During the 2018 fall reading week, Dr. Gary Crawford, a professor in UTM’s anthropology department who specializes in archaeological botany and environmental archaeology, ventured to Hokkaido, Japan with four of his undergraduate students, to investigate the beginning of agriculture in Northern Japan. Travelling with students Grace Chan, Casey Lun, Eugene Tolentino, and Stefanija Stojkoska, the group studied the relationship between plants and the Indigenous people of the area, the Ainu, as a part of the ANT399Y Research Opportunity Program. This trip, organized by UTM’s International Education Centre, allowed the students to develop their research skills and their understanding of the archeological history of Japan. Last week, Dr. Crawford and his students sat down with The Medium to discuss their time in Japan.

According to Crawford, the Ainu indigenous community of Northern Japan, are frequently portrayed in literature as “the classic example of hunters and gatherers in the northern forest.” However, this assumption appears to be incorrect. About 30 years ago, Crawford and a research team from Japan discovered that the Ainu were actually a population of farmers, a revelation that drastically changed the understanding of agriculture in Northern Japan.

Currently, Crawford conducts forensic analysis on charred plant remains found at archeological sites and interprets that data to investigate the origins of agriculture and the insights they may provide about humanity’s history. In ANT399, he teaches his four undergraduate research students how to identify plant remains from sites, how to interpret those identifications, and what the implications of doing so are.

When people think of Japan, they may only visualize big cities like Tokyo. Tourists often journey to Japan to see sights in Tokyo, but may only travel up north to visit Hokkaido for ski season, as Sapporo, the capital of Hokkaido, is a popular ski destination. Most people, as Crawford notes, may have never heard of the Ainu community at all. This is part of the reason why Crawford decided to bring the anthropology students to this specific location.

“That’s the reason for taking students [to Hokkaido], to show people that it’s a real place, with real people, who have real issues. It’s all about learning about the identity and history of the Ainu people in Northern Japan,” Crawford explains

Although Lun and Chan have both visited Japan before, they were interested to see how this experience would differ. “I’ve been to Hokkaido before, but it was more as a tourist,” says Lun, a fourth-year anthropology specialist and forensic science minor. “The experience is dramatically different [visiting as an academic] rather than visiting a country as a tourist.”

Chan, a third-year forensic anthropology specialist, is interested in working with the justice system and law enforcement, but when she heard about the trip from one of her professors she believed it would be a good experience to “research things that weren’t necessarily connected to [her] specific specialty.”

Stojkoska, a fifth-year majoring in anthropology and minoring in biology and environmental science, says that the trip was “kind of a spur of the moment” decision. “I was interested and captivated by the topic and I have never learned anything about that part of the world and I thought that I’m probably never going to get this opportunity again, it doesn’t hurt to apply,” she says.

A few weeks before the group departed for their trip, Hokkaido made news headlines after a powerful 6.6-magnitude earthquake triggered landslides and killed more than 40 people. The entire island of Hokkaido remained without power for two days, as they had to shut down the power supply station that provided citizens with electricity. Crawford explains that the island quickly adjusted and recovered from the devastation, and that when the group visited in October, they couldn’t even tell there had been an earthquake.

Despite the recovery, a small earthquake rocked Hokkaido again while Crawford and his students visited the island. Although the group only felt a few minor tremors and the earthquake left no damage, the experience was nerve-racking.

“We were all settling down in our hotel rooms in the evening, and the hotel just started shaking. I grabbed my shoes and reached for my jacket because we needed to get somewhere safe and then it just stopped,” Crawford recalls. “I’ve experienced [earthquakes] before but never in a hotel, on the top floor. You’re thinking how do I get out of here? Where is safe? Fortunately, it was short one, but you just don’t know whether it’s going to build or settle.”

“That was my first time experiencing an earthquake and I was in the shower,” Tolentino, a fifth-year anthropology specialist, laughs. “I just jumped out and put my robe on. Nobody was in the hallway, so I just went back in my room and waited for someone to text me.” Chan and Lun laugh as they recall the memory.

Although Stojkoska has experienced earthquakes in the past, this one was a bit of a surprise. She recalls sitting on her bed in the hotel when the bed began to wiggle and shake. “I thought the bed was breaking at first,” Stojkoska laughs.

With the exception of the minor quake, Crawford and the students agree that the trip went smoothly. Flights, transportation, and luggage arrived on time without any issues.

Reflecting on the experience and flipping through a series of photographs from the trip, Crawford stops at one photo of a sky line illuminated by city lights and credits the undergraduates for being both exceptional and adventurous travel companions.

“The first day we were there I was showing them around the city and we were going to end the day by going up to Mount Moiwa to get a night view of the city. You take this cable car up the mountain, but you had no idea the trouble it took to get that photograph. This was in the middle of a typhoon, its pouring rain, the wind was whipping our umbrellas inside and out and we’re trying to hold the camera and our umbrellas. What I liked about these students was that nothing fazed them. I told them, ‘look its pouring rain, it’s going to be miserable up there, but I’m willing to take you up there.’ And they said, ‘let’s go, when else are we going to go?’” Crawford laughs. “That’s what was great about the students, they were so flexible and willing to experience whatever was thrown at them, and those are the types of people I like to travel with.”

One highlight in particular stood out to both Crawford and the undergraduate students: the afternoon spent speaking with Ainu elders and discussing the issues the Ainu community in Japan faces today. Crawford explains that the Ainu were colonized by the Japanese and were expected to give up their cultural traditions to seamlessly incorporate their lives into Japanese society. However, similar to other Indigenous communities around the world, the Ainu refused and have been struggling with their identity and their place in Japanese society for hundreds of years.

“We had the chance to meet with one of the [Ainu] elders and hear from his perspective the challenges that are facing the indigenous people nowadays and what is being done and what can be done in the future,” Chan says.

Accompanied by Professor Takase, Crawford’s research partner in Japan, and three undergraduate students from Hokkaido University, the group managed to fill every day with multiple activities. Each morning, the group would enjoy breakfast made by the hotel and each evening they would venture out to find a local restaurant for dinner, but the schedule in between was completely different every day.

For Stojkoska, she admits that listening to Crawford teach the students about the various plants and pottery they encountered at each museum was one of the most interesting parts of the trip. “To be honest, every day was a spectacular moment in itself. What I think was most interesting and most engaging was Dr. Crawford and the way he discussed everything. He’s so knowledgeable and it was an amazing introduction to a new country and a new experience,” she says.

“Because we’re working with plant remains, I wanted to teach them something about the natural history of Hokkaido,” Crawford says, “So while we’re walking through [Japan], we’re identifying plants, we’re looking at what plants grow where to get a sense of the ecology, what’s growing here versus an urban street.”

One day, they met with an Ainu wood carver with an international reputation who had just returned from a trip to London, England, where he had one of his pieces installed in a British museum. On other days, they played with Japanese toys at a museum in Otaru, visited an archeological site on a mountain side in Nishizakiyama, and met a man dressed up as Mario driving a go-kart in downtown Sapporo.

At a salmon fishery, the group learned about how the Japanese grow young salmon to replenish the river supply.

The team each got a cup of water with a small salmon, and then released the fish into the river.

“I can’t even count the number of museums we visited,” remarks Crawford. “I wanted to show them how prominent archeology is in the public eye. Archeology is part of every board of education. The archeologists in the town are employed by the board of education, so they actually teach kids and run museums where they highlight the major discoveries in the town, we don’t do that here, the question is why the difference?”

One evening, Professor Takase took the group to a Japanese restaurant called an Izakaya, a Japanese version of a British pub. At the restaurant, guests sit on the floor and dine on traditional Japanese dishes. Some memorable dishes for the group included raw horse meat, wasabi root, tofu, and fried chicken. “For me it was a highlight because we got to try something we would have never otherwise tried. It’s not a place where a lot of visitors would ever go,” says Crawford.

“It was quite intimate and I liked it. You get to know people in a different way,” Lun says. Chan agrees, saying that dining together “was really special” because the students got to sit and enjoy a casual meal with their professor.

Aside from continuing their work in the lab, the five travellers plan to regularly try a different Japanese restaurant in the area to see if any can match their experiences in Japan. “Eugene actually heard of an Izakaya in Toronto and he went there recently and he said it was really quite authentic,” Crawford laughs.

In the immediate future, Crawford hopes to share this experience with Cat Criger, UTM’s Indigenous Advisor, to compare the experiences of the Indigenous community in Canada with the experiences of the Ainu in Hokkaido. “Parallel experiences are crucial,” Crawford says.

Tolentino, Chan, and Lun hope to embark on a reunion trip in 2020, when Hokkaido opens up a new Ainu museum. “Hopefully it comes true,” Tolentino says.

For their fellow students who may be hesitant to travel abroad, the students each offer different words of advice. “I would say that if you even slightly want to go, then you should definitely go for it. It’s the kind of opportunity that won’t happen again and you get to see these places through the eyes of your professor which is a really special experience, it’s a once in a life time thing,” says Chan.

Lun and Tolentino agree. “You will regret not going, but you won’t regret going,” Lun states. “It’s a very different way of learning. I think I learned more and actually retained what I learned in that one week because you’re not just reading about it; you’re living it for that period of time. If you have the opportunity to do something like this, you should always try as hard as you can to take it.” Tolentino suggests talking to other students, professors, and the UTM International Education Centre for personal and financial support.

Stojkoska recommends that students “see each moment as an opportunity” and that every student should take the chance to travel somewhere if they’ve never been to that part of the world before.

When asked why it’s important to bring students to places like Hokkaido, Japan, Chan says, “Historically, the reason we’re doing this research is to highlight the fact that the people in this northern island are advanced and a lot of times they’ve been marginalized in the past. We’re here looking at their agriculture and trying to see what really happened in the past and that’s kind of how we’re using the past to reverse stereotypes that still affect people in the present. So, I think it’s really important to show people that there’s more to Japan than just Tokyo.”