Ainu Musician, OKI – fRoots 1999

I first heard the music of Ainu musician OKI, when he released his first album in 1996. It was released without much fanfare at the time, but I thought it was remarkable and included a track on the first edition of the Rough Guide to Japan CD. I met him at a concert and soon after he was a guest on my radio show in Japan. I didn’t write about him until a few years later, an interview for the Japan Times and fRoots. I’ve interviewed him a few times since and have toured with him in the UK and Europe. Probably the best interview I did though, was for CBC Radio in Canada in 2009, when I went to Oki’s home in Hokkaido and stayed with him for a few days. You can listen to that programme, titled Ainu Country, here. This though is that first interview as it appeared in fRoots magazine just after the release of his second album, Hankapuy.

“When I realised the origin of my blood, I knew this blood was going to be burning” says Oki, “but first I had to find out how to make it burn”. With the release of his second album, “Hankapuy”, it’s clear that Oki, a musician of mixed Japanese and Ainu (indigenous Japanese) blood has come a long way on his own personal journey and in the process has created a startling album.

42 year old Oki (Kano, his Ainu name, Chikar MilIawoy) was born in Kanagawa prefecture, next to Tokyo, to a Japanese mother and an Ainu father. “My parents separated when I was 4 or 5, then my mother married a Japanese guy, and I believed he was my father. Strangely enough my nickname at school was ‘Ainu’, so I always knew there was something, but that door to my ancestry was locked, in fact I didn’t even know about the existence of the door.” He learnt of his Ainu ancestry when he was 24, and suffering from ‘an identity crisis’ moved to New York ‘to be a nobody’. He worked on special effects for films, before returning to Japan to work as an art director for a film production company. “I really wanted to be successful, but the company collapsed after 3 months. I then visited Hokkaido, (the ancestral home of the Ainu, the Northern Island of Japan) it was time for me to think about life. I tried to be a documentary maker, and when I was filming in Kyoto, I realised I should be on the other side of the camera.”


Although a keen music lover, especially of rock, blues and reggae, he had no musical background, and at first bought a bass guitar before his cousin gave him a tonkori. A long, skinny, stringed instrument, the tonkori was thought of by the Ainu as a living thing, with a heart and a ‘hankapuy’ a belly button. “I don’t want to make this sound mythical or anything, but when my cousin gave me a tonkori, I felt it was a sign, that somebody was giving me a message, saying ‘you have to work hard, but we can’t give you any money!’” Oki had found his Ainu spirit, Kamuy. “Kamuy is a spirit that is watching me, you feel Kamuy when walking in mountains in Hokkaido, but for me, Kamuy is more than a religion, Kamuy is Life.”

He studied about indigeneous people’s rights and contacted the United Nations in Geneva and the CHR (Committee for Human Rights) in an attempt to find his role. “Now that role is clear, I have to show the Ainu kids a new persepective. If they come to my concert, and I start talking about land rights it doesn’t reach them, but if they listen to my music and I say ‘let’s dance the grasshopper’ that’s an exciting activity. ” The grasshopper dance, or ‘Battaki’ in Ainu, is a spectacle that requires an enormous amount of energy- the CD comes complete with instructions.

“Many Japanese are supporting Ainu rights, and although there is more awareness, there is still racism. Racism exists on two levels, one is the everyday kind of racism at school, or say when Ainu want to marry a Japanese and the parents are opposed to it. The other level is on the government level. The government is very clever though, and makes the Ainu lifestyle the same as for Japanese, although Ainu have a lower income and standard of education. The government can then say they are supporting the Ainu, without giving us rights, such as fishing or land rights. So we have to do something, and that something is music.”

Oki sees some parallels between himself and the Australian Aborigine group Yothu Yindi. “Their strategy for the land back movement was music, and they caught the mainstream of Australian society, but we can’t be like them because of our internal problems. Some Ainu hate me, not because of anything to do with the Ainu issue, but because of jealousy. They say ‘your voice will never reach Australia’, but I say, ‘you keep barking at me, I don’t care’!” .

‘Hankapuy’ encompasses a wide ranges of influences, including reggae although most songs are traditional. “It’s hard to define if the CD is traditional or not” says Oki, “but it follows the concept of Sakhalin Island, (now part of Russia), and the Karafuto Ainu, who created the tonkori long ago. The Ainu were good traders, they dealt with Russians, Chinese and Japanese. We have always had a good talent to digest and put more strength and beauty into something than the original, and my concept is the same.” The result is often a mesmerising and hypnotic mix of chants and rhythms such as on the opening track “Isokaari Irekte”, the rhythm of the tonkori evoking a bear pacing in it’s cage. “When Ainu sing” explains Oki, ” we’re not singing for people, but the audience is the bear.”

Important collaborators on the album are 68 year old Umeko Ando, a respected Ainu singer and mukkuri (jew’s harp) player and Japanese sax and clarinet player Kazutoki Umezu. ” Umeko lives in Obihiro,(in the centre of Hokkaido) and when I went there to play a concert I called her up and asked her to come along. She said she would as long as there was no rehearsal, as Ainu music, she said, is improvisation. I then asked her to join the recording.

I met Umezu last year when we played on the same bill. I was tuning my tonkori and he was tuning his clarinet, and we started making music and it sounded so good, we decided to record together.” Oki receives occasional invitations from abroad, and is about to go to Washington DC for the opening of an Ainu exhibition at the Smithsonian Institute. Nevertheless, he is reluctant to become cast as a spokesperson for Ainu rights. “I’m talking about Ainu people too much, but we need more time to find out who we are, because so many Ainu have an identity crisis and are kind of floating in between. Ainu culture is in danger, it started dying 300 years ago when the Japanese government forbid our culture. So I don’t have time for the indigenous rights issue, my first priority is to sing. That’s good for the next generation and for our ancestors. I can share a feeling through music. As Bob Marley said, ‘Music Makes the World Go Round. Everybody feel no pain’.”


Here’s Oki Dub Ainu Band filmed in 2007 in Portugal

And here’s a new song, released October 2014 on 7 inch vinyl, Sumar Mukar available to buy here


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