Ainu face masks

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The face mask has become a more defining feature of everyday life in the last few months than any of us in the West expected. Though it’s now a visible reminder of the coronavirus pandemic, in Japan they’ve been commonplace in hay fever season or as winter sets in and people catch colds. But why? If people suffer from an illness or allergy, they will usually wear a mask out of respect for their fellow humans – in the shop, on the train, walking along the street. It’s part of everyday life. However, a new fashion interest has been sparked through using traditional designs of Hokkaido’s indigenous Ainu people.

An Ainu group (1904)

The face masks, which are created by a small association in Noboribetsu, have been worn by the likes of Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga in press conferences and have raised a few eyebrows. The embroidered designs contain a single thread and include traditional Ainu patterns such as the Moreu (tornado) and the Aiushi (thorn), said to ward off evil. Although protecting from illness, these face masks are also raising awareness of the previously suppressed Ainu culture through design and stirring interest in the original people of Hokkaido.

Ainu design saving the culture (picture from Kyodo News)

The indigenous Ainu people of Japan’s now northern main island were persecuted, and their culture banned by the Japanese during the Meiji period (1868-1912) when the northern island was incorporated into Japan. It was only in 2008 that the government officially recognized Ainu as a ‘minority of group’ in Japan. Since then, there has been a revival of Ainu culture and recognition of the people. Huge amounts have been invested into the new Unpopoy National Ainu Museum which is due to open in Hokkaido this year (although is currently delayed due to the pandemic). The traditional mask design created by the small group in the northern island has at least sparked awareness and interest in the Ainu and its culture – especially with the help of the Chief Cabinet Secretary.

According to Kyodo News, the Noboribetsu Association of 8 people, have since received orders of over 500 masks and work hard to supply demand.

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