TOKYO—When Tsubasa Okitsu was growing up in northern Japan, he was ashamed of his heritage as an Ainu, an indigenous ethnic group that has long suffered discrimination in a country where many take pride in cultural homogeneity. "In the past, I rejected myself as an Ainu," he said, recalling on how his classmates teased him for looking different.
Now the 27-year-old Okitsu has come to terms with his identity as a member of a group of young Ainu musicians and dancers who blend traditional strains and modern hip-hop in hopes of boosting broader awareness of their rich culture. "We wanted to do something new and cool to improve the status of the Ainu people," Okitsu told Reuters during a recent performance of the group called "Ainu Rebels."
"The way we do it is by playing music and adding our own arrangements and ideas," added Okitsu, clad in a full-length navy Ainu cloak adorned with white scrolling—and trendy diamond studs sparkling on each ear.
A hunting and gathering people thought to be descendants of early inhabitants of Japan who were later displaced mainly to the northern island of Hokkaido, the Ainu have a culture and language distinctive from those of ethnic Japanese. Deep-set eyes, muscular bodies and heavier body hair for men distinguish their appearance, although the differences have blurred through intermarriage.
Okitsu, a half-Japanese, half-Ainu lover of hip-hop, founded the Ainu Rebels with other young Ainu living in the Tokyo region over a year ago, creating one of the first performance groups of its kind mixing traditional Ainu culture with hip-hop and rock.
The group plays traditional Ainu instruments such as the mukkuri (jaw harp), sings Ainu poems in the native tongue, raps in Japanese about the harsh experiences of being Ainu and arranges traditional dance steps to rock and hip-hop beats.
The group's only rap song in Ainu is based on a traditional 'yukar' song, an epic about totemic gods and ancestral heroes.
Fusing Old and New
The fusion of old and new has sparked criticism from some who favor a more pristine approach to preserving the culture.
"Some people say that this is not traditional, that this is not Ainu culture," said Mina Sakai, the 24-year-old leader of Ainu Rebels.
"We think that culture is something that constantly changes. We are confident that we have the spirit -- the spirit that we want to do something, to express something about the Ainu."
Beginning in 1869, the government forced Ainu to change their names, banned traditional hunting and started encouraging ethnic Japanese to settle in Hokkaido.
About 24,000 Ainu now live in Hokkaido, although numbers are imprecise since many still hide their heritage, but their native language is nearly extinct, with just a handful of fluent speakers. Ainu Rebel members are taking language classes, but still have to look up words in a dictionary when writing lyrics.
Despite decades of intermarriage and assimilation, discrimination remains strong in Hokkaido.
Surveys show persistent gaps in income and education, and members of Ainu Rebels still recall being bullied as kids. "Most of the group's members used to hate the fact that they are Ainu and had a complex," Sakai said.
Performing in the band is a way both to accept their own ethnicity and raise social awareness of Ainu culture. "Now we are confronting ourselves," Sakai said. "We want people to know the Ainu are here and to know more about the Ainu, and see that we are full of life and proud to be Ainu."
Promoting cultural diversity can be tough in Japan, where many take pride in what they consider a homogeneous culture despite the presence of minorities such as the Ainu and ethnic Koreans, many of whom are descendants of people brought to Japan as forced laborers before and during World War Two.
Just last month, an opposition party executive had to apologize for jokingly referring to himself and his ruling party counterpart as "barbarians of Ainu origin".
A law to promote Ainu culture by funding language and craft classes and traditional arts was passed in 1997 after a campaign led by Shigeru Kayano, the first Ainu member of parliament, though some activists say the law fell short by failing to force Japanese to face up to their past mistreatment of the minority.
Ainu groups are now pressing for official recognition as an indigenous people to help boost the minority's status, a step critics say the government is reluctant to take for fear of demands to return land that once belonged to Ainu. Legal status aside, reaching out through music can help deepen communication with Japanese society, says Koji Yuki, whose "Ainu Art Project" rock band set a precedent for the Ainu Rebels by performing in Hokkaido for the past seven years.
"By using the important cultural tool of music instead of speaking to an audience from a stage, Ainu feelings can be communicated differently," he said. "I think it's very effective."