Some in Hokkaido preserve Ainu culture

But the lack of young supporters does not bode well for future efforts

by and


Shigeo Toyokawa, a 75-year-old Ainu, always feels refreshed and at ease using his knife to chip a willow-tree stick, or “inaw” in Ainu, to be used in ceremonies for a “kamuy-nomi” prayer.

He is one of a dwindling number of people devoted to preserving Ainu culture.

Toyokawa, as an “ekashi” (cult leader), he holds ceremonies in his Sapporo home, opening each one by saying to the attendants, “Onkami-anna” (let’s start the prayer).

Born in an Ainu village, or “kotan,” in Ishikari, 30 km north of Sapporo, Toyokawa became a wood crafter in his 20s as his Ainu identity took hold and grew amid the company of other Ainu.

Ainu are indigenous to Hokkaido and its neighboring islands. Officially, there were 24,000 in Hokkaido in 2000. Most are the offspring of mixed marriages and the number of pure Ainu is not known. This year marks the 10th anniversary since a law on conservation and promotion of Ainu culture took effect.

In 1982, Toyokawa and his colleagues revived the “asir-cep-nomi” (new salmon-saluting ceremony) for the first time in 100 years. “The Ainu place ceremonies above anything else, for nature and the gods,” Toyokawa said.

They lobbied hard for and won permission from the Hokkaido government to catch salmon in rivers, which is normally banned for conservation reasons.

“Salmon is the most vital food to the Ainu, a race of hunters, who yearn to go fishing,” Toyokawa said. He fishes alone from a boat at the mouth of the Ishikari River.

At a social welfare facility in the city of Kushiro, southeastern Hokkaido, they hold the “upopo” festival to recite short poems in Ainu, with Seijiro Yae, 82, joining in the chanting by calling out, “Ho-on! Ho-on!”

Yae heads 15 Ainu who have formed a local culture conservation group. They gather twice a month to practice “upopo” songs and “rimse” (group dance-song).

Yae was adopted by an Ainu family shortly after he was born. His parents, who were not Ainu, had moved to Hokkaido from Aomori Prefecture but had to return there for financial reasons.

“My body is Japanese, but my heart is Ainu. I’d like to do something in return for the (Ainu) kindness,” Yae said. Since 1963, he has joined rimse and other Ainu festivals in Kushiro and Abashiri as the ekashi of kamuy-nomi.

Yae’s foster mother, who died when he was 12, once told him: “Ainu prayers and dances are difficult. If you do it partly for fun, never.”

Kanto Yoshikawa, 27, a step-grandson of Yae, joins the group’s activities, along with his daughter, Manami, 1.

“There are few young members of the group. If nothing is done, traditional Ainu dancing will disappear,” Yae said.

Elsewhere in Hokkaido, 76-year-old Sachiko Kibata is one of a small group of “fuchi” (grandmothers) able to converse in Ainu. She is a lecturer on Ainu language at the Ainu Culture Museum in the Nibutani district of Biratori.

” ‘Kamuy-yukar’ (Ainu epics) are my treasure. It’s my pleasure to learn the Ainu language with youths,” Kibata said.

Kibata lost her parents in her teens and earned a living as a cook at construction sites and as a truck driver.

“My jobs were for men. There was no time for me to learn the Ainu language.”

About 17 years ago, she pursued full fluency in the language after she was invited to become a storyteller of Ainu epics at a festival. She recalls the kamuy-yukar told by her grandmother in her childhood. She also said that initially, her ability to speak Ainu was not appreciated by the Ainu.

The late kamuy-yukar storyteller, Shigeru Kayano, had said, “This woman is not so good at speaking Ainu now, but she will make remarkable progress if she studies.” Kibata subsequently learned the language from Kayano for some 15 years.

Kibata talked to about 20 people attending an event to promote Ainu culture at the museum, sponsored by the Ainu Association of Hokkaido, last November, in clear Ainu, saying, “Ainu children pour water on a frog figure in clay until it disappears at a ritual for rain.”

Kibata’s son, Hiroshi, 50, and his university-student son, who live in Sapporo, came to the Nibutani district to listen to Kibata’s stories. “We hope to keep alive the ‘genuine’ Ainu language being spoken by my mother,” Hiroshi said.