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 objective of this project is to enhance the existing database of Ainu artifacts owned by the National Museum of Ethnology, Japan (hereinafter, Minpaku), to provide a user-friendly database to those interested in the Ainu culture in Japan and overseas. At the same time, the project aims to clarify how the collection work for the items in the collection (folkcrafts) and the ethnological research of the Ainu culture are interrelated, by analyzing the process by which the collection was assembled.
At present Minpaku owns nearly 5,000 items of Ainu cultural materials. In recent years, interest in Ainu culture has heightened and these items are used by Minpaku staff and also loaned to other institutions. They are used frequently for a specific purpose, such as research or restoration. However, the public database, which contains an overview of the collection or information on individual items within it, is not easily accessible to outsiders.
In this project, we will organize the items in the collection and add information to them, create a classification system that will enable search even without knowing an item’s name, and build a database that will be used by the successors within the Ainu culture, in particular.


The Ainu collection owned by Minpaku contains a considerable number of items collected in a well-planned manner; for example, by commissioning an artifact specifically for an exhibition. However, most items were transferred from different institutions either when Minpaku was established, or were bequeathed to the museum either when former private owner died or through a decision by the bereaved. These items were not collected by Minpaku researchers when studying folkcrafts in production or in use at an Ainu site, but were accepted by Minpaku in bulk at one time. Therefore, information regarding each item is either frequently lacking or insufficient. To make these items fully usable, it is essential to collect information on the former owner or collector, clarify the history of the collection, and add such information to the data on the items.
At the same time, heavy expectation is being placed on the making of a database for public use, in which the successors to, and crafts persons, researchers, and students of the Ainu culture, who wish to study its folkcrafts, diffuse and promote their exhibitions, or restore them in an effort to inherit their craftsmanship, can find the materials together with comprehensive information. In particular, because many stakeholders of the Ainu culture live in Hokkaido and therefore it is difficult for them to conduct research at Minpaku, publication of an accurate database will both facilitate and promote Ainu cultural studies. By making the database interactive, we will also be able to collect information on differences among localities and names of things of each locality, and so forth, which could not be obtained through firsthand research only
This project will follow the process described below:

  1. For the entire Ainu collection and materials owned by Minpaku, we will photograph and scan the former owner's registry, tags, documents associated with the purchase of the item, other related documents and photographs, and information written directly on the item, if such information has not been digitized already;
  2. We will cross-check already digitized information with the former owner's registry, tags, documents associated with the purchase of the item, other related documents and photographs, etc., and either enter or revise the data;
  3. If confirmation of the collection point is required, we will conduct fieldwork. If a hearing or an interview with those related to the former owner is required, we will conduct such an interview, inviting the interviewee to Minpaku and examining the item concerned together that person;
  4. In parallel, we will organize the name of each item (in Japanese and Ainu), translate it into English, discuss the classification system using OMC information as a reference, and build the contents of the database. While doing so, we will also organize discussion meetings with the intended users of the database, such as the stakeholders and researchers of the Ainu Association of Hokkaido, the Foundation for Research and Promotion of Ainu Culture, among others;
  5. We will collate all the information collected through the above processes to create an interactive multilingual database in collaboration with the members of the System Development Working Group of the Info-Forum Museum Committee. We will upload the database in phases from year 2, and keep updating and revising it after it becomes operational; and
  6. In the last year of the project, we will organize a symposium for creating a network of Ainu collection information, with the participation of curators and researchers of overseas institutions that own Ainu materials.
Expected results

Note: The results also reveal what kind of database it would be.
Detailed information on the Ainu collection so far unpublished outside Minpaku will become accessible to successors to and researchers and students of the Ainu culture, thereby contributing to the its promotion and research. . The issue of non-unified naming convention, which has prevented users from finding needed materials, will be resolved by an area-of-interest search, and any related materials, may also be picked up in the search to broaden the horizon of the researcher. The database will be usable as a part of the history of Ainu studies, as it will contain information on the background of the collection and the previous collector (owner), in addition to updated information on each item. Moreover, the info-forum-type functionalities will help focus on data requiring correction or addition, thereby contributing to the enhancement and evolution of the database itself as well as the development of our resultant research.
The database will be available not only in Hokkaido but also in areas distant from it thereby enabling access to information on the Ainu collection. Therefore it will be usable for diffusion of and education on the Ainu culture.

Outcomes from 2016

1. The state of the implementation of this year’s research
We worked on data input and correction by collating all Ainu objects owned by the National Museum of Ethnology (Minpaku) with the data books of former owners, purchase documents and related literature based on the information in the existing detailed database (internal version) for the objects, in order to organize the basal information of a database. During this process, we scanned non-digitalized data books of former owners, purchase documents and related literature. For the approximately 200 objects previously owned by the late-Moriyuki KAIZAWA, located in Nibutani, Biratori-cho, about which almost no previous information has been recorded, we conducted an inspection survey of the objects at Minpaku together with invited family members.
We prepared digital texts of “Naigai dozokuhin zushu” (“Illustrated Book of Domestic and Overseas Folk Articles”) (Supervised by Kotondo HASEBE, Edited by the Anthropological Society of Tokyo, and published by Hounsha in 1938-1939), where 1,000 objects (not only from the Ainu but from all over the world) of the Department of Anthropology, Faculty of Sciences, The University of Tokyo are introduced, because some of its detailed information was not input into the internal version of the detailed database for artifacts.
In addition, as preparation for the English translation, we selected English names of the objects from the related literature.
We also held discussions with researchers and staff members of outside universities, museums, and Ainu-related organizations, all participating Inter-University Project Researchers, so as to create a useful database.

2. Overview of the research results (achievements of the research objects)
As mentioned above, in this fiscal year we proceeded with the collection of basal information, correction of the existing database, and inputting of additional information, as preparatory work for the establishment of a database. We collected the literature on our objects when scanning the material..
For the approximately 200 objects previously owned by the late-Moriyuki KAIZAWA, on which had almost no information has been recorded, we conducted an inspection survey at Minpaku together with invited family members (his wife and children). From this we obtained information on the producers of the objects, and when and how the objects were produced and collected.
We have almost completed the preparatory work planned for the first year.

3. Records disclosing achievements (publications, public symposia, sectional meetings of academic conferences, electronic media, etc.)
None as outcomes.
For an overview, please refer to the article “For Utilization of Ainu Objects” “Minpaku Tsushin [“Minpaku News Letter”] 155:10-11.