In many ways Māori have lead the world in revitalising their traditional language and culture, and indigenous groups around the world are beginning to look to New Zealand for lessons in protecting their own indigenous language and culture.

One such effort is the Urespa Project, operating out of Japan’s northern island of Hokkaido, which aims to revitalise Japan’s indigenous Ainu’s culture and language. “Urespa” means “mutual nurturing” in the traditional language of the Ainu. As part of the project organisers have started bringing groups of students to New Zealand this year to learn more about how Māori have revitalised their own language and how that might be applied to revitalising the Ainu language and culture.

If you’ve never heard of the Ainu people, it is partly because after the Japanese government annexed Hokkaido in the 1800s they adopted a policy of assimilation, forcing many Ainu to speak Japanese, adopt Japanese names and cease traditional religious and cultural practices. The Ainu were only officially recognised as an indigenous group by the Japanese government in 2008.

As a result, while there are an estimated 200,000 people in Japan of Ainu descent, most have no knowledge of their ancestry so the official count is just 25,000. Of those 25,000, the number of native speakers of the Ainu language is said to be around 10.

“The Ainu policy in Japan is not very progressive compared to the policy of the New Zealand government concerning Māori, and unfortunately it cannot be said that the understanding of Ainu has deepened in recent years in Japan,” the founder of the Urespa Project Yuko Honda, who is a professor at Sapporo University, says.

The Urespa Project’s latest trip to New Zealand in September saw 15 students from an Ainu cultural society visit Māori businesses, education providers, media and marae across the North Island. These included the University of Auckland’s Te Puna Wānanga School of Māori and Indigenous Education, Te Wānanga o Aotearoa, the Māori medum schools of Te Wharekura o Rākaumangamanga, Te Whata Tau o Pūtauaki and Te Kura Motuhake o Tawhiau schools. The aim was to see how the revitalisation of Māori culture and language was fostered at all levels of New Zealand society.

“Before we arrived in Aotearoa, we read about language and culture revitalisation of Māori,” Sapporo University student Seiya Shinmachi says. “I was curious why Māori revitalisation was successful while Ainu is still very much endangered dispite the fact that we share very similar history.”

“As soon as I started to interact with Māori people in Aotearoa, I could see their strong sense of identity and their sense of pride to be Māori. I believe their strong identity makes them want to acquire and speak their language and learn about their own culture. Interacting with the Māori people made me want to learn my own language. I really want to learn it and speak it fluently like them. What I got most from the visit was the importance of a strong sense of identity and ethnic pride.”

Sapporo University student Takumi Ito said it was impressive to see Māori people who were able to perform waiata/traditional welcoming ceremonies, and that this showed the strength of culture and language revitalisation. They also witnessed a much more student-centric style of language teaching.

“Mr Waldo Houia asked us a few times during the class, ‘who is talking?’ and I believe it is a very important lesson since most of language classes that I attended, teachers are the ones doing the talking most of the time but in his class, students were the ones.”

Professor Honda says the aim of the project is to nurture future leaders who will carry on Ainu culture and language into the future to create a multicultural model where diverse cultures and people live and work together in Japan.

“I always think about how I can best convey the wonderfulness of the Ainu culture. I think that we will encounter much useful learning while in Aotearoa where Māori people have been pioneers of indigenous language revitalisation,” Professor Honda says.

“I very much want my students to see with their own eyes the actual situation of language and culture revitalization in Aotearoa. Since one of our aims is to create places for Ainu to study their language and culture whenever they wish, I am certain that we will learn a lot from Kohanga Reo and immersion programs.”

While at the University of Auckland the Ainu delegation were hosted by Te Whānau Maioha (Māori Medium Professional Learning and Development) and Te Huarahi Reo Māori. The Ainu students took part in learning te Reo Māori, Kapa Haka and Mau Rākau (traditional Māori martial arts). Te Puna Wananga senior lecturer Katarina Edmonds says the trip was also about building hope for students looking to revitalise traditional Ainu language and culture.

“It’s about letting them know there were no Kohanga Reo here prior to 1982 and now we have hundreds right across the country. Prior to that, te reo Māori was only offered as a class in secondary schools and at university, Māori studies were usually situated under anthropology.”

“They get to see how empowering it is to speak your own indigenous language even within the environs of the university. They loved actively engaging with our students in te reo Māori – our students would teach them something and they would teach us something in Ainu, or something about Ainu culture. It was a wonderful sharing of knowledge. To borrow a word from the Ainu language, it was about urespa – mutual nurturing. I hope to see another class back again next year.”

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