Ainu revive traditional hunts

SAPPORO — The Ainu, Hokkaido’s indigenous people, used to joke that one could put a pan on the fire, go hunting for deer, and have the pan filled with venison before it got too hot. That was more than a century ago.

Ezo shika deer were abundant then, and an indispensable part of Ainu life. In fact, the Ainu language has more than seven different ways of referring to a deer according to gender, age or physical features. And these expressions may again see the light of day — 121 years after the Meiji government banned the Ainu from hunting deer. The Environment Agency gave permission this year to Yay Yukar Park, a group trying to restore the Ainu tradition of hunting deer.

The end of Ainu deer hunting began when the Meiji government hammered out the Hokkaido reclamation plan in 1869, encouraging settlers to emigrate to the northern island. As a result, the population of Hokkaido increased nearly 1,000 percent within 30 years.

The Japanese government claimed all land in Hokkaido by 1872 and incorporated the Ainu people into the Family Registration Law as Japanese citizens. It also prohibited the Ainu from practicing their own culture and speaking their native language.

In 1876, under a newly enacted deer hunting regulation, Ainu were banned from hunting deer. The government instead granted exclusive rights to licensed gunmen to hunt deer indiscriminately, threatening deer populations to near extinction within a few years. Traditional Ainu hunting was also on the verge of extinction, until it was recently revived by Yay Yukar Park.

With the agency’s approval, members of the group will conduct a hunt Mar. 9 in Akan Village, near Kushiro Port, in eastern Hokkaido. In Ainu tradition, more than 50 people chase a deer into a river, valley or fenced-off area and capture it with wooden sticks.

The catch is then butchered, and the stripped hide and head are deified in a rite called “kamuy-nomi” in Ainu, so that the deer’s soul can safely return to heaven. All parts of the deer are used and nothing goes to waste.