New whaling plan draws fire from all sides

TOKYO (AFP) – A "peace plan" by the International Whaling Commission to legitimise but reduce whaling drew fire Friday as Japan demanded higher quotas and environmentalists warned of serious harm to the ocean giants.

The chairman of the 88-nation commission, seeking to end decades of bitter conflict between its pro- and anti-whaling members, unveiled Thursday the compromise proposal to be voted on at a June meeting in Morocco.

Under the draft proposal, Japan, Iceland and Norway would reduce their whale kills over the next decade, subject to tight monitoring, with Japan eventually cutting its Antarctic whale culls by three quarters.

The IWC said in a statement that the "10-year peace plan" would save thousands of whales and present "a great step forward in terms of the conservation of whales and the management of whaling."

But it was roundly criticised by anti-whaling nations and environmental groups, which charged that it would end the moratorium in all but name and risked reviving a dwindling industry in whale meat.

Japan now hunts whales under a loophole to a 1986 moratorium on commercial whaling that allows lethal "scientific research" on the sea mammals, while Norway and Iceland defy the moratorium altogether.

"It will be a major achievement if, despite some fundamental differences ... countries can put these differences aside for a period to focus on ensuring the world has healthy whale stocks," IWC chair Cristian Maquieira said.

Japan reacted by saying it would push for higher cull quotas than those outlined in the proposal.

Japan, which now targets more than 900 whales in its annual Antarctic hunts, would have to reduce that number to around 400 whales in the next season and to just over 200 a year from the 2015-16 season onwards.

It would also be allowed to catch 120 whales a year in its coastal waters.

Fisheries Minister Hirotaka Akamatsu, while welcoming the endorsement of coastal whaling, said: "Regarding the total catch allowed, it is different from Japan's position. We want to continue negotiating with patience."

But environmental groups voiced deep concern.

"This is probably the biggest threat to the ban on commercial whaling that we've faced since it came into force," said Nicolas Entrup of the Munich-based Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society.

Greenpeace said the proposal would reward whaling nations.

"It's a bit like a bank robber who keeps robbing the bank. You can't actually catch him, so you decide to just give him a big pile of money," said its oceans campaigner Phil Kline.

The World Wide Fund for Nature's species programme manager Wendy Elliott charged that the proposed quotas were "a result of political bargaining which has little if anything to do with the whales themselves."

Australia's Environment Minister Peter Garrett said Canberra could not accept the proposal and stressed that "the government remains resolutely opposed to commercial and so-called 'scientific' whaling."

In Wellington, Foreign Minister Murray McCully called the catch limits unrealistic and said "New Zealanders will not accept this".

"The proposal to include fin whales in the Southern Ocean is inflammatory," he said, pointing at a plan to allow Japan to catch 10 of the animals annually for three years, and five per year after that.

The United States, which has helped spearhead the compromise, withheld a final judgment, anticipating further negotiations.

"The important thing here is that the IWC isn't working right now," said Monica Medina, the US commissioner to the IWC.

"Even with the moratorium in place, the number of whales being killed is increasing and if we can turn that around and decrease the number of whales being killed, that would be a good thing."

The compromise would also allow the killing of 870 minke whales a year in the Atlantic, slightly down from the current total catch quotas by Norway and Iceland, along with Japan's continued hunt in the Pacific Ocean.


Japanese pet owners turn to treadmills

Andy has sprouted white whiskers, suffers from lower back pain and no longer bounds up the stairs like he used to.  Still, the 11-year-old Siberian husky isn't lying idle: every week he meets his personal trainer for a run on an underwater treadmill, does laps in a doggy pool to strengthen his hind legs and unwinds with a hot spa and massage session.
The boom in pet ownership in Japan has led to a new phenomenon - legions of elderly animals that doting masters pamper with fortified food and vitamins, aromatherapy and even acupuncture.
"I want to do everything I can for Andy. He's part of the family," said Aya Ashiya, 50, of Tokyo as she ran around the swimming pool with a squeeze toy, cheering the husky on during a recent session at the dog aqua fitness gym El Pero.
"We've been together for so long, and we've really learned to communicate," Ashiya said. "I just want him to stay healthy for as long as possible."
Though figures are scarce, a study published last year showed that longevity for cats in Japan almost doubled between 1991 and 2003, from 5.1 years to 9.9 years. Dog longevity surged from 8.6 years to 11.9 years.
Researchers attribute the jump to better health care, more vaccinations, a more balanced diet and a new trend of pets being allowed to live in homes - once unthinkable in a country of tatami-mat houses.
But longer lives have led to ailments seldom seen before in pets in Japan, such as cancer, diabetes, heart disease and dementia, said Hideki Hayashidani, an assistant professor at the Tokyo University of Agriculture and Technology, who carried out the longevity study.
"Japanese attitudes toward pets have changed radically. Owners dote over them like children," Hayashidani said. "That means fewer pups and kittens die from infections, while cancer and heart disease cases have hit the roof ... And owners will pay anything to keep their pets alive longer."
Japan's doting owners have helped push pet spending to new highs. The pet industry here topped $US8.6 billion ($10.98 billion) in 2005. That's only a quarter of expenditures in the United States, but for Japan represents a 40 per cent increase since 1994.
In a sign of the nation's growing obsession with animal companions, industry figures show Japanese families now own over 23 million pet dogs and cats, exceeding the number of Japanese children under 15, which hit a new low of 17.46 million in 2006.
Kyuta, an 8-year-old long-haired Chihuahua, started biweekly acupuncture sessions at the Kamakura Genki Animal Hospital after severe back pain struck last year.
At a recent session, the dog yelped as a veterinarian inserted 13 needles into his quivering back and hind legs, but soon settled down in his owner's arms.
"Kyuta loves coming here. His tail goes right up when he gets on the examination table," said Emi Matsuya, 43, a Tokyo hairdresser.
The pair travel two hours each way by train for the acupuncture sessions, which cost $US47 ($60), Matsuya said, and the Chihuahua eats homemade meals of meat and vegetables now that he is getting older.
"Dogs crave attention - that's what makes them happy. And happy dogs live longer," said hospital director Takashi Ishino, who also offers massage and aromatherapy treatments.
Japan's aging dogs also benefit from specially designed care items such as doggie nappies, harnesses that support aging pooches on walks and pet strollers. Elderly cats have their own products, including climbing towers with extra padding.
And owners can take a break from their pets by getting a nursing care specialist. Keiko Himi, who runs the pet-sitting service Nyan to Wonderful northeast of Tokyo, says an increasing number of owners ask her to care for aging pets while they run errands or work.
"Caring for old pets is a big burden for the owner, physically and emotionally," Himi said. "In one case, I went to help a family every day through their dog's last days."
Death doesn't end the pampering. A spate of companies offers everything from pet cemeteries, funerals and memorials to counselling for grieving owners. Tokyo's Japan Pet Ceremony Co runs a 24-hour funeral hot line; the Machida Izumi Joen cemetery offers the ultimate in owner-pet companionship - a shared grave.
"It's all about giving dogs a certain quality of life," said Ashiya, the Siberian husky owner. "We're not going to give up just because Andy's old ... not as long as I have the energy, time, and money."

Italian toads fuel case for animals' seismic sense

Have you ever anticipated an earthquake? Some people report that they have "sensed" a temblor before it struck. They may claim to have felt a "foreboding" that something was going to happen. When an earthquake then strikes, it is easy to retrospectively join the dots and attribute that vague sense of impending doom to the quake.

In some animals, however, there seems to be a genuine ability to sense the changes that occur before earthquakes.

Perhaps the first person to record this was the Greek historian Thucydides, in 373 B.C. Days before a massive earthquake hit the city of Helice, he says all manner of animals streamed out. Dogs, rats and weasels, they ran for the hills. (Snakes sensed the coming catastrophe too, and they slithered for the highlands.)

And so it goes on throughout history. In 2008, there was a big quake in Sichuan, southwest China. The dust had hardly settled before reports came out of animals "predicting" the quake. In this case — of course, it being China — it was giant pandas. The animals were said to have been acting strangely in the hours before the quake.

Let's take the reports at face value. What could be the scientific explanation for such changes in behavior?

A clue comes from a bit of good luck that befell some biologists who were studying toad populations in L'Aquila, in central Italy. To get an idea of what was driving the growth of toad populations, the researchers, from the Open University in Britain, were making careful daily census measurements of toad numbers.

Last year, on April 1, they were surprised to find that the numbers of male toads at their field site had suddenly dropped by 96 percent. At the breeding site on April 3, where males and females met to pair up, there were no toads at all.

Then, on April 6, there was a magnitude 6.3 earthquake whose epicenter was 74 km from the toads' breeding site.

The biologists carried on monitoring the area for toads. They found no fresh spawn at the site from the date that the earthquake struck to the date of the last significant aftershock. It was all very unusual for toads, who normally remain hanging around the breeding site like teenage boys around a girls' school.

Researcher Rachel Grant and colleagues made a series of measurements. They found that the change in the toads' behavior coincided with disruptions in the ionosphere, the uppermost electromagnetic layer of the Earth's atmosphere. Those disruptions were detected using very low-frequency radio soundings.

It seems that radon gas started seeping up from deep within the Earth's crust in the days leading up to the quake. This apparently disrupted the electromagnetic charges detected by radio waves in the ionosphere — and the change was seemingly sensed by the toads. The paper describing the finding has recently been published in the Journal of Zoology.

"Our study is one of the first to document animal behaviour before, during and after an earthquake," says Grant. "Our findings suggest that toads are able to detect pre-seismic cues such as the release of gases and charged particles, and use these as a form of earthquake early-warning system."

That's not going as far as to say that the toads knew there was an earthquake coming — but they did detect something, and that something might well have caused them to flee, so saving their lives.

Radon is what's known as a noble gas, like helium: it is colorless, tasteless and odorless. It is also radioactive, but it is hard to understand how the toads could have directly detected the gas.

Perhaps, then, they detected the perturbation of the ionosphere.

Animals do have a wide range of senses that we don't. Migrating birds, for example, use the Earth's magnetic field to navigate. Even some bats, more renowned for their ability to fly using sonar, can tap into the magnetic field — as can some fish, including sharks and, perhaps, catfish.

These fish, known in Japan as nekogigi, have "whiskers" through which they are able to sense the tiniest movements of prey. Japanese legends tell that catfish can sense a coming earthquake.

On the day of the Asian tsunami, Dec. 26, 2004, villagers in parts of Thailand noticed that buffalo on the beach suddenly pricked up their ears and stampeded inland and uphill. Could they have heard the approaching wave?

Dog owners attribute all sorts of abilities to their pets. But a scientific study of dogs in Vancouver, Canada, in 2000 found some evidence for a "supernatural" canine ability. In the study, conducted by Stanley Coren from the University of British Columbia, some 200 dog owners had been routinely recording their dogs' behavior every day. But then, on one day in particular, more than half of them reported that their dogs exhibited strangely hyperactive behavior.

It turned out that there had been an earthquake that day, some 240 km to the south, in Washington State. Perhaps the dogs had picked up high-frequency noise of the quake.

Most of the "evidence" for animals having been able to somehow predict earthquakes is anecdotal. But it's no less intriguing for that, and certainly worth investigating. If it turns out that, say, toads can detect changes in the magnetic field of the ionosphere, then it might give us some new ideas for earthquake prediction. However, I can't imagine that everyone will start keeping toads as predictive pets . . .

Follow Rowan Hooper on Twitter at The second volume of Natural Selections columns translated into Japanese is published by Shinchosha at ¥1,500. The title is "Hito wa Ima mo Shinka Shiteru (The Evolving Human)." Readers with any light to cast on animals' ability to sense imminent earthquakes are welcome to tweet their observations and/or information.

River Monsters - Alligator Gar

Not from Japan, but Amazing Fish Show - River Monsters


Save Japanese Dolphins with a Signature

The makers of "The Cove" want you to sign a petition to stop the inhumane slaughter of dolphins in Taiji, Japan.

Did you know dolphin meat can contain more than ten times as much mercury as tuna? You would have had you seen The Cove, the revelatory inside look at the Taiji, Japan dolphin hunt that was released last year and won the Oscar for best documentary.

You’d also know that 23,000 dolphins and porpoises are legally and uselessly slaughtered every year in Japanese waters. On Thursday, the filmmakers appeared on Oprah to remind the world that the issue persists and to tell viewers that there’s something we can do about it.

Sign the petition at, activist Ric O’Barry insists. That is, if you can access it. As of Thursday evening the site was unavailable due to a massive influx of Oprah fans. “O” can do that to an unprepared website.

“We need to get more signatures,” O’Barry said today. “We almost have a million for President Obama and for the Japanese government.” He’s sure to have plenty more than that before long. And he should. It’s a cause worthy of your support.

The mayor of Taiji disagrees, of course. He claims The Cove skews its facts and insists the annual slaughter is a sustainable cultural right. But the world at large has turned against the hunt. The Pacific bottlenose dolphin, while not endangered, is a crucial part of the coastal ecosystem. More than that, as anyone who saw the film will attest, the Taiji hunt is utterly inhumane. The blood-red waters and haphazard stacks of slowly dying animals portrayed in the film are more than emotional appeals. They’re evidence of a slaughter gone careless.

But if anything is more convincing than the footage, it’s the science of bioaccumulation. In one study, cetacean meat purchased in Japan was found to contain mercury levels of 9.6 ppm. The Japanese government standard is 0.4 ppm.

“It’s not just about saving dolphins,” The Cove director Louie Psihoyos tells the AP. “It’s about saving humans.” Either way, it’s a cause worth supporting.

"Without discipline, there's no life at all."

— Katharine Hepburn

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Rare Butterflies To Debut In Cincinnati Butterfly Show Features Species From Japan

CINCINNATI -- Thousands of butterflies are making the trip from Japan to Cincinnati.

The Krohn Conservatory will host its 15th Annual Butterfly Show beginning on Saturday. This year, the theme is butterflies from Japan.

"They have never been exhibited outside of the country of Japan so this is the first time ever," said Andrea Schepmann, general manager of the conservatory.

The butterflies are being shipped from Japan as chrysalis, which is the pupal stage between when the caterpillar becomes a butterfly. They're not shipped as caterpillars because those require food and can be problematic during shipping.

Getting the butterflies to the Krohn Conservatory is a bit more complicated than just putting them in the mail. The chrysalises have to go through customs in Los Angeles before making it to Cincinnati.

"They have to through the inspection ports, USDA, as well as Fish and Wildlife. If all the paperwork is not correct, they could get held up there," said Schepmann.

Once they make it through all the red tape, the chrysalises are delivered by FedEx and begin their metamorphosis.

There will be 75 different species of butterfly on display, including the Spring Venus. The exhibit begins Saturday and runs through June 20.


"Confidence....thrives only on honesty, on honor, on the sacredness of obligations, on faithful protection and on unselfish performance. Without them, it cannot live."

— Franklin D. Roosevelt

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The spirit of Japan's Ainu artists revival


Koji Yuki was 20 years old when he turned against his father and buried his Ainu identity. That was the year Shoji Yuki died; a radical activist, he had long fought to win legal rights for the Ainu, Japan's underclass, and have them recognized as an indigenous people. More than a century of government-backed racial and social discrimination and forced assimilation had stripped the once-proud hunter-gatherers and tradesmen of their identity and livelihood.

Jun Takagi for The Wall Street Journal

Singer Mina Sakai performs new works in the Ainu language (as well as in Japanese and English), accompanying herself on an amplified tonkori. The Ainu people's only stringed instrument, it was used originally by shamans to communicate with the kamuy, or spirits in nature.

The Ainu cause had torn apart the Yuki family. "My father divorced my mother when I was young and devoted himself to the Ainu liberation movement," says Mr. Yuki. "I couldn't understand the way he lived his life."

Years later, Mr. Yuki changed his mind about his father's efforts, and today the son is himself a powerful voice for the Ainu. But he speaks through culture rather than politics, as one of the leaders of a remarkable revival of Ainu arts, dance and music -- with a cool, contemporary edge.

The origins of the Ainu are still debated. The most popular theory is that they are descendants of the Jomon people who lived throughout Japan 13,000 years ago. They are considered a race different from the "mainland" Japanese, who are called "Wajin" in the Ainu language.

The Ainu eventually settled in Japan's north, and for centuries their villages dotted Sakhalin Island and the Kuril Islands. (These were seized by the Soviet Union at the end of World War II, though Japan has disputed the claim for four of the Kuril Islands.) The Ainu culture fell victim to Japanese expansion in the 1800s, and most Ainu now live in Hokkaido, the second-largest of Japan's four main islands. In 2006 the Hokkaido government put the number of people of Ainu ancestry there at about 24,000; the national census doesn't include such a count, but after generations of intermarriage the total is far larger. Many hide their Ainu identity, still fearful of discrimination.

Handsome with a powerful gait, Mr. Yuki, 45, reveals a shyness as he explains his work as a hanga (wood block print) artist. "Hanga is not part of the Ainu traditional arts, but woodcarving is," he says. "So I asked my favorite Japanese hanga artists to teach me. I might be the only Ainu doing this professionally." His prints are mainly of animals native to his Hokkaido homeland, such as the deer, fox, bear, owl and magnificent red-crowned crane. The island, known for its severe snowy winters (it's a popular ski destination), is the site of breathtaking mountain ranges, volcanoes, lush forests and crystal lakes, and unique flora and fauna. It's easy to understand the Ainu reverence for nature and the animistic belief in spirits.

"My prints are based on traditional Ainu legends, mainly animal spirits," says Mr. Yuki at a one-man exhibition in Tokyo. "The bear is especially important." Among the Ainu, the bear is considered the most sacred of animals; one of the works in the exhibition is "Hepere Cinita," or Dream of the Baby Bear. (All the works in the exhibition carry titles in the Ainu language.) His "Sarorun Kamuy," or Crane God, he says, "represents the Ainu's desire to return to their roots, like the great cranes that migrate back to Hokkaido every winter."

He created the work in 2008, after the Ainu won official indigenous status from the Japanese government. That followed the U.N. General Assembly's passage in 2007 of the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and came just before a 2008 Group of Eight wealthy nations summit in Hokkaido.

Mr. Yuki the hanga artist and carver is also a musician, founder and leader of the Ainu Arts Project, a decade-old community-based music group. "We're a native rock band based on traditional Ainu music," says Mr. Yuki, explaining that he was inspired by the aboriginal Australian band Yothu Yindi and Native American bands. The 25 members, from kids to seniors, perform 50 to 60 times a year. They sing mainly in the Ainu language and dress in the splendid Ainu attusi robe. Along with the guitar, drums and bass, they play the Ainu tonkori (like a zither) and mukkuri (similar to a jew's harp).

"We've chosen a rock sound because we don't want people to associate the Ainu with just old tradition," Mr. Yuki explained. "With hanga, music and singing I can convey the traditional Ainu culture and spirit with new expressions, just like Oki and Mina Sakai."

Mina Sakai is a 27-year-old musician who founded the Ainu Rebels hip-hop group; Oki is Oki Kanno, the dynamic, 50-something leader of the Oki Dub Ainu Band, and probably the Ainu's biggest star. Half-Ainu and half-Japanese (as is Ms. Sakai), Mr. Kanno has taken the band on tours of the U.S., Australia, South America, Europe and Africa, and collaborated with numerous indigenous artists, including the well-known Native American flutist R. Carlos Nakai and the Australian aboriginal band Waak Waak Jungi. The band's sound is a hot, rhythmic fusion of reggae (hence the "dub," a reggae genre), African music and electronica highlighted with traditional mukkuri and amplified tonkori.

"I'm called the 'Tonkori Man,'" Mr. Kanno says after a recent Tokyo gig where the packed house, including fans from Brazil, jumped and jived throughout the three-hour nonstop performance.

It was a tonkori that Mr. Kanno received as a gift in 1992 that persuaded him to pursue music. He had just returned to Japan after five years working in film production in New York City. Fluent in English (and its expletives), Mr. Kanno says he has no formal musical training. "But I've got my ancestors backing me, which makes my music strong," he adds. "My ancestors were really great. They created powerful rhythms and melodies, inspired by the different cultures they came in contact with through trading."

Unfretted, with three to five strings and a long, thin, wooden body, the tonkori is the Ainu people's only stringed instrument. With its limited pitch, it calls on the player to create rhythmic variations rather than melodies. Mr. Kanno spent 15 years getting his amplified version finely tuned; now he has a powerful, original sound that isn't drowned out by the bass and drums. Mr. Kanno is clear about his goal: "What I want to do is create a really cool Ainu groove, a new type of music."

A major impetus for the cultural revival was the Law for the Promotion of Ainu Culture, enacted in 1997 (a major turnaround from laws of the mid-1800s that cemented bans on the language and customs.) It led to the establishment of government-backed institutions such as the Ainu Culture Center in Tokyo, which opened that year.

Universities also are opening once-closed doors with courses in Ainu studies. Waseda University in Tokyo recently sponsored an indigenous-dance workshop with Native American Rosalie Daystar Jones and Ainu Rebels founder Ms. Sakai as guest teachers. (Ainu dance was added last year to Unesco's list of the intangible cultural heritage of humanity.)

Ms. Sakai, with a smile that lights up a room, has become an inspiration for young Ainu. Her own inspiration was a visit with Haida Indians in Canada during a high-school class trip. She loved their new songs -- cool, positive and energetic. After years of facing discrimination in her Hokkaido hometown, she suddenly took pride in her Ainu heritage.

Ms. Sakai and her brother, Atsushi, started the Ainu Rebels in 2006 as a way to dig into their Ainu roots. The group wore attusi robes and Ainu headwear and incorporated Ainu ritual dances like the crane dance for women and the sword dance for men. Lyrics were sung in the Ainu language -- with a fresh hip-hop take. Among older Ainu, reactions to the Rebels was mixed. "Because it was so new, some conservative elders didn't really like the idea, but others were happy about it," says Atsushi Sakai. The Tokyo-based group grew to eight members, all of Ainu descent, and was spotlighted as a case of empowered Ainu youth reviving and recreating Ainu tradition.

Ms. Sakai balanced her music with activism. In July 2008, just ahead of the G8 summit, she helped organize an event in Hokkaido that attracted indigenous peoples from around the world. The festival mixed traditional culture with calls for Ainu rights, including a formal apology from government leaders for past wrongs.

Caught between old and new worlds, Ms. Sakai is struggling to find her place as an artist. "It's important that I spread Ainu culture and create pride among the Ainu, so there is no more prejudice or discrimination against us," she explains. "But this means I am not totally free as an artist."

The Ainu Rebels disbanded last autumn because Ms. Sakai decided to pursue a career as a professional singer. (The Rebels were an amateur group.) In collaboration with composer Masashi Hamauzu, she is creating a contemporary sound that includes an amplified tonkori, with lyrics in English, Japanese and Ainu. "I'm now taking an Ainu language course," she says with a smile. "It's so important that the language is revived."

Like most Ainu, Ms. Sakai isn't fluent in the language (in which "Ainu" means simply "the people"). The language, which appears to have no genealogical connection with any other language family, is considered "critically endangered" -- one step up from extinct -- by Unesco, which cites a 2006 poll by the Hokkaido government that just 14 people believe they could teach it. Always spoken rather than written, the language was eventually recorded by transcribers in katakana, a Japanese syllabary, as well as Roman letters and Russian Cyrillic.

The Ainu epic narratives, called Yukar, were barely saved from extinction by transcribers such as Matsu Kannari, an Ainu who served as a Christian missionary. From 1926 until her death in 1961, Ms. Kannari (who wrote as Imekanu) recorded thousands of pages of the dramatic tales. Many are about gods, ancestors and heroes, and some are more than 8,000 lines long. Miraculously, they are still recited from memory by studious Ainu like Jirota Kitahara, 33, a bear of a man with a thick Ainu-style beard. Mr. Kitahara began learning the Yukar in earnest at 18, listening to old tape recordings of Yukar performances with his parent's Ainu music group.

"The Yukar are kind of like action movies," he explains. "Part of one epic I recited today is about a warrior who falls in love with a very beautiful lady he discovers among the enemy -- a kind of 'Romeo and Juliet' theme." Mr. Kitahara's performance on the large Tokyo stage was far from the homey irori -- sunken hearths -- where Ainu storytellers of old entertained their audiences. But he captivated his audience, young and old, with a vigorous, undulating delivery that reverberated throughout the hall. Following tradition, he was accompanied by an assistant who set the tempo with the beat of a stick. While the Ainu language, Yukar, storytelling and folk tales are slowly gaining interest among the Japanese, Mr. Kitahara says there's a long way to go.

Illustrator and manga artist Sayo Ogasawara's solution lies in online picture books. Written in Japanese and Ainu, her "digital books" are part of a series of illustrated Ainu folk tales for children available on the Ainu Culture Center Web site. Kids can click onto tales like "The Girl Who Became a Woodpecker" that teach about Ainu history. (In the best fable tradition, they also carry morals. The woodpecker story's: Take care of your elders...or else!)

"My mother didn't teach me about Ainu things," says Ms. Ogasawara, who grew up in Hokkaido and now lives in Tokyo. "Ainu of her generation wanted to get rid of their heritage." Half-Japanese, she began to learn about her Ainu heritage in junior high school when writing a report on her family. Intrigued, she decided to learn more on her own. Tall with a graceful step, Ms. Ogasawara, 34, became a dancer and back-up singer with the Ainu Rebels. Now as she creates a new genre of Ainu art, she says, "There's so much I want to share. I'm still learning."

Embroidery artist Shizue Ukaji, 76, knows well the struggle to learn and the joy of sharing her heritage. "When I was a child, I really wanted to draw pictures, but like most Ainu we were so poor we had no pencils or paper to draw on," she recalls. In time, as a young adult, she was able to follow her passion. Protesting for Ainu rights followed, despite objections from many fellow Ainu. Now, as an elder, she is deeply respected for her years of dedication to the cause.

Drawing led Ms. Ukaji to embroidery and appliqué a decade ago. She may spend as much as a year making one of her traditional attusi robes, with appliquéd geometric patterns and intricate embroidery; they're prized for their beauty and worn for special occasions. (The traditional Ainu patterns, bold and stylized, have no representational meaning, though cuffs and hems are often embroidered with thorn-like shapes -- as Ms. Ukaji explains, to "prevent evil spirits from entering the body.") Once made of fish and animal skins and later with textiles woven from tree bark and plant fibers, the robes are now mostly cotton.

One day, her embroidery led to an epiphany. "I realized, when threads are bound together, they become strong and something new," she says, pointing to a beautiful new attusi robe with geometric appliqu[eacute] not unlike an abstract painting. Inspired by her ancestors, she used a material made from woven plant fibers. "Threads like these are important for all of humanity."

—Lucy Birmingham is a writer based in Tokyo.

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