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Japan’s indigenous Ainu, ‘a different world’

by Michael Hoffman

AINU SPIRITS SINGING: The Living World of Chiri Yukie’s Ainu Shinyoshu, By Sarah M. Strong. University Of Hawaii Press, 2011, 314 pp., $58.00 (hardcover)

“In the past this spacious Hokkaido was our ancestors’ world of freedom. Living with ease and pleasure in the manner of innocent babes in the embrace of beautiful, vast nature, they were truly beloved children of nature. Oh, what happy people they must have been!” — Yukie Chiri.

Was primitive life really the paradise it seems to those betrayed by or weary of civilization? The question is pertinent, but let’s put it aside for a moment.

Yukie Chiri was an Ainu of the Horobetsu region of southwestern Hokkaido. Her grandmother was a shaman-bard, her aunt a woman whose encyclopedic knowledge of Ainu oral lore earned her official recognition in 1956 as an “intangible cultural asset.”

Yukie’s short life — she died of heart disease at 19 — was tragically divided between the Ainu world of her birth and the Japanese world of her education. A fortuitous encounter with a Tokyo philologist doing research in her neighborhood launched her on her life’s mission: “to set down in writing for posterity the literary art that my beloved brothers and sisters passed down [orally] over the several thousand years of the past.”

The result is the slim “Ainu Shinyoshu,” an anthology of 13 Ainu yucar (oral tales), published posthumously in 1923.

Yukie had imbibed yucar as a child. She loved them. The world they revealed seemed to her more real than the world she saw with her eyes or learned about at her Japanese school. She inscribed the tales phonetically using the Roman alphabet and translated them into Japanese. She was the first Ainu ever to do so.

There are no Ainu shaman-bards today, and no one knows what yucar sounded like in ceremonial recitation. But the English translations provided by American Japanologist Sarah Strong as a conclusion to her study of Yukie’s life and cultural background seem to capture something pristine, indefinable and lost.

“Leaping over narrow valleys, two valleys, three valleys, having fun, I followed my older brother into the mountains …” The speaker is a hare, or rather a hare spirit. The older brother gets caught in a spring bow trap and “sobbing, said this: ‘Listen my little brother, now you must run back, and when you arrive at the rear of our village call in a loud voice, ‘Older Brother was caught by a bow. Help! Hu ohohoo-i!’”

Or this, “the story the chief of the foxes told about himself”: “Towa towa to, one day I headed down toward the shore thinking to search for food. Lightly over stony ground, towa towa to, lightly over woody ground, towa towa to, I descended …” It’s hard to stop typing, the rhythms are so infectious.

“The fundamental notion” of the lost Ainu worldview, Strong explains, is “that nonhumans such as animals and plants have a subjectivity that is in every way similar to that of humans.” To quote anthropologist Hiroshi Watanabe: “Earth’s surface, which is seen by us as a carpet of fauna and flora, is seen by the Ainu as a carpet of spirits.”

Different worldview, different world.

Bear-hunting, writes Strong, seen through Ainu eyes, looks like this: “Out of generosity and a desire for human wine and human inau (ceremonial shaved sticks), the bear spiritual being visits humans in the form of a bear and allows itself to be killed by them. Once dead, its spirit is treated to a feast and it is sent back to its home.”

The Blackiston fish owl was revered by the Ainu as the kotan-kor kamui, the “spiritual being who protects the village.” That’s myth, not science, scoffs civilization. “While modern science understands the fish owl’s nocturnal call as a means by which the animal defends its territory and attracts a mate,” writes Strong, “the Ainu understand it to be calling out to frighten away malevolent spirits — bearers of disease and famine — who sneak into the village under cover of darkness.” The Blackiston fish owl is now an endangered species. Maybe the Ainu knew something we don’t.

For countless ages, until Japanese settlers began encroaching on Ainu lands in the 17th century, they lived in their unspoiled northern wilderness, asking nothing of life except what it gave them. The spirits were generous, game abounded (bear, deer, salmon, to a lesser extent whales) — what need was there for “progress”?

A subsistence economy, to us synonymous with wretchedness, was the Ainu pride. They took from nature no more than they needed, partly for fear of offending the spirits, partly because they wanted no more than they needed.

Yukie Chiri was born far too late to know that world firsthand. She knew it through the yucar, and from early childhood defied that part of her Japanese education which sought to teach her that her people were benighted and backward.

“The thirteen chants [yucar] of the ‘Ainu Shinyoshu,’” writes Strong, “portray the natural world on a much bigger and bolder scale than normally found in Japanese literature with its finely tuned images of ‘small nature’ familiar to readers of haiku and waka verse.”

Paradise? Probably not.

But fresh, bracing — and gone. “A dying people … That is our name,” Chiri wrote of her people’s modern plight. “What a sad name we bear!”