“Oh, what happy people they must have been!” Thus Yukie Chiri (1903-22), reflecting on the pristine past of her people, the Ainu of southwestern Hokkaido. “Ainu Spirits Singing” (University of Hawaii Press) by Sarah Strong is an elegy to a lost time and an almost lost culture, seen largely through Chiri’s eyes. She died very young but lived long enough to transcribe 13 haunting Ainu oral tales known as yucar, presented here in Strong’s translation.
Were the Ainu of old really as happy as Chiri, unhappy herself as Japanese settlers swamped and stifled Ainu ways, liked to think? Maybe not. Or maybe they were, in ways we can no longer imagine.