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No bookshelf filled with Japanese literature is complete without Ainu folklore. Yes, Ainu yukar (folk tales) have been published in English, but to learn more about their stories and struggles, pick up the 1994 memoir “Our Land Was a Forest: An Ainu Memoir” by Kayano Shigeru, a noted Ainu folklore expert, activist and politician.

Our Land Was a Forest, by Kayano Shigeru, Translated by Mark Selden.
192 pages
Westview Press, Nonfiction.

Shigeru was born in 1923 and his memoir details life in Hokkaido during a period of great change for the Ainu population during the first half of the 20th century.

He depicts his nine family members living under one roof in Nibutani, one of the last predominately Ainu districts, ” a rather hectic household, all of us crowded into a space of about 40 square meters,” he writes.

Kayano shows the Ainu struggling to find a place in modern Japan after years of oppression.

As a young man he rejects his heritage, but eventually fights to preserve the legacy of his grandmother, who passed down to him “the great treasures of the Ainu people.” Kayano made it his life’s work to sustain these treasures in the form of crafts, stories and festivals. He also actively campaigned for the group’s civil rights.

Liberally sprinkled with insights into the lives of the voiceless, and the ancient wisdom of folklore from Japan’s past, “Our Land Was a Forest” speaks to many.

Read archived reviews of Japanese classics at jtimes.jp/essential.

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