Remembering Sashima: Champion for Ainu Rights

Ainu Currents Post 8
Remembering Sashima: Champion for Ainu Rights

On February 6th, 2024, the Ainu community of Hokkaido suffered a significant loss with the sudden passing of Masaki Sashima, chairman of the Raporo Ainu Nation in Urahoro Town. Sashima, a tireless advocate for Ainu rights, died at the age of 73. Sashima was more than just a leader; he was a relentless advocate for the Ainu people. Shaped by experiences of childhood discrimination, he was fueled by an unwavering determination to reclaim Ainu dignity and restore their cultural and legal rights.

One of Sashima’s most notable achievements was spearheading the fight to repatriate Ainu ancestral remains held by research institutions across Japan. Through legal battles, he successfully secured the return of their ancestors from prestigious institutions such as the University of Tokyo. However, Sashima’s vision extended beyond repatriation. He recognized that cultural survival necessitated the reclamation of traditional rights and their integration into everyday life.  As Sashima himself stated, “Culture not rooted in daily life will disappear. We will show everyone we have lived here.”

While serving as chairman of the Raporo Ainu Nation, Sashima led a landmark lawsuit in 2020. This lawsuit demanded recognition of the Ainu’s inherent right to fish salmon in the rivers of their traditional homelands. A verdict is expected in April, and a positive outcome could be a crucial turning point for Ainu self-determination.

Hiroki Nagane, Sashima’s successor as chairman, has declared his intention to “carry on Masaki’s will and fight for the indigenous rights lawsuit,” reflecting the resolute spirit of the Raporo Ainu Nation.

In a separate event carrying on Sashima’s spirit, the Tokachi Ainu Association held an international symposium on February 18th to promote understanding of Indigenous rights. This symposium built upon a joint declaration compiled during a prior symposium held in Sapporo City’s Kita Ward.  Approximately 100 individuals, including the prominent Ainu activist, artist, and poet Shizue Ukaji (age 90), participated in a debriefing session held at the Hokkaido Christian Center following the symposium.