The National Museum of Ethnology (Minpaku) is a research center for ethnology and cultural anthropology.

Re-examination and Documentation of the Ainu Collection at Minpaku

Research period: April 2016 - March 2020 / Project for Database Establishment (project period: max. 4 years) Coordinator SAITO Reiko

Reserch Theme List



 The main goals of this project are the exploration of material culture in island environments from the perspective of ecological adaptation, to clarify the processes by which natural resources are selected, and to systemize the local knowledge and technical background that is put into practice. To effect these ends, we shall examine tools and crafts created and used in Taiwan and neighboring islands, including the Ryukyu Islands. Basic information related to the ecosystems in which tools are made and used, in addition to their cultural relevance, will be obtained through local studies and from literature study.
 This information will be used (1) to establish a database that allows the correlation of the above two main goals, and (2) to facilitate the collection of local knowledge in a multilayered manner using the database to rediscover traditional knowledge and to clarify new knowledge based on information derived from field and literature studies.


 The main goals of this project are to elucidate the material culture of island environments from the perspective of ecological adaptation, to clarify the process by which people select resources from the natural environment, and to systemize local knowledge and technical backgrounds used to practice the above. By this approach, material culture is regarded as a survival device created through an ecological adaptation strategy to establish a universal material culture model. However, research has clarified the negotiation relationships and occupational castes and the like among hunter–gatherers, herders and farmers, and has revealed that multiple groups of people inhabiting both different and similar natural environments adopt different occupation strategies and establish complementary relationships among groups. Groups are also well-known to have the same ecological adaptation in similar natural environments and are known to have established different ethnicities with evolved differences in details of the material culture. The overarching goal of this project, based on the Center’s abundant sample materials and relevant ethnographic videos and audio and historical materials, is to explore the common aspects and differences such ecological environments and ethnicities have imparted to material culture.
 To achieve the research objectives presented above, this project will observe how material culture is positioned ecologically and culturally by comprehensive collection and analysis of functions, including materials and uses, and information, such as manufacturing techniques, and the like by particularly addressing materials for neighboring island regions, mainly Taiwan and the Ryukyu Islands. These regions were selected as the emphasis for study and research targets because their natural environments are similar, yet they are ethnically diverse.
 The main emphasis is Taiwan, in which Nobayashi (the Coordinator) specializes. Materials for the Tayal, in the north, the Paiwan, in the south, and the Tao, who inhabit an island environment, will be a particular emphasis for verification. First, we will promote local and case studies to conduct cross-verification of material information by local persons and domestic and overseas researchers. After verifying the effectiveness of these methods, we will initiate material studies for the Ryukyu Islands and other areas close to Taiwan. In this way, we aim to promote an efficient and effective project. Using the processes described above, we expect to collect local knowledge in a multilayered manner, with the aims of rediscovering traditional knowledge and of clarifying new knowledge.

Expected results

Note: Results also reveal what kind of database it would be.
The expected results of this project can be summarized as the following five points.
1) Systematize the local knowledge and technical background related to material culture in the island environments and establish the methodology.
2) Clarify common aspects and differences in the material cultures of Taiwan, the Ryukyu Islands and neighboring areas, to explain the ecological and cultural contexts in which they were formed.
3) Provide the research community with a multilingual environment that enables online information science analyses related to material cultures, by establishing a comprehensive database related to material cultures in Taiwan and the Ryukyu Islands. More specifically, the database will have an interface that will allow operation in Japanese, Chinese, and English and which will provide basic data (material names, ethnic group names, etc.) also in these three languages. It will be equipped with a function to add notes to data online and provide links to similar materials in the databases published by major museums and research institutions in Taiwan and the original information related to materials at Minpaku in the format of the original texts.
4) While establishing an organization required to promote this project, we shall conclude academic agreements with domestic and overseas research facilities, and also establish cooperative relationships with material source communities. In addition, the Center will become a core facility for material culture research on Taiwan and the Ryukyu Islands. These transformations are expected to enhance interoperability.
5) Actively promote the participation of young researchers and main parties of source communities in studies and research required to promote this project, with the aim of developing next-generation researchers for the conduct of local research.

Annual Report

Outcomes from 2017
1. The state of the implementation of this year's research

Continuing from the last fiscal year, we searched for documents and other materials related to all items in the Ainu collection of Minpaku as the basic information for the database, verified such documents with the information in the existing detailed database of artifact collections (for internal use), and continue to input and revise data. We continued the digitization of relevant sections of the documents.
Among the relevant documents, we organized texts from Naigai Dozokuhin Zushuu (a collection of pictures of domestic and foreign folk custom items) listing 1,000 items from the collection formerly held by the Department of Anthropology, Faculty of Science, The University of Tokyo (Hounsha; 1938-39) for trial release in the museum.
Additionally, we conducted detailed reviews of specific artifacts (“emus at” (sword sashes) and “tar” (carry straps) for the current fiscal year) with inter-university project researchers to add more information.
We examined improvements that should be done using the current database of clothing-related collections with cooperation of the craftspeople sent by the Ainu Association of Hokkaido.
Furthermore, we selected Ainu names for artifacts from recent documents such as the pictorial records of crafts exhibitions of the Foundation for Research and Promotion of Ainu Culture to prepare for Ainu language translation.
In addition, we held discussions to develop a useful database considering the progress with members of universities, other museums, and organizations related to Ainu serving as inter-university project researchers.

2. Overview of the research results (achievements of the research objects)

As described above, we continued to collect and verify information in the current fiscal year and made corrections and additions of information such as years and regions that had not been recorded in the existing database. We collected and digitized documents describing the artifacts.
We also conducted detailed reviews of “emus at” (sword sashes) and “tar” (carry straps) with the inter-university project researchers. We were able to add new information related to techniques and materials.
Additionally, we were able to investigate and examine the factors demanded for a database of materials related to clothing with craftspeople assigned by the Ainu Association of Hokkaido.

3. Records disclosing achievements (publications, public symposia, sectional meetings of academic conferences, electronic media, etc.)

“Possibility of Reinvestigation from Former Owners (tentative)” Minpaku Tsushin [Minpaku News Letter] No. 159 (scheduled to be issued in March 2018)

Outcomes from 2016
1. The state of the implementation of this year's research

After organizing the basic information on Formosan materials, we have completed preparation of a data book written in Japanese, Chinese and English. In addition, making full use of the internet and documentary records to conduct preliminary research we made a summary review of the storage condition of these materials at overseas museums, such as differences in specimen names according to museum.
After designing the interactive database platform with these basal data as its basic contents in Japanese, Chinese and English, a trial operation was begun in the National Museum of Ethnology (Minpaku). Since no serious problems emerged, an international workshop entitled “International Multilingual Exchange Platform for Formosan Materials” was held at the ”Indigenous Peoples Cultural Development Center, the Council of Indigenous Peoples” in Pingtung County, Taiwan on November 26, 2016. This was done both for practical purposes and as a verification experiment. The multilingual database was used jointly by researchers in several areas (anthropology, museology, informatics and natural history) both at home and overseas, as well as persons in the source communities for verification of the interface and consideration of practical approaches for sharing knowledge.
At the end of the fiscal year, we will hold a plenary meeting for reporting the annual activities and sharing the formulated plan among the project members.

2. Overview of the research results (achievements of the research objects)

In this fiscal year we have achieved the following goals: 1) Field study to collect information on Formosan materials; 2) Organization of the Formosan-related materials accumulated so far and their “multilingualization” (Japanese, Chinese and English); and 3) Convening an international workshop related to trial production, use and design of the interactive multilingual database. For the Ryukyu Islands materials we are considering an organizational approach according to the operational status of the platform for Formosan materials. After establishing a platform model for Formosan materials, we will proceed with the plans step-by-step in the next year.

3. Records disclosing achievements (publications, public symposia, sectional meetings of academic conferences, electronic media, etc.)

Exhibition of research outcomes entitled “Images of Taiwan Indigenous Peoples” in the Thematic Exhibition Hall, from August 4 through October 4, 2016.
International workshop entitled “International Multilingual Exchange Platform for Formosan Materials” at the Indigenous Peoples Cultural Development Center, the Council of Indigenous Peoples” in Pingtung County, Taiwan, on November 26, 2016.