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Kayano was born in Nibutani village in Biratori, Hokkaidō, Japan. His family name at birth was Kaizawa, but he was adopted out by name to his aunt's family. He was raised in poverty by his alcoholic father and devout Buddhist mother, and gained his first appreciation of Ainu culture from his grandmother, Tekatte, who would share traditional stories in Ainu with him.
Though he did not reach a high level of formal education, he undertook an impassioned study of Ainu folklore, art, language and history. His activism helped bring about the founding of the Nibutani Ainu Culture Museum in 1972. He was an acknowledged living master of the Ainu oral tradition, an expert in its folk arts and language. He led the effort to found 15 Ainu language schools.
He was the first Ainu politician to sit in the Japanese Diet. He served five terms in the assembly before taking over a vacated seat in the upper house for the SDP. There he served from 1994 to 1998. In the Diet, he often posed questions in the Ainu language. His effort led to the enactment of a law to promote Ainu culture in 1997.
Shigeru Kayano was also known for leading the protest movement against the Nibutani Dam. The dam over the Saru River, completed in 1997 despite legal attempts to stop it, flooded land sacred to the Ainu. Though unsuccessful, the legal effort did result in a ruling by the Sapporo District Court, acknowledging the Ainu as the indigenous people of Hokkaidō for the first time. He also succeeded in abolition of The Protective Act for the Ainus in Hokkaido (北海道旧土人保護法) and enacting the Act for the Promotion of Ainu Culture & Dissemination of Knowledge Regarding Ainu Traditions (アイヌ文化の振興並びにアイヌの伝統等に関する知識の普及及び啓発に関する法律) in 1997.
He died of pneumonia at a hospital in Sapporo, Hokkaidō on May 6, 2006, just over a month short of his 80th birthday.
He has written about 100 books about the Ainu language and culture, including 28 yukar collections. Some of his works were translated into English:
- The Ainu and the Fox - 2006
- The Ainu: A Story of Japan's Original People - 2004
- Our Land was a Forest: an Ainu Memoir - 1994
- Yukar, the Ainu Epic and Folktales - 1988
- The Romance of the Bear God - 1985
- Obituary in Asahi Shinbun-International Herald Tribune May 5, 2006
- Act for the Promotion of Ainu Culture & Dissemination of Knowledge Regarding Ainu Traditions (Hitchingham trans.)
- Kayano et al. v. Hokkaido Expropriation Committee: ‘The Nibutani Dam Decision’ (Levin trans.) (1999). International Legal Materials, Vol. 38, p. 394, 1999.