This episode is supported by JapanCulture•NYC, the English-language website about all things Japanese in New York City.
Naomi Mizoguchi is a documentary filmmaker and the founder of GARA FILMS whose work focuses on preserving indigenous cultures. Her latest Japanese-language film Ainu | Hito (or English title Ainu – Indigenous People of Japan) follows four elders of an Ainu community in the town of Biratori, which is located in Hidaka Subprefecture in Hokkaido Prefecture, Japan. Since she moved to New York in 2004, Naomi has been involved with Downtown Community Television Center (DCTV), a nonprofit media company based in Civic Center, Manhattan. Established in Chinatown in 1972 and moved to an abandoned firehouse in 1978, DCTV functions as a resource of the community, renting film equipment and hosting video workshops, and as an independent film production company, producing popular documentaries and garnering countless accolades. Before he talks to Naomi about her film, Toshiki speaks with Keiko Tsuno. Originally a conceptual artist with a black-and-white camera, she and her husband Jon Alpert founded DCTV to give voices to underrepresented communities and to highlight important social issues. Keiko describes why her documentary Healthcare: Your Money or Your Life has been important in her career of over four decades and how she espouses the Japanese principle of wa (“harmony”) in her leadership of DCTV.
The word “Ainu” means “human” in their native language, and with an estimated population of 20,000 Ainu living in Hokkaido, they were officially recognized as an indigenous group by the Japanese government in April 2019. Naomi explains how important the Ainu politician Shigeru Kayano was for the Ainu ethnic movement and shares the story of one of the subjects of Ainu | Hito, Kazunobu Kawanano. Kazunobu-san invited Naomi to stay with him in Biratori when she first visited in 2008, and a museum curator asked her to create a film about Biratori in 2015. In the spirit of community media, Naomi created this documentary on the sole condition that the Biratori community get involved with its production and dissemination, and the film was produced in collaboration with Nibutani Ainu Cultural Museum. The world premiere of Ainu | Hito was held in Biratori in June 2018, and it has since screened in major cities in Japan. She recently translated the film to English and will be screening it for American audiences. A native of Hyogo Prefecture, Naomi is a wajin (or mainland Japanese person), but also involved in Okinawan musical activities, she embodies the resilience of traditional cultures of Japan. This episode celebrating the power of video to give voices to indigenous peoples airs on the United Nations International Day of the World's Indigenous Peoples.
Watch the trailer of the English subtitled version Ainu – Indigenous People of Japan below.
Review: Cuba and the Cameraman (The New York Times)
ビデオで世界を変えよう (Bideo de sekai o kaeyou) by 津野敬子 (Tsuno Keiko) (Amazon Japan)
This episode was edited by Toshiki Nakashige.
TN: This episode of The Big Root is supported by JapanCulture-NYC, the English-language website about all things Japanese in New York City. Discover your next favorite Japanese anything at JapanCulture-NYC.com.
Toshiki Nakashige: Welcome to The Big Root.
Susan McCormac: A podcast about everywhere Japaneseness. I’m Susan McCormac.
TN: My name is Toshiki Nakashige.
Naomi Mizoguchi: All right. Can we start?
TN: This is Naomi Mizoguchi.
NM: So these are the posters from the past. Jon got 17 Emmys, and three Academy nominated.
TN: Naomi is a freelance filmmaker who works at Downtown Community Television Center, or DCTV. It was established by Jon Alpert and his wife, Keiko Tsuno, and as part of Naomi’s tour of the building, she showed their numerous awards.
NM: And these are the Emmy Awards…
TN: Jon Alpert is an investigative journalist and documentary filmmaker. Naomi misspoke, and he actually has had two Academy nominations instead of three. But he has said that he stopped counting the number of awards he’s received since the trophy cabinet at DCTV got full. Of the many subjects he’s covered, he’s known for interviewing Fidel Castro on several occasions. He reflects on his last trip to Cuba in Netflix’s 2017 documentary Cuba and the Cameraman.
NM: That’s Fidel, and then this is from 9/11. It’s close, so Jon went there right away.
TN: DCTV is located in the Civic Center neighborhood in Lower Manhattan and occupies an old fire station. I met Naomi there after work one day, and she gave me a tour of the building. The first floor is an open space for general use that was set up for a summer high school program with editing stations with computers. The second and third floors are offices, classrooms, small rooms that can be rented for workshops, and larger spaces for screening films. As a repurposed firehouse, my favorite feature of the building is a fire pole that opens up on the ceiling of the third floor. The third floor also connects to a rooftop, where there’s a deck with benches and tables. I asked Naomi to take me to the rooftop, and we took a photo together there.
I met Naomi a few months earlier to talk about a science and media project that I’m currently working on, and when I learned that she had made a film about Ainu, I knew that I wanted to interview her for The Big Root. Her film is called Ainu | Hito in Japanese, and Ainu – Indigenous People of Japan is the English title. Ainu are indigenous people of northern Japan who primarily live in Hokkaido Prefecture. August 9, 2019, the day that this episode airs, is the United Nations International Day of the World's Indigenous Peoples. So together with the previous episode where I speak with members from the Okinawa Association of America about Okinawans, indigenous people from southern Japan, I thought this would be a perfect opportunity to highlight Japaneseness that’s less obvious.
At the end of the DCTV tour, Naomi took us to a quiet editing room a few steps up from the 3rd floor, and before I spoke with her about Ainu | Hito, she introduced me to Keiko Tsuno.
Keiko Tsuno: No make eye contact while she was talking. And she said, ‘Oh, in Japanese tradition, we are not…
TN: Keiko Tsuno and her husband, Jon Alpert, founded DCTV in 1972. Her official title is Co-Executive Director. She was more involved in the daily operations of DCTV in the past and now feels like her role is like a grandma, more there for moral support. Nonetheless, she has been with DCTV from the beginning, and it was an incredible honor to meet her. She moved to the US in 1967 to pursue a career as a conceptual artist, but she jokingly said that, when art museums were starting to show blank white canvases as art, maybe that was as far as conceptual art could go and that she might have to find another way to be creative. At the time, she and Jon were living in Chinatown, which is just north of Civic Center.
KT: I had my video camera, which was the first portable camera in the world Sony produced, and I was using that one for my artwork. Then I met Jon, who was—happened to be my next neighbor in the loft. And so we started making documentary in Chinatown and also in the Puerto Rican community—it was a huge community in the Lower East Side. And then one day a person from New York City Department of Cultural Affairs came to visit us. And it was the very first community video back in 1970, so he was very excited to see that the program was done in their native language, in Chinese and...
TN: Supeingo, Spanish.
KT: Supeingo. I’m sorry. And we tried to use video as an educational tool. And it’s because the equipment was very primitive and there wasn’t even an editing system back then. We have to splice tapes and, put together. So after you finish one edit, the spaghetti-like chopped up tapes, you know, piled up. So that was the time we started video. So the person from the Cultural Affairs of New York City, he said, ‘Well, we cannot give you a grant for individuals; you have to make a non-profit organization.’ So that evening, Jon and I came up with the idea of Downtown Community TV Center. And we started our organization with just one black-and-white camera in our living room. That’s how our organization started.
TN: Keiko had no idea that it would become what it is today. At the beginning, she recalls that they waited tables, delivered newspapers, and drove taxis to make ends meet, but as DCTV grew, it became clear that video was a powerful tool to tell stories of people who usually don’t have their voices heard in the popular culture.
KT: DCTV has always two functions: One is public services, and one is our own production as independent filmmakers. The beginning, we felt if we become—if we expand our programs, we’ll lose our time to do our production. So we tried to minimize our staff and our public services so we could spend more time on our production. So we did that way first ten years, but once we moved into this building, the space—we have such a big space—and it just started to grow, you know. If we wanted to have some programs, we just set up one room for a classroom or one room for an agency. As I predicted at the beginning, once you start, you can’t go back. And you spend more time for administrative jobs, and the time for production becomes less and less.
TN: In 1978, DCTV moved to its current building, which at the time was an old firehouse that had been abandoned for 16 years. The City of New York sold them the building on the condition that they renovate it. Keiko said that construction is constantly ongoing, which I witnessed the day that I visited, and over the course of 40 years, they had spent almost a million dollars to make sure the walls and floors are stable.
With about 50 people working there now, she recalls the growing pains of the company, especially as she and Jon were starting a family. The balance of running DCTV as a business and fostering creativity and original ideas was a theme in the trajectory of the company.
DCTV has produced many successful documentary films, and you can find them chronicled on the DCTV website. But I asked whether there was a film that has been particularly meaningful to Keiko. She talked about one of her first films that she produced in the 1970s.
KT: In 1975 we produced the one-hour documentary for PBS, and that was, that is called Healthcare: Your Life or Your Money. And this one was 44 years ago, but the subject of healthcare is still, actually it’s even getting worse than 44 years ago. And this one is the very first documentary about this healthcare crisis in the United States. So this has been used, it has been used throughout—that’s what I heard—medical schools and many institutions.
TN: The cost of healthcare and health insurance are important topics in American politics today, and she explained that this film has a timeless quality because of its relevance now. Although she didn’t explicitly make this comparison, I presume that her interest in healthcare also stems from the fact that healthcare policies in Japan are designed to make medical treatment affordable. American healthcare policies greatly impact immigrants living in the US.
TN: Does your Japanese background influence the way you run DCTV?
KT: I think so. Well, you know, Japanese—for Japanese, wa is harmony, it’s very important. And I think it’s probably myself, unconsciously, it’s always not confronting with people, try to solve problem peaceful way. And I think that will give ground for people to grow, also. Instead of someone too strong and too bossy, then try to do with harmony. I guess that’s probably contribution for being a Japanese.
TN: In addition to the film Healthcare: Your Life or Your Money, she was also involved in creating a documentary about the Japanese incarceration camps during World War II. This film called Invisible Citizens: Japanese Americans was produced in 1983, near the beginning of the Redress and Reparations Movement, and Keiko recalls being moved by Japanese American activists speaking about their experiences in the camps. Even though it wasn’t part of her history, she felt empathy for the Japanese American community, referring to them as almost like relatives in the United States.
TN: Yeah, thank you so much for your time…
TN: DCTV is an historic New York City establishment. When Naomi was giving me a tour, I briefly met Jon Alpert and got starstruck, and I definitely felt humbled after speaking with Keiko too. Their 14-year-old Yorkie named Ryder had followed us into the editing room, so Keiko picked him up and went back downstairs to her office.
Before I delve into my interview with Naomi to talk about Ainu | Hito, though, let’s take a break.
TN: This episode of The Big Root is supported by JapanCulture-NYC, the English-language website about all things Japanese in New York City. After exploring her Japanese American identity and subsequently becoming obsessed with Japanese culture, my podcast co-host Susan started JCNYC in 2011. It started simply as a blog to learn more about Japanese activities around the city, but now it’s become a huge part of Susan’s life and an icon in our community. Every time I hang out with her, Susan’s telling me about another event that she’s invited to by businesses and organizations for publicity. Although the Japanese American community in New York doesn’t have the breadth and history as cities on the West Coast, there’s something special about Japaneseness here, which inspired me to start The Big Root and explore Japanese things on the East Coast. I’m currently on the hunt for my next favorite curry udon. Discover your next favorite Japanese anything at JapanCulture-NYC.com.
TN: We are back! So Susan, thanks for joining me.
TN: As you heard in the first half of the episode, I went to Downtown Community Television Center, where I spoke with Keiko Tsuno and Naomi Mizoguchi. Naomi filmed and produced a film about Ainu people called Ainu | Hito in Japanese, and the English title is Ainu – Indigenous People of Japan.
SM: Great! I met Naomi about nine or ten years ago at a meeting for the social group Japanese Americans and Japanese in America. She gave a talk about her documentary films.
TN: Her documentary premiered in Japan last year, and she’s currently promoting it for American audiences. Before we sat down for the interview, Naomi put on traditional Ainu clothing, which I think she wears every time she does something promotional for the film. She wore a headband called matanpus マタンプシ and what’s called chikarkarpe, チカラカラペ, which is similar to the Japanese yukata, but the embroidery designs are distinctly Ainu. They were yellow with dark blue rectangular shapes decorated with white curving lines. If you’re curious, there are photos of Naomi in her outfit on our website thebigrootpodcast.com.
She also played a small instrument for me.
NM: So this is called mukkuri. Did you see trailer? Maybe this sound?
TN: Mukkuri is an idiophone, which I learned is a musical instrument that makes sounds by vibrating as a whole. It’s pretty small, like 10 centimeters long, and made of bamboo. From what I understood from Naomi playing it, the pitch is changed by opening and closing the mouth.
SM: Oh, that sound is at the beginning of her documentary’s trailer, and I was wondering what that was.
TN: Yeah. Listeners, you can watch the trailer with English subtitles on the episode page on the podcast website to hear the mukkuri.
Naomi originally got into film through studying music and sound at senmongakko, or a professional training college, where she took a class in film music. She went to work at a film production company in 1992 and became a freelancer in 1995. She had success directing TV commercials and documentaries, but in the year 2000 when there was a recession in Japan, she recalls having difficulty finding jobs as a freelance filmmaker, so she started working for TV stations. As a director working in commercial media, she started feeling frustrated that producers had an agenda for their pieces rather than being sympathetic to the people they were portraying.
NM: Let’s say, there [was a] mother who abused a child, and we are giving her voice as a mother how she’s had a hard time. But TV wants something drastic stories, like you know, you were almost killed or something like that. But that’s not what she wants. In the middle of this production I had a struggle with subject wants this, and the TV stations wants this. What should I do?
TN: Based on the few times I’ve interacted with her, Naomi is one of the most resilient people I’ve met. When she sets her mind on something, she makes it happen, and her description of how she became involved in DCTV is a good example of that resilience.
NM: After work I always, you know, go for a drink and then started talking about how I’m frustrated to the people, or the work I’m doing. And then one day, one guy who came to the U.S. like a hippie and then got to know about DCTV—so this is one of them. And then I was impressed how what’s DCTV was doing. Oh, I never thought about community media. There was no community media in Japan. Maybe a little, but almost none. And then so I got really interested. And then, next day—after the drink—next day in the morning I opened the newspaper, I found Keiko’s book, and I bought it right away. And then read, go through. And then I really thought I want to work or I want to get to know about DCTV. So and I didn’t want to come like, [for] one day or one week or one month, I really wanted to work here. So then I said, ‘Okay, one year, one year. I’m going to go to U.S. and come back. I want to learn something about community media and come back and do something similar.’ That was my goal. And then I knocked the door of DCTV. That’s how I started. And then now, somehow I’m still here. It’s been 14, almost 15 years.
TN: Keiko’s book is called Bideo de sekai o kaeyou, which means Changing the World through Video.
Naomi recalls the first moments of her arrival to New York in 2004.
NM: I got off the plane. September 2nd. Then Bush was at Madison Square Garden. So I really thought, ‘Oh, it’s America!’
TN: You’re in America!
TN: Her plan to go back to Japan after a year to bring back what she learned about community media in the US didn’t happen, but she has nevertheless had a fruitful career. She was involved in a company called Cineminga, whose documentary film projects focused on indigenous communities in South America, and the theme of preserving culture and language is consistent throughout her work.
She was initially interested in visiting India to do a community film project with the Dalit people. Dalit means “scattered” in Sanskrit and Hindi, and it’s used as a general term to described ethnic peoples who are suppressed out of the caste system. Her work with Cineminga instead took her to Colombia and Ecuador, but she was happy to give voices to the Nasa and Waorani native tribes. Her team would give indigenous people video cameras and help them produce short films about their culture. Naomi echoed what Keiko said about the power of video. Instead of covering social movements in New York, though, she was helping to document languages that didn’t have written systems.
NM: So everything is oral, so video is perfect. Just say it. And then the people get to know how to pronounce, how to say it. So, I thought this is the perfect project for me.
TN: As a podcaster, I certainly think there’s power in audio, but operating a Zoom recorder and lavalier mics isn’t something you can easily teach people who don’t encounter technology on a daily basis.
TN: Although I’m in podcasting and audio is really great, and, you know, audio is also used to document languages, I think something about film that’s particularly important is that there is something very intuitive about it. You don’t need to explain, like if you just see, it’s like, “Oh, I know what I’m doing.”
TN: She eventually moved on to start her own film production company to continue pursuing her own freelance documentary filmmaking and founded GARA FILMS. Gara in Japanese is formed by two kanji characters, ga of eiga or film and the ra of raku or happy, which transliterates as “filmmaking is fun.”
Throughout her experience working with indigenous peoples, she identified a unifying theme across these native cultures.
NM: In Colombia it’s called Nasa, Nasa people. “Nasa” means “human” in Nasa language. And in Ecuador, it’s Waorani people, and “Waorani” means “human” in Waorani. And “Ainu” people is “human,” too.
TN: Naomi’s film is called Ainu | Hito. In Japanese, hito means people. So her film is really called: Human People.
SM: Human people.
TN: Did you know much about Ainu people?
SM: No, I didn’t. I mean, I’d heard about them simply because they are indigenous people of Japan, but I never knew anything about their specific culture.
TN: Me neither, and I actually learned that, when she first started becoming curious about Ainu, Naomi didn’t either. Naomi is from Hyogo Prefecture in Japan, which is in the Kansai Region, west of Tokyo. If you’re unfamiliar with Japanese geography, this means that Naomi’s not from an area close to Hokkaido where the Ainu live. People from mainland Japan, like Naomi and me for that matter, or “ethnically Japanese” people, are called wajin. She worked with non-Japanese colleagues at Cineminga, and she recalls a story about the first time she got interested in the Ainu.
NM: And then these two colleagues from South America asked me, ‘Oh, by the way, in Japan, you have Ainu people.’ They know about it. And they asked me, ‘So how they are living? What they are doing?’ And I have nothing to answer; I have no idea what they’re doing. So I was kind of embarrassed. And then also because we’re going to do about indigenous people, I have to learn—I thought I have to know. So that’s the first motivation to go there—just to learn. So I decided to go to Hokkaido, and I have no idea where to go.
TN: She tells the story about how she got connected to the Ainu town she eventually went on to film.
NM: So there was the community media group in Japan. So it’s called MediFes, like Media Festival. So I went there before I go there, and I was talking, ‘You know, I want to go to Ainu village, but I don’t know where to go.’ And then one of the guys who did the community media told me, ‘Oh, actually there was a person who was a radio person from Ainu village.’ Oh, no! And then, but he left, and I couldn’t see him at that time, but I thought, you know, they are broadcasting some Ainu and some Japanese about Ainu. So, I thought I should go there, and that’s why I went there.
TN: In 2008, she visited Biratori-cho or Biratori town, which is located in the Hidaka Subprefecture in Hokkaido Prefecture. She was observing a language community class when a man named Kazunobu Kawanano approached her.
NM: And then one of the guys approached me saying, ‘Oh, you’re not so familiar. So where are you from?’ And I said, ‘Oh, I’m Hyogo.’ And then he asked me, ‘Do you want to learn about Ainu culture and language?’ Yes! And then, come, come, you know, come more. At that time I want to be honest, ‘You know what, actually I live in the US. It’s hard for me, financially especially, to come to Hokkaido for so many times. But I promise you I’m going to come back.’ And this guy said, ‘Oh, then you can stay at my house. And then do you, you know, drive?’ Yes! ‘And then you use my car.’ Oh really? I thought it was a joke—we only, you know, saw like ten seconds or something. And then I went to Colombia then and came back. And then I called him. ‘Are you really sure? You told me I can stay at your house.’ ‘Of course! Come, come! Just come!’ And then I started homestaying at this guy’s house. It was 2008, and 2009, and then until 2014, I go there just to learn. And then one year I filmed—I mean, we filmed, two of us went there and stayed one month and filmed a little bit of the ritual—how to make house or that kind of thing—and then oral literature we filmed. To thank, I want to give back something, so I edited the piece—like five minutes, ten minutes, five mintues—and I gave it to them, and then send everybody who helped me.
TN: In 2014, Naomi left Cineminga and went onto establish GARA FILMS. In 2015, she visited Biratori again with the intention of thanking Kazunobu-san and the people there for their hospitality and to tell them that she was likely moving on to other filmmaking projects. As she was trying to say goodbye to the community, she realized that one of the curators at the cultural museum hadn’t watched the short film that she had produced earlier back in 2009. When she showed him the film on her laptop, he asked Naomi to stay longer to document the lives of a few of the elders in Biratori.
NM: And he was so impressed by this film, and he says, ‘Actually, I wanted to capture the elders who are almost 80s,’ and do something about it because for the future generation before something happen to them, he really wanted to capture. And then I asked him, ‘Who you want to capture?’ ‘And this guy, this guy, this lady, this lady.’ All of them I knew already. So, I thought it’s kind of the film god is telling me, ‘You have to make a documentary.’ At that time because I resigned the organization, I was kind of at a loss what to do. I don’t know what to do next. Then I decided, okay, I will make it. So I told him, ‘I will make it.’
TN: Creating this film was the perfect opportunity for her, but Naomi had one condition.
NM: But you have to get involved.
TN: Naomi had already established a relationship with the people of Biratori, so if she were to produce a film about them, she didn’t want to be an outsider coming in and then leaving without a trace. As a dwindling indigenous culture with a critically endangered language, the Ainu in this town have been the subject of several anthropological studies, but the locals have become resentful that these visitors come to Biratori just for their research and don’t give back to the community. Instead, this film was produced in collaboration with the local Nibutani Ainu Cultural Museum. Naomi’s approach was to work with the townspeople who would participate, give feedback, and ultimately have all the video footage she collects.
SM: That’s a bold move as well as a selfless gesture for Naomi to offer the Ainu all of her footage.
TN: To Naomi, this project wasn’t about making money or becoming famous as a documentarian, she wanted to give back to the community that welcomed her. I think when most people think of Hokkaido, they think of the ski resorts and probably the beer, but it’s also home to places like Biratori, where Naomi describes has nice weather year around and doesn’t snow that much. Biratori has about 6,000 people. According to the Ainu Association of Hokkaido, the Iburi region of Hidaka Subprefecture, where Biratori is located, has the highest Ainu population. A specific district of Biratori called Nibutani is a little area the size of New York’s Chinatown, Naomi says, has a population that’s about 80% Ainu. There are two cultural museums there, and many of the local people make a living creating and selling traditional crafts and food. The language class that Naomi visited during her first trip to Biratori is also located in Nibutani.
Nibutani is perhaps best known to be the home of the late Shigeru Kayano. He was a leading figure in the movement to preserve and spread Ainu culture and was the first and, to date, the only Ainu politician elected to the National Diet. Although he passed away in 2006, Shigeru Kayano remains a large presence in Biratori and a symbol throughout Naomi’s film. The documentary features his wife, Reiko Kayano, and also his son Shiro Kayano, who is now a leading figure in the Nibutani community.
Shiro Kayano: 言葉はそう簡単に滅ほろばないんだなぁっていうのは思うねだけどそれ誰かがやらないと伝わらないからさ
TN: In Japanese, Shiro Kayano says, “I think that languages don’t become extinct so easily, but somebody must make an effort to transmit those languages.”
NM: This quote is important to me because that’s how they survive. That’s how, that’s why this village is still alive. And very, very busy, very happy, very energetic all the time, whenever I go. I thought oh, maybe winter, nothing happen? No, there is always something that’s going on. So because people older than you made strong effort, big effort to preserve this language, to be proud to be Ainu. So it’s very rare, I think. It’s not so many towns or people like that.
TN: Before his father’s death, Shiro Kayano created a short film about the traditional practices of Ainu culture, and Naomi also used this footage in the film. Despite the Kayano family’s efforts to celebrate Ainu culture in Biratori, it’s rare to see that level of enthusiasm across Japan. According to a Hokkaido survey, there are about 20,000 Ainu people, but as Naomi describes, this number is likely not accurate because some people want to hide the fact that they are Ainu.
SM: For comparison, it’s estimated that there are 300,000 people of Okinawan descent living in mainland Japan. Okinawa Prefecture itself has a population of 1.3 million. But I’m not sure if people think these numbers are inaccurate because Okinawans want to hide that they’re Okinawan.
TN: Right. In April 2019, earlier this year, the National Diet passed a bill to recognize Ainu as an indigenous people. Without going into the political details too much, I understand that Ainu activists aren’t exactly satisfied with the stipulations of the new law, but from Naomi’s perspective, it’s a step in the right direction.
SM: Again for comparison, the indigenous people of the Ryukyu Islands, like Okinawans, aren’t recognized by the Japanese government as an ethnic group.
TN: In the same way that we described Okinawans leaving their home in our previous episode, Naomi told me that, even though the people from Biratori celebrate their Ainu culture and learn the language while they live there, many people who leave the rural areas for cities don’t come back. Because Ainu culture isn’t really accepted or understood in the more developed areas, these descendants don’t perpetuate the culture and language they learned growing up.
Naomi and I also discussed another part of the film, where Kazunobu-san, the man who offered Naomi a place to stay in 2008, talks about his Ainu identity. Ainu | Hito follows the lives of four elders in Biratori who were born in the 1930s, and Kazunobu-san is one of them.
Kazunobu Kawanano: 「アイヌから自分は逃げてたけどもどこへ逃げたってアイヌはアイヌだ」と 日陰にいようと、どこにいようとアイヌはアイヌだわな
TN: Naomi translates what he says.
NM: Kazunobu-san says, ‘Wherever you go, you are Ainu. You try to hide yourself, you try to move away, but you are Ainu.’
TN: He heard these words from Shigeru Kayano, and although Kazunobu-san embodies this spirit now, he didn’t always feel that way.
NM: He was ashamed, actually, because he doesn’t speak the language. Plus, he was bullied very, very badly. He was poor. But after he heard that quote, and then he started learning language after 60s or something, his age. And he started proud of being Ainu, and he started going everywhere to show what he learned. So that gives him ]confidence]. So that’s why it’s important to me, like, if nobody does, it’s disappeared. And you have to be proud of it, with your culture.
TN: June 30, 2018, was the World Premiere of Ainu | Hito. As Naomi described at the beginning of this project, she wanted the community to become involved in its creation, and she did so throughout post-production and its premiere. The film was first screened in Biratori.
NM: There was a two-day screening. I think 200 people came over, and it was free. I think two months before the screening, Nabesawa-san, one of the other subjects of my “…” passed away very suddenly. And it was very, very emotional because people get to see him alive. He became sick the year before, but I had some footage of when he was still good. So, it was so many laugh, cries, and claps. And I think people love it. And before that premiere, actually I had a rough-cut screening in February to make sure everything’s correct because I’m not Ainu, so I’m not expert. And then I got some feedback about language and some manner and stuff. So I changed it based on the feedback, and then I showed it.
TN: Her cinematography reflects how close her relationships with the community were like. Although she’s not physically on camera, the film is like a series of conversations she’s having with old friends.
NM: I don’t want to change the relationship that I have made with the subjects. Always, they call me ‘Oh, Naomi-chan,’ and then we drink and eat together. And if I have some crew with a big camera or whatever, having somebody else changed the atmosphere or the way they talk. Even I started filming with the camera—this was first time—and he started talking like very polite language, like keigo, and I say, ‘No, no, no, no, you tell me like you always tell me. Like, ‘Naomi-chan, nantoka da yo!’ So, very casual way, that was a plus. So I think I got a many feedback, and one of them are ‘very close. The camera and the way they talk looks like the people are talking to you.’ So that was the point.
TN: Since its premiere in Biratori, the film has screened in cities like Tokyo, Osaka, and Kobe. And even in Australia. The reaction of the Biratori screenings were emotional, but Naomi acknowledges that, in other areas in Japan where she attended the screenings, audiences don’t seem as interested in Ainu culture, and she actually saw some people falling asleep.
NM: Old people speak slow, and it’s not like modern, you know, type of editing I’m not doing. But interesting thing is audience who are interested in knowing about Ainu are super, super satisfied. And they even say, ‘I want to see more!’
TN: For people who want to learn more, she insists, “Go to Biratori!”
SM: After the last episode, I started looking at my old Uchinanchu Taikai photos, and now I want to go back to Okinawa later this year. And now Naomi’s film makes me want to visit Hokkaido, too. We should create “The Big Root Travel Destination” guide. We’ll also have the sake brewery in Niigata on the list, too.
TN: And the Noguchi Garden Museum in Shikoku!
TN: Naomi just completed translating her film to English and is currently submitting it for film festivals in the United States. If you want to see it in a more intimate setting though, JAJA in New York will be hosting a film screening for one of their gatherings on Tuesday, August 20th. We’ll put a link to this open event on the episode description. She said that she’ll be wearing traditional Ainu clothing there, too.
SM: Japanese Americans will probably be interested in something like this, but I’m wondering how a non-Japanese audience will react to this film.
TN: Yeah, I asked Naomi about that, but she doesn’t really know what to expect from an American audience. From my perspective, media about preserving indigenous cultures is probably something Americans would be more inclined to seek out. After all, even Naomi said that her family in Hyogo Prefecture wasn’t even sure if the Ainu people still living.
SM: With the issues in our own country and the movements to be more inclusive of Native Americans in the public consciousness, I think that films like Naomi’s should be on everyone’s radar because it’s important to have insight on the experiences of indigenous people.
TN: That was mostly all that Naomi and I talked about regarding her film, but I know that, beyond filmmaking, you have a relationship with Naomi that has to do with Okinawan cultural activities.
SM: Naomi is a talented musician, and she plays the sanshin, the Okinawan version of the shamisen, the traditional three-stringed, banjo-like instrument that has a distinct twang. She is also studying the Okinawan flute, ryuteki.
TN: Yeah. Naomi lived in Osaka in the 1990s, and she remembers one of the first times she learned about Okinawan culture.
NM: There was a Ryukyu festival, and I just fell in love with Okinawan music. And since then I really wanted to start learning or playing or something with Okinawan music, but I was too much into my job. I really love my job as a filmmaker, so I have no time to do anything besides filmmaking.
TN: About 20 years after this Ryukyu festival in Osaka, she finally got a chance to explore Okinawan music. I mentioned that Naomi is one of the most resilient people I know. I won’t go into all the details, but after several events in her family life and Hurricane Sandy, which flooded her Brooklyn apartment, and the aftermath of all that, she wanted to do something for herself, something creative that didn’t have anything to do with filmmaking.
NM: And I thought, okay, I should do something fun. And then I just noticed from JAJA there was an Okinawan woman who was one of the Okinawan Association in America, so I reached her saying, ‘I want to learn sanshin!’ Because I wanted to. And she introduced me to my sensei.
SM: Naomi’s sensei is Saburo “Sonny” Ochiai. He’s actually a native of Chiba Prefecture, but he’s a sanshin Grand Master and very involved in the Okinawan community. He has a group that performs at various festivals throughout the Tri-State area. Naomi performs with them and is quite enthusiastic about Okinawan culture in general.
TN: Based on the history of her films and then her involvement in these Okinawan cultural activities, it seemed to me that Naomi was interested specifically in indigenous cultures, but she has a different perspective on it.
NM: Actually I never realized I’m interested in indigenous culture or you know, traditional music, or stuff. It’s—I don’t know. Things I’ve done made me think, oh, maybe I was interested in traditional culture in general!
TN: Yeah. It’s not like you were seeking that out specifically.
NM: I was not, like, seeking it. Just I wanted to give a voice to the people who don’t have a tool. It just happened to be indigenous people. It was not India, people in India. I just follow the flow, and then here I am.
SM: Follow the flow. I like that philosophy!
TN: Yeah, thank you so much for your time. I’m really excited to produce this—I mean, I’ve been excited for all the episodes…
TN: Speaking with Naomi was insightful in so many ways. As I venture further into creative content and interviewing people for the podcasts, I think about the important lessons of portraying stories that are honest and that don’t exploit other people. I’ve certainly learned that making sure we portray our guests honestly and flatteringly on The Big Root is a bigger challenge than I expected going into this.
SM: Absolutely. I love the times we get to talk about sake, but we’ve also delved into serious topics as well, which I didn’t really expect. I’ve learned so much about each of the people we’ve featured so far. Actually, not just the people, but the topics as well.
TN: The community-oriented approach that Naomi took for Ainu | Hito reflects her involvement in companies like DCTV, but she acknowledged that making a living in community media is difficult. In order to have access to the latest technologies in filmmaking and to learn how to use them, she balances her time doing community media and working on commercial media projects. Right now, she works at DCTV as an assistant on two projects. One is an HBO documentary that follows criminals over the course of 30 years, and the other is about climate change following a hockey teams all over the world. Needless to say, her work continues to give voices to people who might not have access to large public platforms.
SM: I think Naomi enjoys challenging herself with topics that might be a little outside of her comfort zone. I admire her work ethic and her hunger to learn and grow. It was nice to learn more about Ainu culture from her as well. I felt a connection between the struggles of the Ainu and the struggles of the people of Okinawa. Just as Okinawans are now proud of their Uchinanchu heritage, I hope that the Ainu find pride in their own culture.
TN: Last episode we talked about the Okinawan diaspora, and I understand that Ainu people also live in other areas, like parts of Russia.
SM: Are we overdoing it?
TN: Hahaha. Anyway, that’s the show. I hope you enjoyed it. Thank you, Naomi Mizoguchi and Keiko Tsuno for spending time with me after a busy day of summer programs at DCTV. Listeners, we’ll share upcoming opportunities to watch Ainu | Hito and to learn about Naomi’s other work on our website.
SM: All right, for news and updates, please sign up for The Big Root mailing list at thebigrootpodcast.com/subscribe and find us on social media. Sharing and reviewing the podcast help us reach more listeners, so please spread the word about everywhere Japaneseness. With more listeners, we can continue to feature amazing guests and fun activities on the podcast.
TN: If you enjoy listening to The Big Root, please also consider becoming a patron for the show. I know it’s a little annoying to hear on a free podcast hosts asking for money, but for an independently produced show like ours, even a dollar a month goes a long way. I’m finishing my position as a biomedical researcher next month and taking the time off to build a business for my creative projects, including The Big Root. I set up a Patreon page, where, if you become a patron, you can get exclusive benefits for this podcast and some other things I’m working on, like a science podcast and a documentary of my own. You can find more information at The Big Root website or you can go directly to patreon.com/toshnaka.
SM: I should mention that, even if you don’t become a patron, all past and future episodes will be freely available to everyone.
TN: Exactly. You just get some extra perks! And my ceaseless gratitude. Seriously, I get an email every time someone becomes a patron, and it warms my heart.
SM: Not only is today the United Nations International Day of the World's Indigenous Peoples, this episode with Naomi was so timely for you in your career right now. She quit working at a TV network to pursue films that she felt more satisfied making.
TN: I thought the exact same thing. It’s inspiring to see that people in our community making a living out of a passion, especially when it’s to share stories. Eventually we can start having tours to Japan for things we featured on The Big Root, but I also know that you’ve been thinking about starting JapanCulture-NYC walking tours around the city. Pursue your passion, Susan!
SM: This JapanCulture•NYC walking tour is supported by Toshiki Nakashige LLC!
TN: The Big Root is an independently produced podcast.
SM: The theme song was performed by Kento Iwasaki, and this episode was edited by Toshiki Nakashige.
TN: For more information about the podcast, please visit thebigrootpodcast.com.
SM: I’m Susan McCormac.
TN: My name is Toshiki Nakashige. Thanks for listening.