A landmark case pits the indigenous people of Hokkaido against a local university holding the majority of a series of human remains of uncertain origins.
Based on a yearlong survey, the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology revealed earlier this year that the bones of over 1,600 Ainu are still being stored at 11 universities across the country. These remains were taken from grave sites primarily in Hokkaido, but also from Sakhalin and the Kuril Islands (both now part of Russia), between 1873 and 2011, for the purpose of carrying out studies on the skulls. At the center of the controversy is Hokkaido University, which is holding the majority of the remains — those of 1,027 individuals. A lawsuit has been filed against the university by a group of Ainu from the Kineusu kotan,* seeking to have their ancestor’s bones returned. [...]This is the first case where the Ainu people have argued for their aboriginal title to be recognized in a Japanese court, and also the first time they have demanded the return of their ancestors’ skulls and bones - under Japan’s Civil Code, human remains can only be transferred to an individual who is a direct descendant or proven blood relative of the deceased, the Ainu community is arguing that the bones of the kotan’s members belong to the whole kotan as a tribe, not to an individual.
the university’s position has hardened in recent years, making it more difficult for Ainu who want their ancestors’ remains returned. “Hokkaido University now insists the individual Ainu must prove ownership of the bones — I think that is impossible. I do not know its reasons, but I guess Hokkaido University wants to carry out DNA research on these bones.” The circumstances by which the universities came into possession of the Ainu remains are murky, in part because of the time that has elapsed since most of the exhumations occurred — 140 years in some cases.[...] very little in the way of reliable records exists detailing the circumstances surrounding the removal of the remains. Ainu argue there is evidence that in at least some cases bones were stolen, but it also seems likely, considering the poverty in which the Ainu lived at that time, that in other cases money may have changed hands. Hokkaido University Vice-President Takashi Mikami refutes the claim that remains were stolen and says they have found “no documents that suggest grave robbery.”Unlike in contemporary Japanese Buddhist ceremonies, where cremation is the norm, traditionally Ainu have always buried the dead and, according to Kato, this is a way to ensure their “spirit remains connected to the family.”
Simon Scott, 'Ainu fight for return of plundered ancestral remains', Japan Times Aug 12, 2013.
[see also: 'The Ainu: persecuted, ‘assimilated’ people of Japan’s far north']
* “Kotan” means both village and tribe in the Ainu language and was the central unit of social organization in traditional Ainu society.