Three Views of Lake Akan

The IPinCH Team at Lake Akan

By George NicholasJoe Watkins, and Sheila Greer

In January 2011, members of the IPinCH Project travelled to Lake Akan in Hokkaido, northern Japan, to participate in a symposium on intellectual property with our Ainu and Japanese colleagues. 


The event was sponsored by the Center for Ainu and Indigenous Studies (Hokkaido University), organized by Professors Teruki Tsunomoto and Hirofumi Kato. Afterwards, the IPinCH team made a return visit to the community of Nibutani, which they had visited in 2009. In the following three essays, George Nicholas, Joe Watkins, and Sheila Greer share some of their thoughts on their journey.


George Nicholas

When I was growing up, spending time exploring National Geographic magazine was a frequent pastime. It was here that I first encountered the Ainu, that very distinct population of northern Japan and the Sakhalin Islands. The men were bearded; the women had facial tattoos; they practiced shamanism; they raised and sacrificed bears. Their customs and distinct physical features contributed to my developing interest in cultural diversity, which led me to anthropology and archaeology. Years later, working on my dissertation I read ethnographies of the Ainu by Hitoshi Watanabe and others to provide information that could help me in understanding the land-use patterns of ancient peoples in North America. What I never anticipated was that I would today be working directly with Ainu communities.  

It was only in 2008 that the Ainu were officially recognized as an “indigenous” by the Japanese government. This was a major victory for the Ainu who had long sought not only such recognition but also the start of restitution of rights after centuries of Japanese domination. In addition to disenfranchisement, discrimination, threats to their culture, many important heritage sites had destroyed by the construction, including the Nibutani Dam project, which had been undertaken without any consultation with the Ainu.

My involvement with these people is an extension of the work I’ve been doing with Indigenous peoples over the last 20 years. This began with my development of the archaeology program at SFU’s Kamloops campus, directed to Secwepemc and other First Nations peoples, and then expanded to connect me with indigenous groups worldwide. My growing awareness of issues confronting them, and of other challenges all descendant communities face concerning the tangible and intangible aspects of cultural heritage, led to the development of the Intellectual Property Issues in Cultural Heritage (IPinCH) project that I direct.

IPinCh is an international consortium of over 50 scholars and 25 partner communities and organizations that is investigating how and why concerns and harms about intellectual property emerge, and how best can they be avoided or resolved ( One component of this seven-year project is a set of 15 case studies that investigate local heritage at ground level, which are co-developed with indigenous communities. We currently have projects underway in Canada, the United States, and New Zealand, with others slated for additional countries, including Japan.

In 2009 Joe Watkins and I were invited to speak on the IPinCH project at a symposium at Hokkaido University that our colleague Hirofumi Kato organized. Participating in this event were representatives from several Ainu communities and organizations, as well as interested Japanese scholars. The symposium was of great interest to the Ainu because, following their recent official recognition, they were starting to consider how to develop heritage policies and protocols, and were looking for guidance. The IPinCH project is well placed to offer assistance at this critical time in their history.

That trip to Japan was my first and fulfilled a life-long dream. I was (and still am) entranced with the northern island of Hokkaido. And as an anthropologist (under my archaeologist shell), I remain fascinated by Ainu culture and want to learn more about not only their past but also how they will retain and protect the core cultural values that contribute to the Ainu way of life. Their worldview is steeped in animistic beliefs, which are reflected in their material culture both today and in the past. Hirofumi has been excavating Ainu ancestral sites and finding numerous bear skulls, pointing to the antiquity of the ethnographically known bear ceremony.

Last month I returned to Hokkaido, this time cold and snow-covered, for a second symposium on indigenous intellectual and cultural property held at Lake Akan on the southeast part of the island. I was accompanied by four other IPinCH team members and associates: Joe Watkins, TJ Ferguson, Sheila Greer, Leigh Kuwanwisiwma (Director, Hopi Cultural Preservation Office), and Diane Strand (former Chief, Champagne and Ashihik First Nations). Also participating in the symposium were Ainu, Japanese, and Taiwanese scholars and community members.

I was honored to give the keynote presentation that opened the symposium, speaking on the the challenges of cultural and intellectual property in heritage contexts, and how the IPinCH project was working to facilitate more equitable protection and access to knowledge. My talk was followed by an all-day session in which the presenters explored many different facets of cultural heritage, with the goal of finding common understanding of, and solutions to, many of the issues affecting the Ainu and other indigenous peoples. Very few of the attendees spoke English, and we understood no Japanese) so simultaneous translation via earphones was necessary.

The next day was spent touring Lake Akan, which is a popular tourist destination for the natural beauty of this wilderness area, the hot springs, and for Ainu culture. At this location the Ainu are working with local Japanese entrepreneurs to develop cultural tourism. Some of the new hotels in Lake Akan incorporate Ainu carvings and textiles in the decor, and provide a venue in which to showcase local crafts and culture.

From there, Joe, TJ, Hirofumi, and I were off to the village of Nibutani, which I had visited on my previous trip. Arriving early evening, we were taken to a small restaurant where a wonderful feast was laid out for us on a long low table in this tatami room. Here we met with various members of the Hokkaido Ainu Association, including two who had attended an IPinCH workshop last October. In addition to dining on sashimi, tempura and some rather “challenging” traditional dishes, much of the evening was spent in conversation with senior Ainu men discussing the heritage concerns of the Nibutani community, which will help us develop an IPinCH case study there. Such negotiations require care and patience, considering the cultural differences and language challenges, as well as different conceptions of what constitutes heritage.

The concerns that the Nibutani Ainu have about the tangible and intangible aspects of their heritage include access to collections of archaeological and ethnographic materials from Nibutani that now reside in museums outside of Japan; protection of traditional knowledge of the land obtained both from elders and from recent research projects conducted on their lands; and protection of traditional village emblems and designs from appropriation from outsiders. These are challenging tasks, especially as the Ainu are not trying to restrict access to much of their heritage but rather to develop more respectful and equitable use of it by others.


Sheila Greer

I am very appreciative of having had the opportunity to participate in the IPinCH Lake Akan workshop. Two weeks plus after returning home from the Hokkaido trip, however, I still find myself "processing" what I experienced, particularly as I try to explain to my First Nations colleagues the purpose of workshop, and answer their questions about who I met with, who invited us to Hokkaido, and what was achieved, and so on. Most of the ensuing dialogue seemed to involve me sharing my insights into the rights of the Ainu as an indigenous people (or lack of rights), rather than intellectual property issues per se, and of course, wondering how those rights can be advanced. I suggest that Canadian indigenous leaders who have been through the "comprehensive land claims negotiation process" have much to offer, and would be able to provide useful insights into situations where 'rights progress' might be achievable in the Ainu context. For example, the presence of a national park in the Lake Akan area, could represent an opportunity for the Lake Akan Ainu to begin a dialogue with the national park system of Japan on "land-based rights".

The next few years will be critical for the Ainu, as they respond to being officially recognized by the government of Japan as an indigenous people. Extensive work will be needed my all members of Ainu society in order to achieve the basic rights that should be forthcoming to them as the indigenous people of Japan. This work will have an added benefit of helping to "jell" or bring forward Ainu political leadership and governing structures - the same structures that are needed for their people to make progress in the ways they (not some external individual, body or institution) want, and to address IP issues that the Ainu representatives expressed in their workshop presentations or private conversations as being of concern.

The Lake Akan experience provided much to reflect on. I found myself rethinking my assessment [read "judgement"] of traditional Ainu dance done for purpose of entertaining tourists, and consequently have shifted my thinking somewhat on "cultural tourism". I certainly gained insights into my own role in working with Yukon First Nations on heritage issues, but at this point I am left with more questions about, than answers to the Ainu situation  - particularly to speculating on the role of the anthropologist in effecting change that the Ainu want to see in their lives, change that they believe will benefit their people. I look for direction from Ainu spokespeople on these matters - while being willing to help in whatever way I can to facilitate contact with Canadian indigenous political leaders.  

There were many highlights to the workshop. Dr. Ito's presentation on efforts to address the market for Hopi and Zuni jewellery (real versus knock-off) in Japan seemed to me to be applied anthropology at its best. Leigh Kuwanwisiwma conveyed the cultural values that guide the cultural preservation program of the Hopi people in a way that reading a paper on this subject could never have. Dr. Haung's presentation on the new law drafted to protect indigenous Taiwanese artistic designs and creations was inspirational to say the least - I will be watching with great interest as this new law in implemented. All of the presentations were informative, representing different pieces of the IP puzzle - showing how broad the IPinCH topic area is, but also how inter-related the different perspectives are. The translators, both those who helped with the workshop and those who assisted in informal settings were fantastic and must be thanked; their patience and sharing greatly enhanced the experience of the non-Japanese speaking guests. The informal dialogue with other members of the IPinCH family around meals and during social events was an added bonus - the therapy that helps one place their own work and situation in the bigger social/political/temporal context.


Joe Watkins

The presentation on the IPinCH Program in the Lake Akan symposium was met with interest and expectation by the local Ainu population. I am unsure what their expectations were regarding our ability to help them protect their intellectual property, but they were interested in trying to find ways to get our help. The presentation provided them with information about the program and ways other groups are responding to intellectual property issues, but it is my perception that the Ainu are not at the point where they can act as a single group.

Each region seems to have its own issues and needs – the Lake Akan group is interested in cultural tourism issues while the Nibutani/Biratori group is interested in regaining access to artistic designs and material that currently reside in museums and other locations. I believe the groups recognize the diversity of intellectual property as well as the diversity of ways of approaching its protection. The majority of the presentations were aimed primarily at legal definitions and regulatory approaches to intellectual property protection. While the audience was interested in these aspects, I believe they were hoping more for on-the-ground ways of protecting their cultural and intellectual property. I believe our ability to pull together examples of ways things are being put to use among Indigenous populations on a worldwide scale will be of enormous benefit to the Ainu, especially if we can help them adapt the strategies to local situations.

It is my perception that the local groups are uncertain of their relationship with the Japanese government and indeed the world in relation to intellectual property. There is perhaps a misperception as to what that property is, whether it can be “owned” by individual artists or whether it has to be a group ownership, whether the group (however defined) has the right to prevent others from using it (including individual artists), and whether the group can find a way to control rights to those designs or marks that they perceive to be “Ainu”. This may also be a globally issue in the ways that Indigenous groups perceive ownership at the group level as opposed to individual rights to “use” (as opposed to “own”) group property.

Ultimately, I believe it necessary for the Ainu to develop some way of creating an organizational structure that recognizes regional variance in needs as well as a more formal way of offering a united Ainu voice to their issues—IP and other broader issues. The Japanese government currently uses the Hokkaido Ainu Association as the “Ainu voice,” and yet it was created primarily as a mechanism for providing welfare and financial aid to the Ainu. Many Ainu did not participate within its programs, and others were dropped when no longer eligible for its programs. The local groups within Hokkaido and Honshu islands recognize their membership, but the lack of a national mechanism has hindered development of a cohesive approach to Ainu social, legal, and cultural issues.


Photo: The IPinCH Team at Lake Akan (from left): Sheila Greer, Hirofumi Kato, Joe Watkins, TJ Ferguson, George Nicholas, Leigh Kuwanwisiwma, Diane Strand. Courtesy of George Nicholas.