YouTube Itak: a description of Ainu-related videos – Humanities and Social Sciences Communications

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The Ainu are an Indigenous group currently living primarily in Japan. Following the cultural revitalisation of laws and social movements and the appropriation of new technologies, Ainu communities are increasingly using social media to disseminate their culture. However, research on the Ainu people has rarely discussed their communication strategies in current media. In this study, a total of 428 Ainu-related videos uploaded on YouTube were analysed. Basic information about the videos was obtained through the YouTube application programming interface and additional information was acquired by watching them. The videos were categorised into three groups: those produced only by Ainu people, with Ainu people, or without Ainu collaborators. Statistical and qualitative differences between release and upload dates, keywords, categories, conceptualisers, producers, presenters, YouTube metrics, tags, and video descriptions were used to uncover the different types of content created and/or endorsed by Ainu people and the communication strategies used by them and their allies. The combination of quantitative and qualitative methods based on Indigenous communication approaches adopted in this study proved to be useful in understanding Indigenous media in online contexts.

Humans have developed diverse communication systems to disseminate information to others. In our current world, where internet adoption increases in volume and speed every year and related tools are adopted, a plethora of media from all corners of the globe has emerged. Despite the apparent hegemony of some forms of such media, alternatives called contra-flows exist. Based on Thussu (2007), contra-flows can be considered as media objects emanating from a wide range of actors with a special focus on creative and cultural industries, divided into two types: transnational flows dependent on private and state sponsors such as the Bollywood film industry in India, and Geo-cultural flows that cater to specific cultural-linguistic audiences who may be scattered around the world, such as the Baidu internet-based service company in China. Some of the most relevant implications of media contra-flows are knowledge and economic benefits from abroad pouring to a specific region, with this region potentially becoming a noted part of the dynamics of power relations at a global level.

A post-colonial perspective of contraflows defines them as semantic referents for the institutional, cultural, and political matrix of spaces framed by power and negotiations dynamics, where national, cultural, and individual identities are contested in terms of local, national and global citizenships (Kavoori, 2007). If we consider this definition of contra-flows, one of them can be Indigenous communication, which focuses on the knowledge transfer systems and tools used and/or adapted by First Nations. Communication is perceived as an immaterial, collective, patrimonial right. However, individuals and sometimes entire Indigenous communities have become more mobile, with differences between them deepening due to migration, access to higher education, and relations with states. Indigenous migration has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, influencing ontological variations (e.g., relationships with their hometown) and cultural practices among those with migration experiences (Kahambing, 2022). In this techno-sociocultural context, communication is also more diversified, challenging Indigenous people and their allies to identify shared aspects.

Knowledge embodied and transferred through multiple senses can generate more integrated experiences and reconstruct a more authentic reality. This is particularly relevant for the study of multimedia objects that involve multiple senses. Thus, Indigenous media, as a subset of Indigenous communication, can be understood as media conceptualised, produced, and circulated by Indigenous people to preserve their knowledge, communicate, express themselves, reaffirm sovereignty, and exert political influence (Wilson et al., 2014).

Within the fields of Indigenous communication and Indigenous media, the Ainu have received limited research attention. The world of the Ainu, known as Ainu Mosir, is currently used as an ambiguous concept for the geographical demarcation of the activities of the Ainu people, although some conceptualise it as a set of knowledge, epistemologies, and behaviours. For example, tesagari (searching by hand) in Ainu crafts sparks contact with memory, the past, heritage praxis, and an ancestral vision described as Ainu no seishin (intention or spirit; Lewallen, 2017). Our study argues that Ainu Mosir, as a set of living, diverse knowledges and practices, also exists in online spaces. Therefore, it is relevant to examine openly available Ainu-related multimedia to identify the diversity and similarity of their discourses, contributing to enhanced accountability, reciprocity, and multiple knowledge among Ainu and other Indigenous communities.

The rest of this paper is organised as follows: First, we review studies on Indigenous and Ainu media, identifying research gaps and theories that underlie our methods described in the ‘Methods’ section. Next, we report our results, followed by an in-depth discussion. Finally, we conclude this study by outlining its strengths and limitations.

Some of the first Indigenous media studies unpacked how to transfer Indigenous communication methods to mass media in Nigeria (Ugboajah, 1979). Subsequently, research expanded to examine Indigenous film and television in Australia (Ginsburg, 1994) and Indigenous videos in Latin America (Córdoba, 2011) and Ecuador (León Mantilla, 2015). Political filmmaking in Bolivia (Zamorano Villarreal, 2017) and Indigenous film as a decolonising tool in Ecuador (Torres Idrovo, 2018) were also analysed, with newspapers and print media such as the Mapuche press coverage in Chile (Salazar, 2004) being among the most explored topics by researchers.

Studies explored the representations of Indigenous people in the Swedish and Canadian press coverage of climate change (Roosvall and Tegelberg, 2013) and in newspapers from Germany, India, South Africa, and the United States (Wozniak et al., 2015). In addition, they examined the Mapuche conflict with corporations in Chile (del Valle Rojas et al., 2019) and similar Indigenous issues in the United States (Bacon, 2020), as well as how the silence of print media contributed to Indigenous economic exclusion in Peru (Palacios and Illarec, 2020).

Research with more general purposes included investigating the impact of media on young Indigenous people in Latin America (Perez Ruiz, 2008), journalism and Indigenous health in Australia (McCallum, 2011), and global mobilisation in the Americas and Australia (Mako, 2012). Succeeding studies examined Indigenous radio stations in Mexico (Gasparello, 2012), Colombia and Latin America (Cuesta Moreno, 2012), and Argentina (Doyle, 2018).

General studies focused on the translation of Indigenous communication to new media in Africa (Okigbo, 1995; Nyamnjoh, 1996), including the limitations of copyright in South Africa (Moahi, 2007). Scholars documented the transition of Indigenous media into new media in Australia (Ginsburg, 2016), social and digital media adoption in Australia (Rice et al., 2016), and futuristic Indigenous media (Lempert, 2018). Arcila Calderón and colleagues (2018) identified four analytical approaches to Indigenous media in Latin America, which we believe can be applied elsewhere: (1) Media and information and communication technology appropriation, (2) policies and regulation, (3) Indigenous media, and (4) communication from Buen Vivir. Further, they argued that media may serve the following three functions:

Among Indigenous media frameworks, the Asociación de Cabildos Indígenas del Norte del Cauca (ACIN) documented in Almendra (2010) articulated the communication and adoption of new media among the Nasa community in Colombia through the Tejido de Comunicación para la Verdad y la Vida (Weave Communication for Life and Truth). The communication process is weaved by threads (media tools), internal knots (Indigenous people), external knots (allies), and holes (topics and their active communication processes). This approach seeks to contribute to the construction of other possible worlds, an aspect that coincides with Buen Vivir (Good living) communication frameworks. Buen Vivir was born from Andean Quechua and Aymara, seeking to construct ethical and culturally rooted practical knowledge that challenge the Westernised tendency to universalise and separate theory, practice, knowledge, and values, constructing multiple epistemologies resulting from cultural diversity (Gudynas, 2011).

Regarding social media, studies examined Diaguitas’ use of radio, Facebook, and Twitter in Argentina (Toulemont, 2013), as well as Indigenous webpages and blogs in Mexico and Latin America (Sandoval Forero, 2013); Maori digital storytelling (Beltrán and Begun, 2014); dissemination of knowledge and skills through social media in East Africa (Owiny et al., 2014); and social media practices in Southwestern Amazonia (Virtanen, 2015). Scholars documented online engagement of Indigenous tour operators with tourists in Australia (Mkono, 2016), the Sami anti-mining protests on Twitter (Lindgren and Cocq, 2017), hashtag activism in Canada (Moscato, 2016), and Native American performativity in old videos posted on YouTube (Berglund, 2016). Furthermore, studies explored Australian-based racism on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube (Matamoros Fernández, 2017) and found collective Indigenous trauma on social media (Carlson et al., 2017).

The research observed political social media use in Mexico (Duarte, 2017) and documented the Igorot diaspora on Facebook groups (Botangen et al., 2018). Studies examined Mayan rap on YouTube (Cru, 2018), health information on Australian social media (Hefler et al., 2019), Nepali Indigenous dance on YouTube (Wettstein, 2019), politics of hope on Australian social media (Carlson and Frazer, 2020) and an Indigenous Peruvian music video on YouTube (Aguiló, 2020). Scholars explored formats of Indigenous multimedia and internet media in Mexico and Central America (Gómez Menjívar et al., 2019) and compiled Indigenous and Afro-American media across Latin America (Orobitg and Canals, 2020). Varied interests and concerns related to artificial intelligence (AI) were found on the internet and in multimedia spaces among Indigenous people (Lewis et al., 2020), which overlap with the needs of other groups, such as women and disability communities.

Since the mid-2000s, feminist and decolonial perspectives have been employed to analyse media for and by Indigenous people. Little attention was paid to age, ethnicity, class, and disability inequalities, with most studies being focused on local and regional Indigenous media to detriment of international dialogues.

Indigenous social media studies are a recent trend, with research dating back to 2013 and mostly focussing on Oceania and the Americas. The few studies related to YouTube examined the content and comments of only one or two videos. The plurality of heterogeneous knowledge and the interconnections of that knowledge must be recognised without forgetting Indigenous autonomy. We thus uncovered Ainu communication strategies across regional and international multimedia based on Weave Communication (ACIN in Almendra, 2010) and Indigenous media functions (Arcila Calderón et al., 2018). However, Ainu perspectives must be incorporated, which are identified in the following section.

Researchers have analysed early Ainu movies by European filmmakers and scholars (e.g., Okada, 1999; Centeno Martin, 2017). Kayano mentioned his painstaking efforts to document Ainu customs on audio tape and film in his memoir (Kayano et al., 1994), collaborating in the production of the first documentaries made with and for Ainu in the 1970s. Recent politicised documentaries, such as those related to ancestor remains, have also been examined (Dollin, 2020); however, these studies focus on one or two audio-visual materials from an ethnographic perspective.

Investigations examining numerous media include Uni (2014), who compiled a database of Ainu-related documentaries made by the Japan Broadcasting Corporation (Nippon Hoso Kyokai [NHK]). Because such materials are difficult to access, further research on a big data scale has not yet been conducted. Radio programmes and documentaries have been a fundamental way of preserving and teaching the Ainu language, while most Ainu people obtain information about their culture through newspapers and television (Onai, 2016). Moreover, Ainu materials related to pop culture have rarely been discussed in depth. Notable exceptions include the role of pop culture in stereotyping the Ainu people (Chupuchisekor, 1999), analysis of the Golden Kamuy manga (Ruiz Flores, 2020; Edwards, 2020), and Ainu characters in Samurai Spirits video games (Spiker, 2020).

Hayashi-Simpliciano (2020) addressed the transnational, multicultural, and spiritual diversity of Ainu in the Diaspora who have been generationally removed from the physical Ainu Mosir through the Ainu Neno An Ainu (to be a truly humane human) framework of spiritual affinity. Academic research has the capability of exacerbating the divide in power between researcher and participant, as “Indigenous people have been in many ways oppressed by theory” (Smith, 2000, p. 38). Therefore, it is suggested that a researcher could craft a theoretical lens specific to the distinct needs of Ainu in Diaspora who are descendants of historically oppressed people attempting to reclaim their identity through multimedia documentation of their community and familial stories.

Ainu Neno An Ainu was pulled from ideas consistent with a postcolonialism and neocolonialism theoretical framework, postmodernist definitions of diaspora (Safran, 2007), and the transformative paradigm (Mertens, 2010), to address the unique needs of a multimedia and art-based community-driven research project seeking to empower Ainu in Diaspora. Such a framework aids in understanding that the Ainu in Diaspora conceptualisation of identity is tied to a worldview that braids together historical, physical, and spiritual connections. This enables the researcher to contextualise the trauma of Ainu’s kotan (village) rift and the healing found in community building and affinity. Thus, the Ainu Neno An Ainu framework highlights the ways that an Ainu in Diaspora can strengthen or weaken their connection to their own Ainuness (humaneness).

Next, we are going to discuss Hayashi-Simpliciano’s (2020) Moshiri/Mosir model. From a Western perspective, the model is comparable to grounded theory in that both are qualitative strategies (Creswell, 2007). Such an approach is appropriate when researchers cannot determine where they are going in the research process until they have done a significant analysis of the data, which is grounded in the views and perspectives of the participants (Creswell, 2007). The Ainu worldview can be framed in complex interweaving and intersectional layers, where the physical plain is woven in layered relationships with the metaphysical realms (Yamada, 2002). Time is thus a continuum in which the ancestors and the divine are constantly interacting with the environment of this realm to influence the expression of knowledge. It is important to note that the Mosir or layered planes simultaneously interact with the Ainu as a conduit for knowledge through creativity, the process of storying self, and in the expression of stories.

To dismiss the storying of experiences through the act of creation would be to dismiss the distinct Ainu paradigm that guides the understanding of how Ainu shares knowledge. Therein lies the premise of a research methodology rooted in the Ainu worldview. In the Ainu worldview, artistic practices, and the acknowledgement of spiritual or divine sources of knowledge, are all important aspects of data collection. For this research, the Mosir model stands out as an Indigenous-based and uniquely Ainu methodology which helps researchers identify when the subtle nuances of the traditional Ainu worldview surface in video and digital story sharing.

The model comprises Pokna Mosir (ancestral plane), Kamuy Mosir (future plane), and Ainu Mosir (human/creativity plane), where time is a continuum in which the ancestors and deities (Kamuy) are constantly interacting with the human environment, influencing creative expression. Through multimedia platforms which include Ainu practices, visual imagery, fashion, music, lyrical delivery, and technology; the stories of Ainu ascend through the Mosir Model to become narratives of resistance (Denzin, 2001) on the YouTube platform.

Unfortunately, research remains scant on projects involving contemporary technology and Ainu people, such as project mapping (Akan Ainu Kotan, 2019), interactive media (Akan Adventure Tourism, 2019), and AI (Okuyama et al., 2018). Mertens explained that transformative researchers would “consciously and explicitly position themselves side by side with the less powerful in a joint effort to bring about social transformation” (2019, p. 21). In centering the needs and experiences of the most marginalised, the transformative paradigm indicates the necessity to re-story the Ainu experience (Fig. 1).

Through the act of viewing Ainu stories on YouTube and carving out space for Ainu to process the information on the videos, and then visualise a future where the information on the videos can be applied, the uniquely Ainu cultural aspects of the Mosir model and social justice elements of the transformative paradigm serve to humanise and indigenise the methodological approach in the research. Such aspects correspond to the inwards function of Indigenous communication. Therefore, these frameworks can be adopted in our study to examine multiple Ainu-related audio-visual materials in online spaces from plural and transnational perspectives, describing their Itak (‘language’ in Ainu).

Our research questions are as follows:

Based on our research questions, the objectives of the present study are:

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