Ainu skull stolen in 1879 makes historic return from Berlin

Fukimo Yoshigaki, The Asahi Shimbun
August 3, 2017

"An Ainu skull that was dug up by a German grave robber in 1879 has finally returned from Berlin to its homeland in Hokkaido.

The repatriation at the behest of the Japanese government makes Germany the first nation to officially return the remains of an Ainu individual.

A handover ceremony was held at the Japanese Embassy in Berlin on July 31, and the skull was placed temporarily in a charnel house for displaced Ainu remains at Hokkaido University on Aug. 2.

An Ainu ritual to pray for repose of soul of the dead, called “icarpa,” is scheduled to be held Aug. 4.

“The remains of our ancestor must be pleased to be back home,” said Tadashi Kato, executive director of the Ainu Association of Hokkaido, after placing the skull in the charnel house. “We would like to give it a hearty icarpa, and tell it how pleased we are to have restored its honor and dignity.”

The skull had been in the collection of Berliner Gesellschaft fur Anthropologie, Ethnologie und Urgeschichte (Berlin Society for Anthropology, Ethnology, and Prehistory).

An academic journal said it had been “dug up under cover of night” from a cemetery in Sapporo.

The Berlin-based private academic society agreed for the return as it was “collected through an inappropriate process.”

The ceremony at the Japanese Embassy in Berlin was attended by Kato and Alexander Pashos, who heads the society.

Thousands of Ainu remains were exhumed mostly for anthropological inspection, often without proper consent of families, and some were taken abroad, starting in the latter half of the 19th century.

Hokkaido University used to have more than 1,000 sets of specimens in a collection. After a public outcry, it built the charnel house in 1984 to give them proper respect as deceased people."

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