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“Even the birds do not fly to Ezo,” went a popular 19th-century saying about Japan’s northernmost island. “Ezo” means “land of barbarians.” Settlement tamed it into “Hokkaido” — “north sea road.” But it was a rough passage.

Pioneers from the mainland — for centuries a trickle, by the late 1800s a steady flow — were of all kinds. Gold prospectors and other adventurers brought their moral values, Christian utopians theirs. The latter cleared forests to found paradise on Earth; the former polluted rivers panning for instant riches, damn the cost to others — Ainu fishing the same rivers for salmon, for instance. Between these moral extremes were traders, drifters and refugees from all sorts of misfortunes — legal, financial, meteorological. If a storm destroyed your land back home or personal calamity your prospects, the Hokkaido wilderness offered — or seemed to — hope in despair.

Many came unprepared. The winter cold was beyond anything they’d known, the summer mosquitoes likewise. Disease raged. Many died. Not a few went mad. Hokkaido today, with its tourism, agribusiness and blandly commercial city life, shows little of its tortured past.

“Tortured,” perhaps, is not the right word. Certainly it’s not the only word. Another was spoken by a young Ainu woman named Yukie Chiri (1903-22), who, before her death from heart disease at age 21, transcribed into written Japanese some of the oral Ainu tales known as yukar — recitations chanted down the ages, handed down from generation to generation, never committed to writing until Chiri did her work. They are the heart and soul of Ainu culture, one very different from anything mainstream Japan had ever acknowledged as “culture.” Introducing her anthology, Chiri wrote, “In the past 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 the beloved children of nature. Oh what happy people they must have been!”

Ainu life is vast in its unchanging continuity. Thousands, tens of thousands of years flow by, each generation so much like another as to make time itself an almost superfluous concept. Hunting and gathering satisfied the people’s bodily needs, the yukar their spiritual aspirations. Agriculture made few inroads; writing, none. Left undisturbed, Hokkaido might have remained pre-agricultural and pre-literate to this day. So much the better, thought Chiri. Born too late to know directly “the beautiful sparkle of the spirit of the people of the past whose every action was informed by religious feeling,” she reflected bitterly on the fruits of “progress”: “This land has undergone rapid change as development goes on, progressively turning mountains and fields to villages, villages to towns. … In the past surely our happy ancestors never imagined for a moment that this, our homeland, would in the future be reduced to the kind of miserable state at hand.”

One people’s happiness is another’s misery, and vice versa. Anthropologist Hiroshi Watanabe (quoted by Sarah Strong in her excellent study, “Ainu Spirits Singing”) captures in a phrase an essential difference: “The Earth’s surface, which is seen by us as a carpet of fauna and flora, is seen by the Ainu as a carpet of spirits.” That changes everything.

It spiritualizes everything. It’s what Chiri meant by “every action” being “informed by religious feeling.” Hunting becomes not physical butchery for physical survival but a form of worship, a spirit-to-spirit communion. Consider the bear. Strong explains: “A weighty spiritual being, the bear lives with a human lifestyle in the high mountains and in community with other bear spiritual beings. Out of generosity and a desire for human wine and human inau (ceremonial shaved sticks), the bear spiritual being visits the humans in the form of a bear and allows itself to be killed by them. Once dead, its spirit is treated to a feast and it is sent back to its home in the bear-sending ceremony, bearing gifts of inau, wine and food.”

Similarly with other animals. Giving thanks to the sea for the gift of a stranded whale, Ainu elders prayed, “Spiritual Being of the Sea, thank you for giving us this whale. We have received oil and meat, and in return in this way, together with inau and wine as gifts, we humbly send off the spirit of the whale, so please receive the whale.”

Was Ainu life as idyllic in reality as in Chiri’s imagination? Did her ancestors really know something about life and its living lost to more restless, insatiable, progressive, “civilized” breeds? Maybe they did, mused some very haughtily civilized people.

“What a strange life!” wrote Isabella Bird in “Unbeaten Tracks in Japan” (1885). Arriving in Japan in May 1878, she trekked to Hokkaido in August. Japan itself, opened to the West a bare decade earlier, hardly met her British Victorian standards of civilization. What would she make of the Ainu? “They have no history, their traditions are scarcely worthy the name, they claim descent from a dog, their houses and persons swarm with vermin, they are sunk in the grossest ignorance … they are uncivilizable and altogether irreclaimable savages. … And yet they are attractive and in some ways fascinating, and I hope I shall never forget the music of their low, sweet voices … and the wonderful sweetness of their smiles.”

Horace Capron (1804-85), an American engineer lending his expertise to the cause of Hokkaido development, recorded his impressions on his arrival in 1870. Was progress good? He had come on purpose to further it. He was a brusquely practical, down-to-earth man. The Ainu gave him pause, however, if only briefly. Struck by “a real natural grace in all their movements,” he found himself wondering “how far the introduction of the wants, habits and ideas of civilized society, with all its concomitants of evils and vices, may add to their real happiness in this world.”

It proved a question with a long life ahead of it. It’s with us to this day.

Michael Hoffman is the author of “In the Land of the Kami: A Journey into the Hearts of Japan” and “Other Worlds.”

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