In 1910, a small group of people from Northern Japan arrived in the UK to participate in the Japan-British Exhibition which was showing off Japanese culture, but the group of Ainu were showing off a culture that the Japanese government was trying to suppress.
These days, the Ainu culture is reviving, and a century after their first exhibition, there’s another one in London – this time celebrating their culture and heritage.
Hosted by Japan House on Kensington High Street, the exhibition is a mix of typical crafts, clothing and culture, along with a number of large videos where members of the community talk about their lives in Northern Japan.
A timeline runs around the edge highlighting the moments when repressive laws were passed to suppress the peoples and more recently, very recently, in fact, their repeal.
The exhibition has been curated in collaboration with the people of Biratori, an area located in Saru River basin in the south of Hokkaido. It explores the significance of Ainu culture for this community and the relationships between its people and their surroundings, as well as revealing some interesting historical links with the UK.
It turns out that some of the earliest recorders of the Ainu culture were British – and it was Brits who first translated the mainly oral history and wrote it down. Some examples of those early books are here.
It’s a wide ranging exhibition, showing off carvings, clothing, foods and oral history, although of necessity due to the space, only a snapshot of the Ainu culture.
Still, it’s a chance to take a glimpse at a part of Japan that isn’t that well known outside the country.
The exhibition, Ainu Stories: Contemporary Lives by the Saru River is at Japan House on Kensington High Street until 21st April 2024 and is free to visit. It’s open daily 10am to 8pm, except Sunday when it’s open 12pm to 6pm.
Oh, and do look for the salmon skin shoes — they’re amazing.