Book review: Socio-political debut sheds light on Japan's indigenous Ainu – The Straits Times

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By Daniel Cheng
Fiction/Lightning Source Inc/Paperback/386 pages/$30.95/OpenTrolley
3 out of 5

Singaporean Daniel Cheng, a management executive with experience in the hospitality and gaming industry, has a soft spot for Japan, where he has frequently travelled to.
This inspired his debut novel The Rainbow Upopo, which is centred on the Ainu, the indigenous people of Hokkaido. They have until recently been deprived official recognition of their ethnicity and forced by politicians to assimilate into wider society.
Such socio-political observations come to the fore in the novel, alongside vivid, transporting descriptions of Hokkaido’s vast nature.
Cheng closely bases the plot on real-world events. An integrated resort (IR) is being built in Hokkaido in the fictional town of Kabashiro.
Such projects have been controversial in Japan. Kabashiro’s real-life twin is the city of Tomakomai, located south of the New Chitose Airport, that had been regarded as a front runner to host one of three IR projects until the plug was pulled in 2019.
The youthful Hokkaido governor Matsumae Michikage – with his “trademark megawatt smile” – has a real-life parallel in Governor Naomichi Suzuki, 40, who was the youngest ever to become a prefecture leader in 2019 at the age of 38.
And just as in the real world, a national museum dedicated to the Ainu is dubbed political tokenism by the government after years of suppressing the group’s culture and heritage.
The Ainu’s struggle to be recognised, as well as their conflict with the bureaucracy, is exacerbated in The Rainbow Upopo with a multi-billion-dollar IR project at stake.
Elected officials dangle promises of jobs and a windfall leading to town revitalisation – which the Ainu see as benefiting only the rich.
All this comes to a head when, in the course of IR construction, an Ainu ancestral grave gets desecrated, which ominously ups the stakes for a tribe rich in native mythical folklore.
Yet, Cheng’s in-depth knowledge and research sometimes become a double-edged sword.
Narrative flow is occasionally sacrificed for what comes across as journalistic reporting or even textbook writing.
In one chapter on a North Korean missile that flies over Hokkaido – again based on true events – the characters launch into a didactic discussion of whether Japan airspace has been encroached.
Nonetheless, The Rainbow Upopo is an uplifting David-versus-Goliath yarn that pits the Ainu against an American-Japanese conglomerate, with corporate sabotage and major protests thrown into the mix.
Those who are interested in Japanese political, cultural and societal issues – with a dash of mythology – will appreciate this read.
If you like this, read: A Wild Sheep Chase by Haruki Murakami, translated by Alfred Birnbaum (Vintage Books, 1982, reissued 2000, $21.81, available here). First translated into English in 1989, Murakami’s third novel is a surrealist trip through Tokyo and Hokkaido, where the protagonist interacts with a disenfranchised Ainu youth.
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