To celebrate the centennial of the birth of Yukie Chiri, an Ainu who was instrumental in putting her people’s oral history on paper, a new edition of her famous story collection has been published.

Chiri died in 1922 at the age of 19 after she completed editing a significant landmark in Ainu literature, “Collected Stories of the Ainu Gods.”

It was the first time the rich oral traditions of the Ainu, who had no system of writing, were put into print.

The work is famous for its poetic opening sentence: “Silver drops fall, fall, all around; gold drops fall, fall, all around.”

Chiri transcribed the pronunciation of the Ainu language, using the Roman alphabet so that she could present mythic epics, or “kamuy-yukar,” that she learned from her grandmother. She translated them into Japanese shortly before her unexpected death from heart failure.

Tatsumine Katayama, an Ainu-language researcher in Tokyo, issued the new edition in a bid to pass down her work to future generations. It includes pronunciations using katakana, a modernized Japanese translation and grammatical commentaries on Ainu words.

The new edition also contains background information on Ainu culture and the first English translation of the collection, which includes the prologue written by Chiri.

“I hope that the new edition will enable general readers to pronounce Ainu words through katakana and that the English translation will get Chiri’s unprecedented achievement known in the world,” said Katayama, who also works as an independent TV producer.

The first edition was published in 1923, and its paperback version is now available from Iwanami Shoten Publishers in Tokyo, which sells about 2,000 copies a year.

Chiri was afraid that the Ainu language would die out, as she said in the book’s prologue, “The many words and well-worn phrases our beloved ancestors used to communicate their ideas to one another amid the ups and downs of daily life, the many beautiful expressions they handed down, will they all be lost without a fight, along with the weak people who are now dying out? Oh, that would be too tragic, too sorrowful a loss.”

The English translator, Julie Kaizawa, who is from the United States and lives in Chitose, Hokkaido, with her Ainu husband, said she is glad she could help introduce the Ainu heritage to the world.

“I myself could learn Ainu culture, which highly values nature, more deeply through the translation process,” she said.

Katayama also asked Mutsuko Nakamoto, an Ainu-language teacher in Chitose, to recite the stories on a CD.

“We had difficulty in finding how to intone the 13 kamuy-yukar in the collection, but old recordings of similar stories helped us,” Katayama said.

“We wanted to meet Ms. Chiri’s wish to preserve the Ainu language, and we expect our book and CD to enable general readers to enjoy her work not only through Japanese and English but also through the Ainu language itself,” Katayama added.

Chiri was born June 8, 1903, in Noboribetsu, Hokkaido, and became bilingual in Japanese and Ainu while living with her grandmother, who was a famous yukar narrator. At 15, she met Kyosuke Kindaichi, a linguist studying Ainu, and decided to help him to preserve the yukar.

Chiri wrote in the prologue,” “Born an Ainu and having been raised with the Ainu language, I have set down in my clumsy and inexperienced hand only a few short tales from among the numerous stories which our ancestors told to amuse themselves when they gathered on rainy evenings, snowy nights, and in their every spare minute.”

When she was 19, she brought a draft of the collection to Kindaichi’s house in Tokyo for editing, but she passed away right after compiling the historical work.

Nakamoto said her late mother was only one year younger than Chiri and also a good narrator of kamuy-yukar, but she looked down on her mother and Ainu culture because she thought the Ainu were inferior.

“But now I am reciting Ms. Chiri’s work,” she said. “I believe my mother is watching me with surprise and joy.”

Various events, including exhibitions and symposiums, will be held nationwide this year to commemorate the centennial.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.