A recently published photo collection put together over a span of almost two decades explores the traditions of the Ainu through a portrait of a woman and her extended family in Nibutani, Hokkaido.
The collection of around 120 photos in “An Ainu Portrait: Asir Rera” began with Tokyo-based photographer Makiko Ui’s 1992 visit to Nibutani, where she met Yasuko Yamamichi, an Ainu. Asir Rera is Yamamichi’s Ainu name, meaning “new wind.”
Yamamichi has lived a communal lifestyle, adopting children as well as acting as a foster parent. She has also accepted lodgers from elsewhere in Japan and abroad who had a variety of aims, including studying Ainu culture and engaging in spiritual contemplation.
To attract readers, the photo book provides captions in both Japanese and English, Ui said.
Some photos in the book show children and lodgers at Yamamichi’s house practicing traditional Ainu songs, called “upopo,” and a dance called “ku rimes.” Other shots show them preparing for traditional ceremonies called “asirpanomi” (a prayer for the new year), “kamuynomi” (a prayer to spirits) and “icarpa” (a memorial service for ancestors).
Other photos depict how Ainu deal with the death of animals. One caption reads: “Butchering a deer. The children also watch closely, and receive the deer as food after giving thanks.” Another says: “A bear that was shot and abandoned was brought in. A ceremony is quickly arranged to send the bear’s spirit to the land of the gods.”
Ui’s photography also focuses on Yamamichi’s struggle against the construction of a multipurpose dam in Nibutani, a land considered “sacred” by the large number of Ainu living there. Opponents had protested that the dam would harm the environment and Ainu heritage. Nevertheless, it was completed in 1996.
The collection includes Yamamichi’s exchanges with two other groups of indigenous peoples — Native Americans from the United States and Tasmanian Aborigines from Australia.
Many children in the extended family of Yamamichi, 65, have grown up, have their own families and children, and some are still engaged in handing down traditional Ainu culture, according to Ui.
“I hope, through this photo book, I was able to describe the reverential attitude toward nature that we have forgotten while focusing on the economy,” said Ui, also a lecturer at Musashino Art University in Tokyo.
“I have learned through shooting photos of Asir Rera, or Ms. Yamamichi, and her family that a person can be humble by feeling the presence of what is beyond the capability of men,” she added.