Books / Reviews | RECENTLY PUBLISHED BOOKS ABOUT JAPAN

Tomoko Keira's 'The Spirit of Huci': A year of living with an Ainu elder — review

by Kris Kosaka

Contributing Writer

Professionally, Tomoko Keira (1948-2016) worked for decades as a social welfare counselor for fellow Ainu in Sapporo and acted as a board member for the Ainu Association of Hokkaido. Personally, she tirelessly pursued her own Ainu roots, living with an elder woman or huci, for one year to experience firsthand the traditions of Ainu womanhood. Her collected wisdom is now published in a bilingual book, “The Spirit of Huci: Four Seasons of an Ainu Woman.”

The Spirit of Huci, by Tomoko Keira, Translated by Michiyo Yoshida.
208 pages
JUROUSHA, Ethnography.

One part Ainu cookbook and three parts a cultural record of Ainu values and beliefs, this book offers, for the first time, the voices of Ainu women in English. Keira’s work acts as an important cultural bridge, sharing wisdom from an indigenous, minority population. Reading the book feels like working and learning alongside a huci through the busy seasons of Ainu life: picking wild spring vegetables such as butterbur buds or marsh marigolds; making tonoto (rice wine) in the summer for memorial festivals; harvesting the millet fields in autumn; infusing medicines from Amur cork tree berries during the long winter, the Ainu “season of men.”

Keira originally wrote the main texts as a series of articles for the Hokkaido Shimbun in the 1990s, but this edition also includes various essays on Ainu elders and traditions to form a definitive, feminine account of Ainu puri (Ainu way of thinking). Translated by Michiyo Yoshida, Keira’s close friend and fellow activist, “The Spirit of Huci” is an important cultural record of Ainu life and beliefs and an essential addition to any study of Japan’s indigenous people of the North.