- The Fabric of Indigeneity: Ainu Identity, Gender, and Settler Colonialism in Japan by ann-elise lewallen
The Fabric of Indigeneity and Ainu Identity is excellent, informative, and insightful. This thought-provoking book is about contemporary Ainu women artists' efforts in cultural revival and vitalization as they perform cloth work (sewing, embroidery, appliqué, etc.). It is a must-read for anyone [End Page 469] who wants to study about Japan, especially the Ainu, a racial and ethnic minority group.
In this book, ann-elise lewallen covers the long history of the Ainu and the Japanese in general, with her main focus on the period between the end of World War II and 2008. The author guides her readers through the major social and historical events of the Ainu, including the Ainu Cultural Promotion Act of 1997, which led to the revival of Ainu culture. She also provides context on political and cultural backgrounds surrounding the relationship between the Ainu and the wajin (non-Ainu Japanese). This contextual understanding is indispensable for analyzing racism, the gendered nature of settler colonialism, and contemporary women's cloth work and its significance.
Throughout the book, lewallen introduces readers to the history of the Ainu. The ancestors of the Ainu lived in the Ainu mosir (Ainu homeland, including the Kuril Islands, Sakhalin, Hokkaido, and the northern part of Honshu). The Japanese government claimed Ezo (non-Japanese territories in the northern part of today's Japan) in the fifteenth century, and colonization started in 1604. Ezo was renamed Hokkaido, and formal settler colonialism started in 1869. The wajin engaged in colonial violence, and they brought diseases unknown to the Ainu (such as smallpox, sexually transmitted infection, and measles). They instituted forced labor camps that placed Ainu men far from their homes and families and pushed the Ainu women to become "local wives" of the wajin settlers. Today's Ainu live mostly in Hokkaido and in metropolitan areas near Tokyo. The author brings her description of the Ainu up to the present by highlighting the rise of citizens' groups tackling the problem of hate speech that affects not only the Ainu but other ethnic minorities in contemporary Japan.
The Ainu are socially and politically categorized as an ethnic collectivity in Japan, but they are not a monolithic group. Regional, social, and cultural differences are found among different Ainu groups as well as between Ainu women and men. Wajin babies and children left behind by their settler parents who could not succeed in Hokkaido were often adopted by the Ainu people and brought up as Ainu. These people may look like Japanese physically but they self-identify as Ainu.
Throughout the book, lewallen describes and explains the relationship between women's craftwork and their identity as well as the relationship between their work and the settler patriarchy and formal colonialism that started in 1869. I found the book unique in that its main focus is on Ainu women artists' craftwork as it relates to Indigenous modernity and self-identification.1 The term "Indigenous modernity" seems to be a contradiction, [End Page 470] but lewallen explains it in a convincing manner. The threads of the Ainu women artists' lives in the contemporary world and those of their Ainu ancestors' lives under settler colonialism are beautifully woven together by the author.
The history of the Ainu is essentially the same as that of other Indigenous people in North and South America, Oceania, and elsewhere. Many of these groups have been exposed to colonialism, settler colonialism, racism, ethnic cleansing, exploitation, oppression, violence, and social stigma. Women almost always became objects of sexism and sexual violence as well.
The author introduces the experiences of various Indigenous groups in Japan (those of Okinawa, for example) and in other countries (such as India under British rule and Aboriginal communities in Canada and Australia). She compares and contrasts them with those of the Ainu to make her points. This comparative approach helps readers to situate the unique experiences of the Ainu in...