The only Ainu restaurant in Tokyo. The statement is at once provocative and truthful, setting the tone for the story of Teruyo Usa, who opened the restaurant Harukor to honour her Ainu ancestors, the Indigenous people of northern Japan. Through this feature on travel and food website Gastro Obscura, I explore the history and contemporaneity of the Ainu, whose native land of Hokkaido was colonised by the Japanese in the second half of the 19th Century, while the Ainu of Sakhalin and the Kuril Islands were caught in the conflict over these territories between Russia, which currently lays claim to them, and Japan. Subjected to a policy of assimilation, Ainu people lost their traditional way of life and were forced to become Japanese citizens. This process of cultural erasure, however, wasn’t entirely successful – a fact on display at Harukor, where dishes passed on by generations of Indigenous descendants are served to a heterogenous crowd of Native, Japanese and foreign diners.
Based on extensive interviews with Usa and accompanied by Irwin Wong‘s photos, the article delves deep into Usa’s complex family history and details her ingenuity in reviving and sharing her culture through the universal medium of food. It draws parallels between the conditions of her ancestors and those experienced by Ainu people today, connecting yesterday’s process of cultural erasure with today’s cultural renaissance made possible by brave Indigenous activists fighting to reclaim a space for their identity in defiance of modern-day discrimination and past colonial legacies.
Accompanying the piece is a page dedicated to Harukor in Gastro Obscura’s Places section.