Today we take a closer look at Hokkaido's original people. I particularly recommend this post to my friends, colleagues and former students in Guyana, whom I encourage to consider the Ainu's story very carefully, and think about what it offers for their own communities' journey.
We touched on them previously. They were the first. Their name for themselves, 'Ainu', in their own language means 'human', and they inhabited Hokkaido, northern Tōhoku, the Kuril Islands, and even Sakhalin and the tip of Kamchatka, long before the first Japanese or Russians set foot in the area.
They developed their own culture and way of life. They hunted and fished, sported impressive beards and tattoos, and so identified with the wilderness on which they relied that it came to totally define them through their conceptions of gods, their rituals, their music, their clothing, their language, their architecture. They did not write, but their oral histories were among the longest and richest epics in the world.
Today, there are hardly any left. At least, any in the sense of persons of pure Ainu descent, living according to Ainu traditional culture – as far as I could establish. Japan's limited awareness of them itself attests to the scale of their catastrophe. Most people, when asked, admit how hard it is to gauge how much of Hokkaido's Ainu heritage remains in people alive today; and while estimates of numbers of these Ainu go as high in some cases as over 20,000, most it seems have been largely integrated into Japanese lifestyles, Japanese practices, and Japanese genetic heritage.
Finding out about them from afar proved next to impossible, and was one of the many reasons I long sought to travel to Hokkaido. On arriving, I was surprised just how fast their persisting influence made itself known. A huge array of Hokkaido's place names, including virtually all those I meant to visit, originate from the Ainu language. Sapporo, as we've seen; Furano, from fura-nui (“stinking flame”, a reference to volcanic sulphur); Sounkyo, from sou-un-betsu, “river with many waterfalls”; even Asahikawa, “morning sun river” in Japanese, is thought to come from a mis-interpretation of chiu-pet, “river of waves”. And so too shirau-o-i, the “place with many horseflies”: Shiraoi.
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Shiraoi is a quiet and forested town on Hokkaido's south coast, an hour or two out of Sapporo by road or rail. Once an Ainu settlement, the appearance of their kotan (Ainu village) has been restored on the shore of Lake Poroto, as a museum and exhibition of Ainu culture. Reputed as one of the leading efforts of its kind, my search to learn more of the Ainu led through its gates.
Poroto Kotan represents a renewed effort, by Ainu descendants and supporters today, to revive the culture and heritage demolished over a hundred years of systematic assimilation, and to re-awaken awareness in Japan and beyond about the homes and freedoms their ancestors once enjoyed in Hokkaido. These efforts are growing, but build from a frightfully low base: one barely present after over a century of the seizure of their land and resources, of forced migrations, and of contempt and ethnic discrimination from Japanese (and also from Russians, who typically threw the Ainu out as they expanded into Ainu lands). They played a part in the UN's Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in 2007, and it was only in 2008 – yes, four years ago – that the Diet (parliament) of Japan passed a resolution recognizing the Ainu as an indigenous group with their own traditions and culture, and calling for an end to discrimination.
Ainu spirituality seems a good place to start in exploring Ainu ways, if only because it brings together so much of how they define themselves and so informs their practices. The cornerstone of traditional Ainu religion is kamui: gods, or spirits. In their own realm, it is thought, kamui took similar forms to us humans; but in our world they took physical shapes, according to the roles they wished to play. And these could be anything: animals, plants, places, geographic or natural phenomena like the sun or the undertow, and even human-made objects such as containers. The most important to humans had specific names and associations, but they really could be everywhere and anywhere.
It was these kamui that protected humans from disasters and provided the things they needed – the bounty of the wilds, the tools, the climate conditions, and so on – for a peaceful and prosperous life. In return the humans gave thanks and made wishes through prayers and offerings, sometimes in complex ceremonies.
This was a mutual relationship. There were not so nice gods and spirits too, such as those which brought accidents or diseases (especially smallpox), and even the decent gods made mistakes, for which humans could argue with them or engage in dialogue. If the result was a relationship of mutual assistance and respect, one might expect that this space for critical scrutiny did a lot to bring that about, and should, in my view, be an essential part of any human's relationship with any god, in any religion.
The most prominent example is the Ainu relationship with bears, a hugely important animal from which they got meat and furs. The bear kamui was one of the most revered of all, believed to come to Earth in the form of the bear and visit the humans it favoured most; and in return, the humans held the “soul-sending” ritual of iomante to send the immortal spirit back off to the realm of the gods, along with treasures and offerings for its continued life there.
Iomante, for those who know of it, is controversial. In effect, it involves the sacrifice of a live young bear through an ordeal which may deal it great pain. This ritual is an important illustration of some of the real difficulties and tough debates in Ainu issues today, and we will return to it shortly.
Other animals, including owls, dogs and Hokkaido's deer and foxes, represented similarly vital kamui relationships, and so did hunting and gathering methods, cuisine, architecture (such as windows for the gods to enter and exit, facing upriver, and thus deciding the whole house's direction), and clothing. Ainu weaving was advanced: clothes were made from tree barks and plant fibres, traded cotton and silk from the mainland, and animal hides for protection against the cold. These textiles often bore elaborate embroidery patterns to ward off evil spirits, especially when made for ceremonies, when they would be worn with iconic headgear and a range of accessories.
Epic poetry sagas, along with storytelling, dance and sacred music, also make up a pivotal strand of Ainu tradition. These were as much an informed and joyous exchange with the kamui in themselves as they were expressions and preservations of culture.
They developed musical instruments too, such as the tonkori strings and mukkuri mouth-harp.
Thus it should be easy to grasp the devastating impact of Japanese government bans on these customs – including music, dance, and Ainu language – for a people who so relied on oral methods to express themselves. Cultural genocide, as may be the only term that can capture its scope, must weigh heavier than it has on the late Tokugawa, Meiji, Taisho and Showa socio-political legacies; and we must all hope, and work, to ensure that the Heisei does not join this list. Conversely, it is no surprise that music has become such a pillar of today's attempts at Ainu cultural revival.
The Shiraoi museum offers a profound insight into the ways of the Ainu, and must be commended. One aspect however left me with grave concern. Given the emphasis on bears and dogs as animals so respected and vital to Ainu life, it was alarming to find them kept on the grounds in conditions like these:
This I believe is less a reflection on anything Ainu, and more on the larger-scale problem often seen in Japan of inadequate concern for animal welfare – perhaps that much harder to bring attention to in a country where humans often live crowded into spaces not much bigger than these, and open critique of the status quo is discouraged.
Nonetheless, I would like to urge Poroto Kotan to do something about this. Why could the dogs not wander freely around the spacious village, and perhaps interact and exchange affection with those who visit? And if bears are to be kept there, might it be feasible to give them the run of the nice forest beside the village, perhaps with a fence with a much wider perimeter, the closer part of which could border on the kotan and let people see or feed the bears through it?
Animal issues bring us back to iomante, the “soul-sending” ceremony. Its cultural meaning, again, is that the divine spirit taking its form as a bear is sent back to the realm of the gods with offerings and respects. Its practical meaning is that a bear cub late in hibernation is taken from its den and its mother, raised in a pen in the village for a year or two while fed and treated as a god, then tied to a post in the village centre in the midst of a great ritual, and shot with arrows until it dies. The arrows are ceremonial, delicately crafted, said to carry energy as a gift for the bear spirit on its journey back to heaven. But they also inflict agony on the bear – and as Hokkaido brown bears are massive creatures, it likely takes a great number of shots. And though the bear struggles in anguish, its noises are interpreted as expressions of great joy at the prospect of returning to the realm of the gods.
Which raises a nightmare dilemma. Perhaps one can envisage the opposing sides of the debate, already hurtling towards each other like trains with the brakes torn off. On the one hand, the charge of monstrous animal cruelty. On the other, the defence of a cultural keystone in the arch of Ainu heritage, so much of which was brought crumbling to dust by a cultural imperialism no less cruel. I have heard arguments made from both sides with ferocious passion.
How do you address a debate where both sides are so utterly right? Where both sides seek redress for excruciating pain and injustice, be it arrows in the hide or the wholesale demolition of a civilization? I can find within me no simple answer: for here are two of humanity's most enormous debts, for its record towards animals and its record towards indigenous peoples, both of which are grim to the extreme.
Mercifully, an answer may not be needed with urgency. Iomante, though as of 2007 no longer prohibited, seems no longer practiced in this form: for multiple reasons, including the end of the survival need for bear products, and the growing pressure on bear populations from urbanization. I have heard of iomante occurring for animals which already died in accidents or captivity. But this does not remove the need for reflective discussion, especially in the context of the courageous and necessary movement to revive Ainu culture.
And for this, there must be cooperation and a will to resolve all problems. Both sides of the story must be listened to and understood, because both are absolutely right, and neither can be ignored. I only advise this because in other parts of the world, where arguments become so emotively charged and rejecting of the need to understand, they often get exchanged in bombs, and that is something I am sure none of us wish to ever see in Hokkaido.
So what of the future? I did not have the time to search for a proper sense of the scale of Ainu revival efforts. It was excellent to see they exist with robustness, and to be able to discuss the Ainu with openness and interest with many of the Japanese I met. It was also encouraging, after all I'd heard about them 'not existing anymore', that I did find acknowledgement starting to grow, including in leading museums, that Hokkaido and the Ainu were part of one another, and that what was inflicted on them was wrong. If prejudice against the Ainu remains, then as with all prejudice, it is the whole of society's responsibility to throw it out and deny it any place.
So it was that I could undertake no attempt to look at Hokkaido without first devoting due attention to those whose home it was since time immemorial, and who paid the highest price for its transformation. History is the study of the present, and whether to learn from our mistakes and improve, or simply because it's the decent thing to do, we must never forget the things our own societies did wrong.
Thus, whenever we marvel at the great things Hokkaido offers today, and enjoy the wonders it produces, we should take a moment to pay our respects to those who were sacrificed to the brink of oblivion in the name of 'development'. More importantly, we should ask ourselves what we can do that might make amends: that might, over decades, over centuries, restore the Ainu heritage as a proud component of the panoramic human blend Hokkaido has become. It is my hope that in writing this post, in humbly attempting to widen the reach of the world's awareness, I have made at least a small contribution.
Coming next: rural Hokkaido's farms and fields, from which flow forth the fresh foodstuffs relished across the rest of Japan – and in them, a case study of the joys and the pains faced by those Japanese who followed their dreams north.
Previous posts in this series: