Laid-Back, but Committed: YouTuber Shares Charms of Ancestral Ainu Culture

Photo by Yomiuri Shimbun Senior Photographer Ryuzo Suzuki
“I appear to be the easiest one to understand, but I turn out to be the most difficult to understand. That’s what my cousins always say about me,” Maya Sekine said in a recent interview in Kanagawa Prefecture, where she is currently based.

Some say she’s a YouTuber devoted to passing down her ancestral language, others say she reminds them of the heroine of the popular manga “Golden Kamuy.” But Maya Sekine describes herself as just another person among many on the planet.

“Being Ainu and being a human being are not that much separate in me. I feel I’m just one individual,” Sekine said in a recent interview. She is often featured in the media in connection with her Ainu background, but for her, it is one of many elements that make up who she is. “I wouldn’t say to someone I meet for the first time, ‘Hi, hello, I’m Ainu,” she said with a laugh.

The 21-year-old university student is a familiar face to viewers of her YouTube channel on which she introduces the language and culture of the Ainu — the indigenous people mainly residing in Japan’s northernmost prefecture of Hokkaido. Sekine’s hometown of Biratori, Hokkaido, is known for the Nibutani district where Ainu culture and customs remain deeply rooted.

“I was looking for a medium that can lower barriers to the Ainu language, so that I can casually respond to people who have an interest in it,” Sekine said, describing how she started the channel after serving as a presenter on an Ainu language-learning radio program for a year.

With its genetic affiliation — a linguistic term for its relationship to other languages — remaining unknown, Ainu is classified as a language isolate. It is also listed by UNESCO as a critically endangered language.

In her YouTube videos, Sekine explains daily phrases, ranging from the basic “Where are you from?” to the advanced “Do you have someone you fancy?” Short conversational lessons with her friends are often filled with bursts of laughter. The laid-back atmosphere makes the language feel more approachable than one might imagine.

Believing that having a variety of offerings makes the channel more entertaining and motivates viewers to get a foot in the door of Ainu culture, she has also posted such content as cooking Ainu cuisine, playing the mukkuri mouth harp and introducing a demonstration of traditional weaving by her grandmother.

What she cares about most as a YouTuber is being truthful. “I say I don’t know what I don’t know. Just because I’m Ainu, it doesn’t mean I know everything about the culture, just like there aren’t many Japanese who know everything about the formation of Japanese history and language.”

Subscribers to her channel have grown to about 8,570 since its launch in April 2019. Her content is often described as activities dedicated to preserving and passing down the Ainu language and culture, but she confessed, chuckling: “I never planned it that way. It’s more like chatting away with my friends.”

“I enjoy my life as an Ainu and am proud of being Ainu because of my parents, the people in my hometown and my friends,” Sekine said. “What I learned from people who raised me was the fun and wonderful aspects of the Ainu culture. So I want to do that, too.”

■ Talking about today’s Ainu

Photo by Yomiuri Shimbun Senior Photographer Ryuzo Suzuki
Sekine, wearing Ainu-designed earrings, holds up a formal Ainu garment called a cikarkarpe, embroidered by her mother.

The Ainu language, lifestyle and customs were in danger of disappearing over the years due to the assimilation policy that the Japanese government put in place in the late 19th century.

According to a 2017 survey by the Hokkaido prefectural government, there were about 13,000 people who either have Ainu origin or live in Ainu communities in the prefecture. Some people chose to remain silent about their Ainu identities and others were never even told of their ancestral background, so the actual population of the Ainu is believed to be much higher.

In 2019, a law that for the first time stipulated that the Ainu are an indigenous people was enacted to promote measures to realize a society where the pride of the Ainu is respected. The following year, the first national museum and park featuring the history and culture of the Ainu opened in Shiraoi, Hokkaido. Its name, Upopoy is an Ainu word that means “singing together in a large group.”

With that recent development, taking several media interviews a week has become the norm for Sekine. The ongoing novel coronavirus pandemic also gives her more opportunities to speak online for school lectures and other events, enabling her to connect with people in distant places at home and abroad.

“Being a student, I’m easy to approach as a speaker. I guess this kind of approachability was lacking among Ainu people in the past,” she said matter-of-factly. “I believe even if they were willing to share with society who they are, with no proper means available they couldn’t do so.”

Sekine basically accepts every invitation to speak in media interviews and at events. “It’s only from my generation that we can talk about ourselves from an angle that is detached from our various historical backgrounds.

“This still might sometimes be the case, but in the past, interviewing the Ainu would require extra care in wording. We might be a minority. Our existence might be in danger. But the Ainu also have to understand that we just can’t keep asking people to know about us only for those reasons,” Sekine said.

Carefully choosing her words, she said: “It is actually the Ainu people who would tend to draw a line between the Ainu and the Japanese. They may think like: ‘Oh, this person is Japanese, so let’s talk about this topic.’ But are we trying to get to know the person individually with his or her background? Probably not. I’ve always felt frustrated by this since I was a child.”

While stressing the importance of never stopping efforts to understand the pain the Ainu people have lived with, she also believes the Ainu themselves need to turn their eyes to individuals of various other backgrounds at home and abroad. “I am Ainu, for sure. At the same time, I always want to put an emphasis on learning from others.”

■ Real-life ‘Golden Kamuy’ heroine?

Photo by Yomiuri Shimbun Senior Photographer Ryuzo Suzuki
Sekine sits in her apartment in Kanagawa Prefecture, where she lives with a guinea pig (not pictured) that she took home just before it would have been discarded by a pet shop.

Many of those who have read “Golden Kamuy” would agree that it has greatly contributed to stirring up their curiosity about the Ainu culture.

The award-winning manga, which was made into an animated TV series in 2018, is known for its detailed depiction of various aspects of Ainu customs, including garments and hunting methods. The reference list at the end of each volume can explain why mangaka Satoru Noda’s meticulous work is so convincing.

Hiroshi Nakagawa, a leading scholar of the Ainu language, said in his recent book that Sekine is “very much like Asirpa,” the main character of “Golden Kamuy,” who is described as a great hunter in the story.

Sekine is unfazed by such remarks.

She said confidently: “There are people who speak better Ainu and know more about the culture than I do, but there are not so many Ainu people who have the expertise in how to survive in the mountains in Hokkaido. I know how to collect edible wild plants and how I should appreciate animals for their lives to consume their meat, thanks to my family and my community.

“So, if people say I’m like Asirpa, I’m like, ‘Yeah, I’ll take it,’” she said with a grin.

Asked about her future ambition, Sekine said: “I love cooking and eating. I want to open a cafe where the waiters all speak Ainu, and the menu is written in Ainu. Interesting, isn’t it? I want to serve whatever I like, and the dishes wouldn’t all have to be Ainu.”

Despite all the media attention, Sekine remains humble and honest: “I have no intention to relay my messages to society as a whole. I don’t expect it to understand me either.

“If somehow I can bring about changes to society with my hard work, and they are passed down to future generations, I might be happy for that. But I’m not sure if I’ll be aware of that after I die. So right now I just do what I think most righteous, what I believe in and what I can enjoy most. That keeps me quite content.”

To watch Sekine’s videos, search for “sito_channel” on YouTube.