From Crafts to Agency: The Legacy of Colonial Discourses in Exhibiting the Ainu in the Tokyo National Museum and National Museum of Ethnology at Osaka between 1977 and 2017

Edwin Pietersma


The Ainu are indigenous groups of people found in Hokkaido and northeast Honshu, Japan. During the nineteenth century, their land was integrated into the Japanese empire and the people redefined and assimilated. While intended to erase the Ainu as distinct groups, policies and discourses also showed that Ainu communities were not accepted as belonging to the category of ‘Japanese’, with the notions that they lacked Japanese ingenuity and civilization, were stuck in a prehistoric past, and lived in terra nullius. These discourses influenced the formation of museums’ collections in Japan, such as the Tokyo National Museum (TNM) and the National Museum of Ethnology in Osaka (Minpaku). By offering a reading of exhibitions on the Ainu and their accompanying catalogues between 1977 and 2017, this research sheds light on how colonial legacies continue to be shaped and challenged in representing Ainu communities in museums. The TNM seems unable to challenge tropes of this colonial discourse due to their intricate connection with the government, their notion of political neutrality, and their focus on art that tends to exclude the Ainu from the museum. Minpaku, on the other hand, has tried to introduce notions of cultural relativism and centre cooperation with Ainu communities to facilitate best practices.


Japan; Museums; Tokyo National Museum; National Museum of Ethnology; Ainu; Colonial legacy

Full Text:



Copyright (c) 2023 Edwin Pietersma

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.
We use both functional and performance cookies to improve visitor experience. Continue browsing if you are happy to accept cookies. Please see our Privacy Policy for more information.

Museum and Society

ISSN 1479-8360

University Home