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Discovery Discovery November 2001
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Book by MSU Historian Highlights Japan's Native Population


by Evelyn Boswell

Brett Walker Japan may seem like a homogenous society, but it actually has a native population whose experiences are similar to those of the Native Americans, says a scholar of Japan at Montana State University-Bozeman.

Surprised when he heard of the Ainu people of Japan, Brett Walker investigated them under a Fulbright grant and has written a book titled "The Conquest of Ainu Lands: Ecology and Culture in Japanese Expansion 1590-1800." The book was published in September by University of California Press.

"I think the book would be of interest to people fascinated by the Native American story," said Walker, assistant professor of history and director of the Japan Studies Program at MSU.

Robert W. Rydell, chairman of the Department of History and Philosophy at MSU, said, "Many people have forgotten that Japan, like the United States, had a frontier with an indigenous population, the Ainu. For his book, Professor Walker combed Japanese archival sources and synthesized recent scholarship in environmental and political history. The result is a breathtaking analysis of how the modern nation-state of Japan came into being."

The Ainu are natives of the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido. Much like European settlers affected Native Americans, the Japanese who moved across Hokkaido influenced the ceremonies, culture, health and environment of the Ainu, Walker explained. As the Japanese set up trading posts on the island, the Ainu's attitudes toward animals and hunting changed as they began to carry market value. Japanese clothing and rice wine made their way into Ainu rituals.

"As the Ainu became more dependent on Japan, they became less able to resist Japan's expansion," Walker added.

Walker is now working on a book about the extinction of wolves in Japan. With a grant from MSU's Office of Research, Creativity and Technology Transfer, he will be on leave next spring to concentrate on writing. Walker currently teaches Japanese history, as well as a course on ecology and nature in Japan.

Evelyn Boswell is the technical writer for the Office of Research, Creativity and Technology Transfer.

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