Imagine living in a culture with none or very little of the following: politics, economics, property, history, time, agriculture, money, war ambition, heaven, hell, progress, writing …

“They’re dogs, not men!” snapped a certain Mr. Ito upon first encountering the Ainu of Hokkaido in August 1878. Ito (his first name is lost to history) was servant and interpreter to the famed British traveler Isabella Bird, whose own judgment was more generous — “magnificent savages,” she said of them, though elsewhere in her “Unbeaten Tracks in Japan” (1880) she seems more struck by their savagery than their magnificence.

More of this interesting pair shortly. Who can speak better for the Ainu than an Ainu? Yukie Chiri was born in 1903 in southwestern Hokkaido. Her grandmother was a shaman-bard from whom as a child she absorbed the marvelous yucar — ageless, timeless oral tales it’s surprising no one has mined for anime potential. Yukie died tragically young — at 19, of heart disease — after living just long enough to commit 13 yucar to writing for the first time and translate them into Japanese.

“In the past,” she wrote, “this spacious Hokkaido was our ancestors’ world of freedom. Living with ease and pleasure in the manner of innocent babes in the embrace of beautiful, vast nature, they were truly beloved children of nature. Oh, what happy people they must have been!”

Yukie is the focus of a book titled “Ainu Spirits Singing” (2011) by American Japanologist Sarah Strong, who translated the yucar into English. Here, for example, is what “the fox sings about himself”: “One day I headed down towards the shore thinking to search for food. Lightly over stony ground, towa towa to, lightly over woody ground, towa towa to, I descended, and looking, up ahead I saw that on the beach a whale had come ashore and all the humans, dressed in festive dark attire, were dancing step dances for joy at the sea’s bounty…”

By Yukie’s day the happiness she celebrated (was it ever more than a nostalgic fancy?) was long gone. Wajin (Japanese settlers) began trickling into Ezo (Hokkaido) in the 15th century; by the 17th they were a domineering presence. An Ainu revolt in 1669 was briefly terrifying but soon crushed. Uneasy coexistence followed. Wajin exploitation of local resources put pressure on, but was not fatal to, the non-acquisitive, unchanging Ainu culture based on hunting, fishing, gathering, trade, peace and intimate rapport with the animal-spiritual world.

All that was doomed, as events were to show. In 1869 the new, modernizing Meiji government renamed Ezo Hokkaido and incorporated it into Japan proper, turning the Ainu into Japanese citizens and Ainu land into commercial property. The Ainu were free to claw their way upward in the industrial and commercial struggle then taking shape, but the alternative to it that they represented was, to all intents and purposes, dead. A century and a half later a reversal of sorts occurred; the Diet in 2008 unanimously passed a resolution recognizing the Ainu as “indigenous people of Japan.” But a vanished way of life does not return at the stroke of a pen.

What if it could? Would we want it to? To Isabella Bird and, in somewhat coarser fashion, her servant Ito, there were no doubts as to the value and virtue of progress. Bird, intermittently, frankly admired her Ainu hosts: “All but two or three that I have seen are the most ferocious-looking of savages… but as soon as they speak the countenance brightens into a smile as gentle as that of a woman …”

But in the final analysis savages were savages: “They have no history, their traditions are scarcely worthy of the name, they claim descent from a dog, their houses and persons swarm with vermin, they are sunk in the grossest ignorance …” and so on.

We, 150-odd years later, have seen more of progress and its fruits than Bird could have imagined — 20th century warfare and environmental degradation, to name just two examples. There is a strain in us, absent from mainstream Victorian Britain, that wonders if “savagery” might not after all have something to teach us.

No traditions worthy of the name? That depends on what you mean by “worthy.” Bird would not have known the yucar. Pity no one could have introduced her to “the fox who sings about himself”: “Lightly over stony ground, lightly over woody ground … I had been sure I had seen a beached whale” — but no, “there was a great mountain of dung … What I had thought were human beings dancing for joy at the sea’s bounty … were in fact crows pecking at the dung …”

Mr. Ito and his newly “modernized” contemporaries were naturally contemptuous of a culture that took from nature only what it needed, as opposed to whatever it could snatch in the name of limitless enrichment. We today know there’s something to be said for it. One of the yucar tells how the Ainu themselves at one point grew careless in their treatment of the fish and game they hunted. The kamui (spiritual beings) who sent the fish and game ceased to do so. Famine set in. It fell to the fish owl to drive the lesson home:

“I taught the human beings in their sleep, in their dreams, that they absolutely should not do such things.” Ceremonial punctilio was restored, fish and game swarmed again, and the Ainu lived happily ever after — until time in the shape of “progress” overtook and overwhelmed them

“We are a pitiful sight,” Yukie Chiri wrote. “A dying people. That is our name. What a sad name we bear!”

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