So much lost in progress’ name

Regarding Michael Hoffman’s Sept. 22 article, “Ancient tales by the ‘savages’ of Hokkaido have lessons for today“: British traveler Isabella Bird wrote “Unbeaten Tracks in Japan” (1880) after she traveled by horseback from the Port of Yokohama to the wilds of Ezo (Hokkaido), on a journey through a relatively undeveloped Tohoku, crossing to Ezo by sailing ship. Bird might very well have been the first foreign female to ever set foot in these once remote regions during the Meiji Restoration.

“Mr. Ito” proved a capable guide on her arduous trek. The poorest Japanese farmers in Tohoku lived in squalid conditions not much better than those of the “primitive” Ainu hunter/gatherer. But just how savage were the people of the north?

It’s interesting that these primitive people celebrated the yucar, the timeless oral tales passed down from one generation to the next. Imagine what was lost when the yucar were forgotten.

Ito had it all wrong: The Ainu were not dogs. The lowly peasant farmer in Edo Period Japan, chained to the rice fields, lived at times like a dog on the food scraps thrown to him by his daimyo overlord and master. The Ainu, by contrast, were relatively free.

Pity that Japanese settlers finally cast a covetous eye on those beautiful Ezo lands, much as European pioneers grabbed up the North American land from the Atlantic Ocean to the Mississippi River by 1850, crushing every indigenous tribe along the way in the name of progress.

What happened to the Ainu in Hokkaido was simply a microcosm of brutal, rapacious mostly Western imperialist expansion the world over. Progress? Yeah, I guess so. Now Americans do all their “hunting and gathering” at places like Walmart and McDonald’s. We don’t often hear any epic folk tales like those found in the Ainu yucar, but we do have “Desperate Housewives” and “American Idol.” What more is there?

And when modern Americans seek to discover nature, they often go in the woods and kill a deer, a moose, a rabbit. It seems that killing is the only excuse that many red-blooded American males would use to “explore” the woods. The more timid sort find all the nature they need on an 18-hole golf course.

Meanwhile, Japan dreamed of having one of the world’s greatest nuclear power industries by the 21st century. Such grandiose ambitions were celebrated 50 years ago. Nuclear reactors have now proven to be a bit more savage than the nature-worshipping Ainu.

I wonder what the Ainu thought of “Herring Castle” near Otaru in the late 19th century?

Today the castle is a monument to human greed and mismanagement. The shores around Herring Castle had teemed with vast schools of herring probably since the last Ice Age over 10,000 years ago. It took modern business management, a love of upper-class luxuries, and hundreds of poorly paid but very efficient fishing crews to push the herring to the brink of extinction in just 40 years! Modern industrialized fishing fleets are doing the same to marine life in the vast oceans the world over.

If I had been an Ainu elder back in 1880, I would have confronted idle tourists like Bird by asking: “Who you callin’ savage, savage?” She wouldn’t have had a clue.

robert mckinney
otaru, hokkaido

The opinions expressed in this letter to the editor are the writer’s own and do not necessarily reflect the policies of The Japan Times.

  • Starviking

    You confuse the victorian definition of savage with the modern one. “Savage” to people like Isabella Bird meant “without the conveniences of modern life”, not “bloodthirsty maniac”.

    As for what you, as an Ainu elder would have said to Isabella Bird, you would have been very ungrateful – she used her medical knowledge to save the life of an Ainu woman in the settlement she visited. Thanks was what she was given.

    “Pity that Japanese settlers finally cast a covetous eye on those beautiful Ezo lands”
    If the Japanese had not, the Russians would have.