Fact and fiction meet in re-creation of Ainu past


HARUKOR: An Ainu Woman’s Tale, by Katsuichi Honda. Translated by Kyoko Selden. University of California Press, 2000, 315 pp., $19.95 (paper).

When I was a university student in Kyoto during the 1960s, Katsuichi Honda was the most glamorous adventurer-journalist of the day.

If he wanted to tell us about how the Eskimos actually lived, he would go off to Canada and live with an Inuit family, in an igloo. There, a single in-house bucket served as a receptacle for everybody’s bowel movements. If he didn’t want to relieve himself in such a confined space, exposed to everyone’s sight, he had to go out and do it in the open, in an Arctic blizzard, near the dogs ready to gobble up whatever he might manage to get out.

Or, if he wanted to tell us about highland tribes in New Guinea, whose male members are famous for adorning themselves with penis sheaths, he would go off to the area that Japanese soldiers had had to slog through during World War II, and try to live with them.

I don’t recall reading his account of life with Bedouins in 1965, but by the time his reports on the Montagnards in Vietnam began to appear I had left for the United States. A quarter century later, Honda asked me to translate his magazine articles in which he took on those who argued that what happened in Nanjing from the end of 1937 to early 1938 may have been a “wartime infraction,” but not a “massacre.”

By that time, of course, I knew that Honda had revived the Nanjing issue around 1970. Yet I was surprised to see David Howell characterize the journalist, in his preface to “Harukor: An Ainu Woman’s Tale,” as someone “not afraid to make his (Japanese) readers confront issues they might prefer to forget or to never even know about in the first place.” Howell, an associate professor at Princeton University, obviously meant to compliment Honda, but in so doing resorted to a sweeping condemnation of the Japanese, so dear to foreign observers, as a people proverbially content “not to see, hear, or say.”

That the Japanese have done injustice to the Ainu is a historical fact. Honda tells us that in the mid-15th century the exploitative trade mainland Japanese imposed on Ainu in Hokkaido touched off a war, which was followed by an enmity lasting for about a century. In the mid-17th century there was a great Ainu rebellion.

In 1869 the Japanese government created an agency to “develop” Hokkaido as Japan’s frontier, apparently in imitation of what the U.S. was doing in the American West. Though Japan didn’t engage in anything like the kind of subjugate-or-kill policy that the U.S. for a while pursued against the American Indians, the consequent influx of Japanese increased the Japanese population by 24 times in the next 50 years, to 2.4 million, while the Ainu population remained almost unchanged, at around 20,000.

Worse, the Meiji policy brought the notion of ownership into a place where it didn’t exist, in effect taking away the land and other natural resources from the Ainu. When Japanese overfishing depleted salmon stocks, Japanese made it criminal for Ainu to catch the fish, previously one of their most abundant food sources. The great old-growth forests and huge deer herds were decimated. The assimilation policy brought Ainu culture and language to the brink of extinction.

For all this, Honda’s aim in this book, originally called “Ainu Minzoku,” is not so much to tell the story of exploitation and persecution as to reconstruct Ainu life as it was “when Ainu culture achieved its most distinctive characteristics” — that is, about 500 years ago. To do this, Honda imagines a woman named Harukor and describes the life of Ainu through her eyes. He introduces us to a range of activities, among them the storytelling sessions so important to the Ainu, and explains their everyday implements and equipment, with illustrations.

Honda then imagines Harukor’s son, Pasekur, who sets out on a journey for independence and eventually becomes the chief of an unrelated “kotan,” or hamlet. The narrative ends when Pasekur, now called Shiromainu, learns of an uprising that would later be named the Koshamain War (1456-57) after its leader.

Honda’s work is based on “yukar” (epic poetry) and other orally transmitted stories that are abundantly preserved, as well as archaeological, anthropological and linguistic findings. He also uses third-party reports. During the Edo Period, many Japanese visited Hokkaido and wrote about their experiences, leaving behind, in one estimate, a total of about 600 pieces of writing.

One such account by the haiku poet Otsuni (1756-1823) gives us a glimpse of Ainu life in the early 19th century. When Otsuni and his traveling companions wake one morning to find that two of their seven packhorses, left untethered overnight, are nowhere to be seen, a young Ainu woman jumps on a horse bareback and in no time brings them back. It was something few Japanese could dream of a woman doing, and left a lasting impression on Otsuni.

From a somewhat later date, Honda brings in Isabella Bird, the British traveler who visited Hokkaido in 1878, to help us picture how dense forests almost totally covered the large island as recently as 120 years ago.

Honda also uses information provided by the Ainu. So, Harukor’s first childbirth, which Honda describes with great intimacy, is based on information on traditional Ainu midwifery elicited from the Ainu midwife and seer Aiko Aoki (1914-95).

A clear-eyed world traveler, Honda is never naive about what by today’s standards was a primitive life. His extensive knowledge also makes him aware that what is “modern” isn’t necessarily better. For example, he reports that the Japanese-style houses built for Ainu around 1907 — with good intentions no doubt — were “definitely inferior” to the traditional Ainu house known as “chise.” While the Japanese houses were too cold for the winter (as they are to this day!), the chise, mostly made of bamboo grass, were warm in winter and cool in summer. After making this point, Honda adds: “The same thing happened when the South Korean military built houses for Vietnamese peasants during the Vietnam War (too hot for comfort), and when Kawasaki Steel built houses for fishermen in the Philippines in the 1970s after purchasing their land (also too hot).”

Kyoko Selden, who had earlier translated Kayano Shigeru’s autobiography, “Our Land Was a Forest: An Ainu Memoir” (Westview, 1994), brings her own erudition to the translation of Honda’s story. Since the translator is a friend of mine, I wish to pass on one of several pieces of flak she (and Honda) got from peer reviewers.

At one point in the Harukor story a footnote is appended, which says: “The face reddening ‘as if flames crept up’ and wanting to ‘hide inside my wrinkles’ are metaphors for shame that recur” in Ainu narratives.

One reviewer, by way of upbraiding Honda for imagining himself to be a woman, took exception to this, asserting that an Ainu couldn’t have felt “shame.”

Well, Selden asks, when did “shame” become a Japanese monopoly? With Ruth Benedict’s “The Chrysanthemum and the Sword” perhaps?