrying out her mother's will.

Two months before she passed away, Yuri's mother told her that she was so sad to remember the wajin doctors of Hokkaido University Hospital exhuming the graves of her parents and grandparents and leaving many gaping holes behind. She begged Yuri to try to bring her ancestors' bones home to Kineusu Kotan. "I recall that day just like yesterday," Yuri Johnoguchi said. She also revealed a story she had heard from a Kineusu resident. The bones stolen by the doctors of Hokkaido University were placed in a container with a tin lid which was kept in his henhouse. They were giving off a terrible smell.

Johnoguchi conveyed the feelings of her mother and herself to the court as follows:

1) For what reasons did Hokkaido University dig up those graves without any permission from the Ainu people?

2) How did the University use those human remains?

3) What did the University do with those funerary objects, such as swords and tamasai, which had been buried together with the dead?

4) I want the University to return and rebury the remains and accompanying funerary objects into the graves in Kineusu Kotan just as they were before the desecration.

5) My mother lived a vexing and painful life for 54 to 55 years. It's not a matter of money but of conscience. Nonetheless, I want the University to show their good faith through apology and compensation.

The three Ainu descendants submitted a request to the president of the University of Hokkaido for the repatriation of the remains and funerary objects of their ancestors, as well as for his apology in December 2011. As stated in the complaint, however, the university has since refused to talk directly to them. Johnoguchi said in her oral statement, "Hokkaido University says that they will return the remains, but once descendants speak out, demanding their repatriation, they become silent. It became very clear to us that Hokkaido University will not hear or understand what we are saying and that led us finally to this litigation. We want the University to tell the truth. We want to reveal the truth first."

For the full text of Yuri Johnoguchi's statement, visit here (

Here is a video of Yuri Johnoguchi speaking about her mother's will in the symposium sponsored by Hokudai Kaiji Bunsho Kenkyukai on September 14, 2012.

How They Got Here -- the Case of Ryukichi Ogawa

Ryukichi Ogawa appeared in the third oral proceedings held on April 19, 2013. He began his statement with memories of his childhood, when his parents and old neighbors were trying to hide Ainu ways of living, customs and traditions from children's eyes. Funerals seemed to be held in the Ainu way but quietly during the night.

When his mother died, she was buried in the Ainu graveyard in Kineusu. But Ogawa kept trying to erase his memories of the life and the graveyard in Kineusu for a long time. There in the cemetery rested the souls of his great-grandparents and other Ainu elders -- at least 10 or more people to his knowledge. All their bones, however, were taken away by the University of Hokkaido.

On September 16, 1981, six representatives from the Ainu Association of Hokkaido, including Ogawa himself, were shown the inside of the building of the Faculty of Medicine at Hokkaido University. They saw skulls on the shelves on the whole wall, side by side with animal bones. The Ainu skulls were numbered and inscribed with German words.

According to Ogawa, it was Hiroshi Kaibazawa who prompted the Ainu Association to move. Kaibazawa, Ainu himself, had graduated from the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine of Hokkaido University and was the vice-chairperson of Jichiro (All-Japan Prefectural and Municipal Workers Union). Ogawa made it clear to the judge that he initiated this litigation to carry out Kaibazawa's wishes and intention.

Unable to keep ignoring the demand of the Ainu Association, the University applied to the Ministry of Education for the construction of a 74 ㎡ charnel house in the parking lot of the Faculty of Medicine with the estimated budget of 16.4 million yen. The building which was constructed as the charnel house for the Ainu people's remains had the signboard that read "Samples Storage of the Faculty of Medicine" because, it was claimed, the University was a national institution and was prohibited from maintaining any building of a religious nature. The fact that those ancestral remains were kept in the building with such a signboard, Ogawa argued, was very humiliating. He added that his people had not been informed at all of the details about the human remains inside the charnel.

On January 10, 2008, Ogawa came to know about the existence of the "Ledger of Ainu Human Remains (アイヌ人骨台帳 or Ainu Jinkotsu Daichou)" within the University by a phone call from a medical student of the University. The next morning at 9:30 a.m., he rushed into the Administration building of the University and met with vice-president Hayashi. Ogawa asked him about the Ledger. The vice-president confirmed its existence but added, "It is difficult to release it as it is." Ogawa persisted in asking him what he meant by "as it is." Hayashi replied that it contained "discriminatory expressions," asking for more time.

Ogawa cound't wait any longer and began the procedure of requesting the University to disclose the relevant information three days later. The University kept asking him to wait.

What he eventually obtained was anything but the Ledger. It was a simple list made on a word processor. He demanded the University release the original Ledger, but the University persisted in denying its existance.

Ogawa couldn't take it any more and filed a complaint. His complaint was accepted in September and as many as 27 different documents regarding the Ainu ancestral remains were disclosed. Among them was a hand-written record entitled "The Excavation Ledger of the Human Skeletal Remains of the Ainu People (アイヌ民族人体骨発掘台帳 or Ainu Minzoku Jintaikotsu Hakkutsu Daichou)." He was pleased to think that it was what he had been looking for. He, however, was to be astounded again later.

In March this year, the University released its own investigative report on the Ainu skeletal remains. It refers to the original "Ledger of Excavated Skeletal Remains (発掘人骨台帳 or Hakkutsu Jinkotsu Daichou)," which, to Ogawa's astonishment, already existed in the Faculty of Medicine in 2008 when he filed his Request for Information Disclosure.

"All that we find in Hokkaido University is 'falsehood' and 'concealment' which are in direct opposition to the academic institution seeking to find the truth." Ogawa criticized the University's attitude for being full of contempt towards the Ainu even today, not just in the times of Dr. Sakuzaemon Kodama, and declared that he could not allow the researchers of such a university to keep the remains of his precious ancestors.

Ogawa concluded his statement as follows:

The Ainu way of life, traditions, and the Ainu graves -- all the memories of which I tried hard to erase when young -- are precious and irreplaceable to me and my family. How sinful is it to steal human remains from graves? What is academic freedom all about? The Ainu Moshir, the land where people lived a quiet life, was stolen, and then even the remains of the dead were taken away. I express my boundless anger at the University of Hokkaido that is unwilling to repatriate them. Return our ancestors' bones immediately and unconditionally.

The University, the National Museum of Science, and the Japanese government are intending to transfer the robbed Ainu remains to Shiraoi to console the souls of the dead in the planned memorial facility, whereby they wish to dodge their whole responsibilities. They are also thinking of conducting DNA research on the Ainu bones. I cannot tolerate this attitude more than anything. I cannot condone their additude of leaving the past clouded. I wish to take back our ancestors' remains and in the process make public all the wrongs that the University has perpetrated.

Interestingly enough, both Johnoguchi and Ogawa referred to the past era when the issue of Ainu ancestral remains surfaced in the Japanese society. About 30 to 40 years ago when she was in her 40's to 50's, Johnoguchi brought up the issue of the Ainu ancestral remains held by the University. Johnoguchi pointed out in her statement that the Japanese society had shown no interest in this issue and failed to see it as a problem.

For the text of Ryukichi Ogawa's argument, visit here or here(