Indigenous Ainu taonga gifted to Te Papa

On Wellington’s waterfront, Te Papa Tongarewa houses Aotearoa’s taonga.

And now, it holds taonga from the Ainu people, a people indigenous to Hokkaido and northern Japan.

Last week, a group of Ainu artists were welcomed to Te Papa with a pōwhiri. Among them were embroiderer and illustrator Sayo Ogasawara, carver and hunter Atsushi Monbetsu, printmaker, carver, and musician Koji Yuki.

Ainu elder and embroiderer Akemi Shimada also travelled with them, bringing an attus (robe), kaparamip (a kimono-like garment), and an oshikesaranip (shoulder bag).

Four Ainu artists stand in a row wearing traditional cultural garb

The Ainu delegation welcomed at Te Papa on January 30. From left: Atsushi Monbetsu, Sayo Ogasawara, Akemi Shimada and Koji Yuki. Image: Norm Heke/Te Papa

This selection of taonga – made by her own hands – was part of a gift to Te Papa, a gift that acknowledged and honoured the relationship between Māori and Ainu.

The timing was significant: January 2024 marked 100 years of Māori-Ainu relations.

In 1924, Tāhupotiki Wiremu Rātana, founder of Rātana Church, embarked on a world tour. Travelling in a party of 38 – including his wife and children - Rātana headed for England, hoping to present a petition to King George V calling for the return of confiscated Māori land and for the Crown to honour the Treaty of Waitangi.

Koji Yuki (front) enters the marae in Te Papa with Ainu taonga to gift. Image: Norm Heke/Te Papa

His group travelled to London but were never allowed to meet with the king. Instead, they turned to Europe – Geneva specifically - hoping to take their petition to the League of Nations.

Again, they were unsuccessful and after months away, the group turned towards home, travelling through Asia. On their way, they stopped in Japan. That is where Rātana met Juji Nakata, a Christian bishop of Ainu heritage.

The pair became friends, and Nakata even travelled to Aotearoa in 1927, to open the Rātana temple.

A century after Rātana and Nakata first met, the ties between Ainu and Māori have grown.

Akemi Shimada speaks to attendees after the pōwhiri. Image: Norm Heke/Te Papa

The visit by Akemi and other Ainu artists to Te Papa is just the latest in a series of connections between the two cultures. The Ainu group were here travelling with a wider Ainu exhibition called Ramat Kor Kur, featuring works from all four artists. The exhibition was launched at Te Auaha in Wellington in late January and has moved up to the Hihiaua Cultural Centre in Whangārei.  

Akemi has a long history with Aotearoa and Māori. She is chair and founder of the Aotearoa Ainu Mosir Exchange Programme, which was set up to empower Ainu by learning from Maori-led revitalisation efforts around preserving indigenous identity and language. Under this programme, Māori and Ainu have travelled back and forth between the two countries to meet.

She has travelled to Aotearoa in the past and has even been inspired to create a marae-like space for Ainu in Tokyo, after her visits here.

Some of Akemi's gifted taonga. On the left is a kaparamip (a kimono-like garment) and on the right is a oshikesaranip (twine shoulder bag). Images: Supplied

The Ainu-Māori connection is an important one for the indigenous group of northern Japan. 

Akemi directly acknowledged this when speaking to iwi at Te Papa, saying Māori helped her “stand up” with pride in her culture.

It was only in 2008 that Ainu were acknowledged as the indigenous people of Japan. Even then, it wasn’t until 2019 that the Japanese government passed a bill legally recognising Ainu and the need to protect their culture. Māori language and cultural revitalisation efforts over the decades have given Ainu a blueprint to grow their own culture after generations of Japanese colonisation.

Alongside Akemi’s gifted handmade taonga, the Ainu artists also gifted a Casi An Kar photographic booklet that documents Ainu and Māori performances at a 2017 Ainu Thanksgiving Festival, as well as an Aotearoa Ainumosir Exchange Programme T-shirt.

The Ramat Kor Kur exhibition is supported by the Asia New Zealand Foundation.

Banner image courtesy of Te Papa. Photo: Norm Heke

- Asia Media Centre