Tuesday, October 19, 2010

more recommended reading

Recent email inquiries from readers have reminded me that the internet is a great tool for gathering information, but sometimes you have to sift through an awful lot of garbage to get to it. On the surface, it would seem that social awareness of the Ainu is at an all time high, and a Google Search will get you an amazing number of hits. Many of these references do not stand up to close scrutiny. A great number of them are brief and often misinformed references on sites that use the Ainu to "prove" some point they are trying to make. Tattoo promotion sites, for example. Then there are computer game-related sites that incorporate the Ainu (in fictionalized form) among the races and cultures represented in a game, but undiscerning readers can, and have, mistaken information picked up from these sites as historically accurate.

In the midst of this confusion, however, I find the occasional insightful blog post that clarifies, rather than muddies, the issues. Recently I came across this well-written book review by Chris Kearin, about Our Land Was a Forest, an Ainu Memoir by the late Ainu activist Kayano Shigeru. This short and easy-to-read memoir is recommended for anyone who wants a basic, first-hand account of Ainu culture and their recent history.

For an account that is less personal-- thus less emotionally charged-- Land of the Elms: the history, culture, and present day situation of the Ainu by Toshimitsu Miyajima makes good background reading. For detailed information and photos on diverse subjects including hunting methods, religion, architecture, etc, I don't know of any better resource in English than Ainu, Spirit of a Northern People. I recommend it highly for serious research. This and other recommended books are posted on the sidebar at the right of this blog.

Friday, July 30, 2010

the ainu and the bear (review by mari juniper)

Italy-based writer and book-blogger Mari Juniper recently posted a review of The Ainu and the Bear~the Gift of the Cycle of Life on her website.

She calls the book "
a valuable lesson for all of us, children and adults equally, as it teaches us to respect the food we ingest. Being carnivorous, omnivorous or vegetarian, everything we ingest, industrially processed or not, contains the vital energy of another living being."

Mari adds that she "found particularly compelling the description of the boy's feelings throughout the bear's life, especially when he witnesses her demise. It is soothing to see how he learns to deal with these feelings while interacting with nature in a positive and respectful manner."

But she does include a warning that the book might not be suitable for all young readers:
"I gave the book to a ten-year-old English girl to read, fearing that she wouldn't finish it. I was surprised to know that she liked it, although she felt sorry for the bear when it was ritualistically sent home. I believe the book's lesson is so true that it resonates with a deeper part of us, which is why the girl accepted the difficult elements of the story so well [...] I would recommend this book to every parent who wants to raise a highly aware human being. However, I wouldn't recommend it to an unprepared child. My reader is not a common ten-year-old girl, being very mature for her age. I'd suggest that the parents read the book first, take some time to digest it and then read it with their kids. "

You can read Mari's review in its entirety at Mari's Randomities.

For more reviews of The Ainu and the Bear, check out these posts: Melissa Kennedy (New Zealand) and Sakamoto Kazuaki (Japan)

Sunday, June 20, 2010

the birth of the ainu and the bear

The following article was written by Sakamoto Kazuaki for the Yomiuri Shimbun:

The other day, a copy of a picture book titled The Ainu and the Bear arrived from Peter Howlett, an English instructor at the Hakodate La Salle High School in Hokkaido. It was, in fact, the English translation of the book that my own group (Tokachi Basho & Kankyo Laboratory) planned and produced as Iomante~ meguru inochi no okurimono, written by Ryo Michico, illustrated by Kobayashi Toshiya, and published in 2005 by Parol-sha.

Iomante refers to the Bear-sending ceremony of the Ainu people, which starts with a bear hunt in the winter. The hunt itself involves locating the den of a hibernating bear. If there happens to be a new-born bear cub in the den, only the mother bear is killed, and the cub is taken back to the kotan (village) alive. The meat and fur and every part of the mother bear goes to meeting the needs of village life. The bear is a gift from heaven, and every last part of it is greatly valued.

The bear cub is treated the same as a human child. It nurses at the human host-mother's breast until it is weaned, and it lives inside a house with its human host-family. As it grows bigger, the cub is transferred to a cage built of logs, but it continues to receive the very best food the village can provide. This continues for 1~2 years, until the day is set for the ritual that sends the bear cub's spirit back to heaven. Once again, no part of the bear is wasted. The meat and the fur are precious gifts that the bear has left behind in appreciation for the hospitality he has received from the village, and it is accepted with gratitude.

We Japanese, an agrarian people, considered this practice filthy, and detested it. In the old days, it was not our custom to eat the flesh of four-legged animals. With the dawn of the Meiji Era, our people did indeed begin to eat animal flesh, but not as the hunter peoples do. To this day, we eat meat without witnessing the killing of the animals that provide it. Can this be right?

The activity of eating, whether the food source is plant or animal, is ultimately the act of eating life-- of taking life. Surely this is the true significance of the greeting "itadakimasu (I will receive this)," which we say before each meal. When we get into the habit of seeing only voiceless plants and chunks of meat that bear no resemblance to the animal from which it came, our awareness of receiving life is dulled.

I am not saying that we should be forced to watch animals being processed at the meat processing plants. I myself once went to a chicken factory and became unable to eat chicken meat for a while after. But even without observing the killing, it should be possible to teach ourselves that we are receiving the life of another every time we eat.

This is precisely what we had in mind when we conceived of the Iomante picture book project. It so happens that two years after our book was published, the Hokkaido government rescinded the ban they had previously placed against the Iomante ceremony for being too "barbaric."

It was the Project Uepeker team, represented by Peter Howlett, that had come to me with a plan to publish an English translation of our book. It is our hope that the English version of this picture book will remind people all over the world of the gratitude we owe to the precious lives that are given up to keep us alive.

Sakamoto Kazuaki

(Note: This post is my English translation of an article Mr.Sakamoto wrote for the morning edition of the Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper, dated May 26, 2010.--d.d.)

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

a fresh look at ainu museums

Every once in a while I come across an interesting blog post about one or more of Hokkaido's Ainu museums. I have been to them all and have mentioned them from time to time on this blog, but I enjoy the fresh perspective and sometimes startling insights that first-time visitors have on the subject.

Take, for example, P.D.Healey's post on the Shiraoi Ainu Museum & Village (also called Poroto Kotan). At the end of an informative and upbeat post briefly explaining who the Ainu are and what the museum offers, Mr. Healey makes a comment comparing the feel of place to "some of the faux Native American tourist traps I remember visiting on trips out west as a kid in the 1960s." This is an understandable comparison, especially when you have to walk through "a gauntlet of shops selling Ainu related souvenir items" to get into and out of the museum village itself. It helps to be prepared for this, as Shiraoi Ainu Museum is definitely worth the trip.

More recently I found Justin Hunter's blog which has a series of posts about different Ainu museums, including one of my favorites, the Sapporo Ainu Cultural Center (also called Pirka Kotan). This museum is at the southern edge of Sapporo city limits, making it a good choice for visitors who are short on time. But the best thing about it is that it is so very hands-on. "The idea behind their museum is to get a true hands-on experience to see how these things feel, sound, smell, etc. Its awesome!!!" Mr. Hunter enthuses in his post, and I absolutely agree.

Another post on the Hunter blog that I appreciated was the one about Asahikawa. Asahikawa is Hokkaido's second largest city, and it has a fine city museum with lots of Ainu exhibits. Mr. Hunter has many nice things to say about the exhibits, but found it lacking in comparison to Sapporo's Pirka Kotan and Shiraoi's Poroto Kotan, which he had blogged about earlier. Although "the artifacts themselves were wonderful," he says, "the Asahikawa exhibits felt very distant and the layout seemed quite unnatural."

I was amused to read his description of another little museum, grandly calling itself the Ainu Memorial Building, which is so small and hard to see from the road that he almost missed it. "A complete hole in the wall," he calls it, though he gives it credit for having some rare artifacts. I am familiar with this little museum. It is owned and managed by the son of the late Kawamura Kaneto, the well-loved and respected Ainu chief elder of Chikabumi village (now part of Asahikawa city). Chikabumi is close to where I lived as a child, and I spent a great deal of time there because Kaneto and my father were involved in a joint project. I returned for a visit a few years ago, and saw the museum for the first time. It was exactly as Mr. Hunter describes.

Sapporo, Shiraoi, and Asahikawa are not the only places in Hokkaido with Ainu museums and/or memorials to Ainu life and lore. Others can be found in Nibutani, Kushiro, and Noboribetsu. As I come across insightful or amusing traveler's descriptions of these places, I will bring them to your attention. Your input is also welcome.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

the ainu and the bear (review by melissa kennedy)

The question of the extent to which we can truly accept the values of another culture is one of the most pressing and the most difficult in today’s age of multiculturalism. The Ainu Iomante, or bear-sending ceremony, which is often described as cruel and barbaric, is one such topic of contention. Even though we might consider ourselves liberal-minded and accepting of cultural differences, it is difficult to remain open-minded when we are confronted with an activity that, on a personal level, we find objectionable.

Of course, the easiest option is not to think about whatever we find offensive, and this was the easy road taken by the Japanese government in prohibiting the Iomante for fifty years. It takes much more courage, however, to confront our prejudices and fears. This is the difficult road recently taken by many indigenous cultures. Silenced for many years by virtue of their minority status and negative feelings of cultural self-worth, indigenous peoples have recently become confident to tell their stories. Their willingness to engage with the mainstream, which requires a reciprocal effort of understanding from the general public, engenders recognition and respect for the subaltern.

Whether or not one can accept cultural practices such as the Iomante comes down to personal choice, but understanding the context of that practice is certainly important. The Ainu and the Bear: The Gift of the Cycle of Life aims to educate a wider public about the Iomante. Both the book’s author and translator acknowledge the difficulty of such a task, and accept the risk of offending readers. Author, Ryo Michico, identifies the book’s key issue as an attempt to understand the context of the Iomante from an Ainu perspective, rather than interpret the event by our own values: “I can only hope that this picture book will play a small part in helping people understand not only Ainu culture, but also any culture that differs from their own.”

Repositioning the context of the Iomante does not take away the debate over the animal cruelty involved, but it does create a space in which dialogue is possible. As a scholar of indigenous minorities, as a teacher and as a wanna-be open-minded person, it is my hope that this book stimulates conversation, opinion and debate rather than the laissez-faire apathy towards Ainu that, to my mind, is the surest sign of disrespect.

Melissa Kennedy is an Assistant Professor at the Nagoya University of Commerce and Business, Faculty of Foreign Languages and Asian Studies, and co-edits the NUCB Journal of Literature. Her special fields of research include: Indigenous and minority cultures, Asia-Pacific cultural globalization, Maori literature, and Ainu cultural rejuvenation. She is currently working on a book of interviews with well-known Ainu artists, activists, politicians and educators who are both proud of their cultural heritage and committed to keeping it alive and thriving.

The Ainu and the Bear~The Gift of the Cycle of Life can be ordered from the RIC Publications website

Friday, April 2, 2010

the ainu and the bear (intro to the author)

I am pleased to announce that The Ainu and the Bear; the gift of the cycle of life (RIC Publications, 2010), our English translation of Iomante~ meguru inochi no okurimono (Parol-sha, 2005), will go on sale to the general public on April 15.

It has been tremendously exciting to be part of this project, and the chance to learn something about Ryo Michico, the author of the book, has been one of the things that made it so. Her wide-ranging interests include, but are not limited to, the cultures of original peoples. She was awarded the Mainichi Shinbun's New Writer's Award for Children's Literature in 1986. She translated Chief Seattle's speech Father Sky, Mother Earth into Japanese, and is the author of Aoi Namujiri (Blue Namujiru), a story based on a Mongolian folktale, as well as Ookami no ko ga hashittekite (literally: the wolf cub came running), which is based on an Ainu word-play game (both published by Parol-sha). In 2003, the International Astronomical Union (IAU) named an asteroid after her, in honor of Ms.Ryo's astronomy-related works (a whole different aspect of her career that I can't cover here).

Having assumed that indigenous peoples "lived in harmony with land and nature," Ryo Michico was shocked and puzzled by certain aspects of Ainu culture-- in particular, by the rite of Iomante, which is so central to their world view. As she moved among the Ainu, and listened to their stories and first-hand experiences, she gained a new understanding and appreciation for their way of seeing the world. Let me quote a brief passage from the postscript she wrote for The Ainu and the Bear:

Using the words "send off" rather than "kill" to refer to the Iomante is not subterfuge, but rather an expression of deep respect. The Ainu fully acknowledge that killing is involved. The village shares in the pain of the taking of life, and accepts with deep gratitude the gifts they receive at the cost of that life. This is what Iomante is all about... I can only hope that this picture book will play a small part in helping people understand not only Ainu culture, but also any culture that differs from their own. [p.66. my translation]

Click here to see Ms.Ryo's official website (in Japanese).

[note: the attached photo shows the cover of the version submitted to the Ainu Foundation, and may differ from the version which goes on sale to the general public.]

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

british museum video clip

This video clip from the British Museum provides a very brief commentary on the Iomante "bear sending" tradition of the Ainu. It is necessarily over-simplified, and the pronunciation of Ainu words is a bit off, but I think it's worth watching. I plan to post more commentaries and references to this subject from time to time. If you find something that may aid in understanding the issues in our discussion of the Iomante (or Iyomante) ritual, please leave a comment.

Monday, January 11, 2010

what does iomante mean for modern-day ainu?

Iomante (or Iyomante), the controversial "Bear-Sending Ceremony," which is so sensitively depicted in our most recent storybook translation (The Ainu and the Bear~the gift of the cycle of life; RIC Publications; 2010), is bound to upset some readers. We realize this, and sympathize. A newborn bear cub is torn from its mother (at the cost of the mother's life) and raised with tender care by a village, only to be killed in a ceremony that releases its spirit from the human world so it may return to the spirit world from which it came. The book does not advocate the practice. It simply explains how the custom fits into the traditional Ainu worldview, and attempts to show that within that worldview, the practice makes some sense, and is not meant to be a cruel one.

In 1955, Iomante was outlawed in Japan as barbaric, but the prohibition was rescinded in 2007. Does this mean the practice will be revived among the Ainu? Not likely. The ceremony has already been documented in detail on film for the historical records. The need for bear meat and bear skins in daily life is a thing of the past. Furthermore, the bear population of Hokkaido is declining at an alarming rate with the spread of urban areas.

So what does the right to practice Iomante mean to today's Ainu? I have been looking for hints of the answer to this question for some time now, and was intrigued by a recent news article about a sending ceremony conducted for the shimafukurou (Blakiston's fish owl). The shimafukurou is traditionally regarded by the Ainu as the guardian of the village. In some areas of Hokkaido it is the highest-ranked Ainu god, while in other areas the bear ranks higher. The sending ceremony for the owl is similar to that for the bear.

According to the news article, the dead body of a fledgling shimafukurou was found on a rural highway in the Hidaka area of Hokkaido on December 25, 2009. From the ID bracelet attached to its leg, it was identified as a juvenile that had been released into the wild just six months earlier by the Ministry of the Environment. The MOE is involved in breeding this endangered bird to circumvent its extinction. Even fledgling shimafukurou have wing spans that can exceed one meter (three feet), while the fully mature owls can be more than two-meters (six feet) from wingtip to wingtip.

The man who discovered the dead owl, the president of a construction company and member of the Hidaka branch of the Hokkaido Ainu Association, was reported as saying, "I knew at once it was no ordinary bird. There were the half-eaten remains of a duckling nearby. The owl must have brought its meal to the road to eat, and then gotten hit by a car." That same day, before returning the bird to the MOE, the Hidaka branch of the Ainu Association conducted a "sending ceremony" (Hopunire) to send the bird's spirit safely back to the spirit world. The subtle differences in meaning between Hopunire and Iomante seems to depend on the geographic origin of the speaker, but for the purposes of this blog post, the difference is insignificant.

I have also read that Iomante has been conducted in recent years for bears that die in captivity, such as those reared at the Kuma-bokujou bear park in Noboribetsu, one of the areas in Hokkaido where people of Ainu descent are concentrated. In these, and perhaps other ways, it appears that the tradition of Iomante is being preserved and carried on by modern-day Ainu.

See original news article about the sending ceremony for the dead owl (Japanese).