Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Tourism, Culture and Society: Japan and the Ainu indigenous group

Perception of Japan

Japan, to me, is a traditional yet modern country at the same time. Japan’s technology is modern and breaks the barriers of future technology. An example is their creation of robots, such as the world-famous Humanoid robot called Asimo, by Honda. However, there is also a  traditional side to Japan. This can be seen in their buildings, food and people. Japan is very populated but I perceive it to be a clean and green country because I feel that the Japanese place importance on hygiene and cleanliness.

What represents its culture?
Its culture is represented by the architecture of its buildings, the people and the food and the arts.

Japanese Architecture
Japanese architecture dates way back. It is believed to have begun in the fifth century. Its traditional architecture can be seen mostly in religious buildings, such as Buddhist buildings and Shinto Shrines. Traditional Japanese architecture usually consists of columns made from cypress and the traditional thatched roof”. Structures of wooden timber are usually the foundation for traditional Japanese architecture. The materials used are usually strong and withstands the weather but yet the design is simple and meticulous.

The Arts
From a simple tea ceremony to the complex creation of a kimono commonly worn by geishas, the arts make up a big part of Japan’s unique culture.

The traditional arts are minimalistic, yet hold a deep symbolic meaning and it comes from within the heart. Take a simple tea ceremony for example. A simple Japanese tea ceremony alone is a ritual that has to be accompanied by proper gestures and phrases. The study of it can take years to master. Another representation of the arts can also be found in the lavish costume of the geishas. The transformation that geishas undergo is an art itself. With whitened face, precise makeup, elaborate black wig, and carefully hand-painted kimono, it is an art that intrigues many. Below is a clip of a Tea Ceremony demostration.

Japanese Cuisine
Then of course, there is the delectable cuisine that Japan has to offer. Popular foods include sushi, tempura, soba, udon, unagi and more. Rice makes up the staple diet of the Japanese. Fresh seafood is also part of the diet and is eaten raw (sashimi etc.) by many.

Popular culture
Japan culture is also represented by its popular culture. Japanese manga, music, films and video games are popular sources of entertainment for the Japanese and it is catching on in many parts of the world.

Language, values and beliefs
Japan’s culture is also represented by the language, values and beliefs of its people. The Japanese are polite and believe in staying in harmony. Loyalty and obedience are also important values of the Japanese.

Culture and traditions of the Ainu indigenous group.

The Ainu is an indigenous group of Japan. They are indigenous to Hokkaido and the northern part of Honshu in Northern Japan. The Ainu is made up of over 150,000 people. However, actual figures are unclear as some people are not even aware that they are part of the Ainu. The Ainu have a culture of their own and it its quite distinct from the culture of Japan.

Ainu men have “a tradition of not shaving after a certain age; they have full beards and moustaches.” Both the men and women kept their hair shoulder-length, with the back trimmed in the shape of a semi-circle. They hold a deep respect for animals and nature. They believe that animals are gods, thus, they often hold rituals.

One example is the bear ceremony; it is a “funeral ritual” for the bear. To them, the bear is a god in disguise. Thus, proper ritual is needed to send it back to the heavens. Doing so will lead to good blessings. The whole process of the bear ceremony takes about two years. Ironically, the bear has to be killed in the process. The Hokkaido Ainu shoots it with arrows and it ends with an elder saying a farewell prayer while shooting an arrow in the sky, symbolizing its safe departure. Yes, this might sound cruel to us but this is how the Ainus express their utmost respect for the deity.

A painting depicting the sacred bear ceremony

Another unique tradition of theirs is that once women reach puberty, their lips, hands and arms have to be tattooed as part of an initiation stage. Due to these traditions, people often have the misconception that the Ainus are cruel and barbaric, thus, they are often called “inferior”. People are often ashamed to be associated with them.

Female Ainu with tattooed lips

Their traditional dress is a robe made “from the bark of an elm tree”. It has long sleeves and reaches the feet. It is folded round the body and “tied with a girdle of the same material”. In winter, the skins of animals are worn, with deerskin leggings and boots made from the skin of dogs or salmon.

Traditional male dressing



Traditional female dressing

The Ainu have a simple lifestyle. They depend mostly on nature and its resources for survival. The men go to rivers to fish for salmon and trout and hunt for animals such as deer and hare. The women gather wild plants such as herbs and vegetables. They live in small villages usually led by a chief and it is normally located on a river basin.

Authenticity of the culture from the point of view of a tourist.
Some of the Ainu villages are still intact and are opened to tourists. A typical tour for tourists interested in the Ainu Culture will usually include a trip to Shiraoi Kotan (village) and Ainu Cultural Museum.

Upon stepping foot on the Shiraoi Kotan, tourists are welcomed by a magnificent 30-foot Ainu structure. They will then walk pass several food and souvenir shops before reaching the village. The Ainu used to stay at this village but now, it is no longer inhabited. Tourists get to go around and explore the straw and thatch houses and see caged bears, which is vital in the Ainu Bear ceremony. In one of the larger houses, talks about the Ainu culture and lifestyle are held by genuine Ainus. Visitors wanting to know more also get a chance to ask them questions. Tourists also get to enjoy traditional Ainu folk and dance performances .

After having a glimpse of how the Ainu lived, the Ainu Cultural Museum allows one to know in even greater detail. “Authentic clothing, tools, jewellery and murals showing the work, play, and religious activities of the Ainu are displayed”, with descriptions in English.  There is even an on-line video system where one can find films of the real Ainus who lived there and their activities.

If I were a tourist, based on this tour, I would feel that I did not really get an authentic experience out of this tour. The Ainus that they interact with in the Kotan do not stay there. Therefore, some stories that they tell may not be as authentic as they did not go through what Ainus did in the past. However, the Ainu Cultural Museum will allow me to have a more authentic experience as it features exhibits and stories that will allow deeper understanding of the authentic Ainu life in the past.

Tourism impacts on the authentic culture of Japan and the Ainu
Tourism impacts can be split into three categories and there are positive and negative impacts.


1.  Social-cultural impacts
1a. Tourism as a force for peace
Travelling brings people closer together. Tourism will allow one to understand the Ainu people and their culture better. It also reduces prejudice. For example, the Ainus were often misunderstood due to their barbaric actions seen in the Bear ceremony and facial tattooing. But these actions actually hold deeper meaning and symbolize respect. Therefore, tourism will allow one to see the truth and reduce prejudice.

1b. Encourages civic involvement and pride
Tourism will simulate feeling of pride within the Ainu people. When tourists show interest in their culture, the Ainu will feel a sense of pride knowing that there are still people interested in their culture and way of life.

2.    Economic impact

2a. Tourism revenue
Tourism will bring in visitors, giving them a source of income. With this fund, they will be able to maintain and sustain the cultural and heritage sites.


3.  Social-cultural impacts

3a. Change or loss of indigenous identity and values
Factors such as “adaptation to tourist demands, loss of authencity and standardization” can cause them to be so caught up that they lose sense of who they are. Therefore, causing a change or loss in their values and identity.

3b. Culture clashes
The behaviour of visitors may cause irritation and this leads to the clash between different cultures. The tourists and Ainus have different beliefs and values. Thus, when one exhibits behaviour that the other deems unacceptable, there is a clash.

Their focus of their calendar of events
Japan is a country of rich culture and traditions. Japan would not be what it is today without its rich history. Therefore, most of its events focus on celebrating and commemorating  history. Let us take a look at some of the events Japan has to offer.

“Marimo Matsuri” on Lake Akan, Hokkaido (OCT 13-15)
“Marimo” is a singular spherical green moss ball, found in Hokkaido’s Lake Akan and Lake Yamanaka in Yamanashi Prefecture. The festival was started by the Ainu indigenous group. Traditional Ainu dances are performed on the lakeshore, followed by spectacular fireworks and parade in celebration of these rare, one-of-a-kind moss balls.

“Jidai Matsuri” or Festival of Eras , Heian Shrine, Kyoto (OCT 22)
This festival commemorates the founding of the old capital city of Kyoto in 794 . There is a procession of over 2,000 people in groups, dressed in costumes, representing significant moments in the city’s history.

“On-Matsuri” of Kasuga Shrine, Nara (DEC 17)
The festival consists of a “gala procession of people masquerading as courtiers,
retainers and wrestlers in the past.”

These are just some of the events that pay tribute to the significant history of Japan, both people and places, that help pave the way for what Japan is today. Japan also takes pride in their shrines as most of its events are held there.

Disneyization of Japan

Disneyization “is the phenomenon through which more and more of the society begins to resemble a Disney theme park”. (Bryman, 2004) The four aspects of disneyization include theming, hybrid consumption, merchandising and performative labour.


According to Alan Bryman, “more and more areas of economic life are becoming themed.” Examples of themes are sports, music and literature.

An example of theming in Japan is the themed cafes. Themed cafes are very popular in Japan. An example is the spread of maid and cosplay cafes in Tokyo, Japan. The maid cafes or meido cafes started out in Akihabara, Tokyo, Japan. These cafes have a rather different concept from that of ordinary cafes. The waitresses are usually dressed up in fancy French maid costumes. They treat customers like how maids treat their masters and mistresses. This concept has spread to many parts of the world, including Singapore, where there has been an increase in these maid or cosplay cafes.

Another example of theming in Japan are its variety of themed love hotels. A love hotel is designed for couples to engage in sex and intimacy. At a love hotel, one can either stay for a few hours or spend the night there.

What is interesting is that these love hotels have different themes that suit the different needs and fantasies of kinky lovers. Below is a list of ten different eye-opening themes.

1.    Space Odyssey

Indulge in a space adventure of your own with your loved one

2. Hello Kitty S&M Room
Hello kitty is not just toys for kids anymore.

3.   The Chikan Express (train themed)

5. The Classroom

Hybrid consumption

Hybrid consumption means that different forms of consumption come together, making it hard to differentiate them from each other. An example of hybrid consumption evident in Japan is the Shinagawa Prince Hotel. It is Japan’s largest hotel and it combines comfortable accommodation with a variety of facilities and services such as an Espon Aqua Stadium, cinema complex, souvenir shops, bowling alleys and a beauty and relaxation floor offering services such as nail spa and foot massage. It is like a shopping mall within a hotel.
Cinema complex

                                                                   Souvenir shop

                                                            Beauty and relaxation corner

Merchandising refers “to the promotion of goods in the form of or bearing copyright images and logos, including such products made under licence”.

 Wood carving has played an important role in the Ainu culture. They carved small wooden statues and sold them as souvenirs to tourists in order to earn extra money. The most popular is the wooden “Bear with Salmon” statue. Bears are considered sacred creatures in the Ainu culture. It used to be seen only as religious objects. Its popularity increased rapidly when Japan’s Emperor Hirohito selected Matsui, a famous sculptor, to carve a bear for him. This led to an increased number of people buying them for their homes. The iconic “bear with salmon” carving is truly unique to the Ainu culture.

                                     An example of a modern Ainu bear carving

Reflection on tourism, culture and society
Overall, tourism, culture and society are linked. One cannot do without the other. Tourism impacts the society and tourism helps to sustain culture.
Tourism benefits the culture in both negative and positive ways. The Ainu culture is one that has been misunderstood by the Japan’s society. Not many know of the rich history the Ainu culture has. In fact, according to an article, it only got its status as an indigenous group in 2008. (Makino, 2008) Therefore, tourism will allow one to know more about this misunderstood culture, e.g by visting the Ainu village (kotan) or visiting the Ainu cultural museum. They can then help spread the word and educate the new generations as well.
Tourism also affects culture negatively, to a certain extent, as it can erode culture. In the process of commercializing culture, the culture may end up with a change in its values and beliefs.
Therefore, the society plays a major role in ensuring that the culture changes as little as possible and that tourists show mutual respect to the culture and not try to alter it

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