Saturday, December 12, 2009

postman heijiro & thoughts on the use/abuse of role models

The story of Kira Heijiro, or "Postman Heijiro" as he is better known, is no folktale. He was a real live Ainu, born in eastern Hokkaido on February 3, 1886. The Ainu name of his father was Nusashibe; his mother was Matsutsuru. But they were dead by the time he was 6, and after that he was raised by an aunt. At age 15, he came down with an unexplained fever which left him partially paralyzed on one side.

Due to the government's prohibition of most of the traditional Ainu means of livelihood- a strategy intended to assimilate the Ainu into mainstream Japanese society- these were hard times for any Ainu to find work. But Heijiro was now Ainu, impoverished, and disabled. When he could get work, Heijiro worked long and hard to make up for his physical handicap, gaining a reputation as honest and reliable. In January 1922, at age 35, he was hired to carry the out-going mail from the rural post office to the main branch in Kushiro, picking up the in-coming mail at Kushiro for delivery to the villages. The exchange had to be done during the night, and involved a solitary 16 kilometer trip (on foot, or by horse if one could be procured) through the deep-forested mountains where it was not unusual to encounter bandits. Safe delivery of the mail was regarded as a task of the highest importance, and Heijiro was instructed to take the task very seriously.

On the third day of his new job, Heijiro was caught in a fierce blizzard and the going became increasingly hopeless. One of his canvas shoes became torn and fell away, so he tied a towel around his foot, but was unable to make significant headway. Finally, he removed the heavy mail bag from his back, wrapped it in his cape, secured it with a rope, tied a towel to his bamboo walking stick, and fastened that to the mail bag as a marker. Leaving the mail bag as water-proofed and secure as he could make it, he renewed his efforts to find shelter for himself. Days after Heijiro went missing, a search team found the mail bag. Then they found Heijiro's body. Apparently, he had fallen into a deep pocket of snow, and had been unable to free himself for lack of the full use of his limbs.

This is where it really gets interesting. The news of the incident was reported all over the nation through print media such as the Jijishinpou (a daily newspaper created by Fukuzawa Yukichi in 1882), praising Heijiro's actions as "...truly faithful to his duty, he quietly closed his eyes to receive death only after securing the stick as a marker...," and that his death in the line of duty "was a model of a strong sense of responsibility." Many letters and money gifts poured in from all over the country to celebrate what they saw as "a manifestation of the Japanese spirit (Yamato damashii) and a preparedness for death equal to that of the samurai." Furthermore, in 1933, the Ministry of Education included the Heijiro incident in an Ethics textbook under the title "Responsibility." The fact that Heijiro was Ainu was conveniently omitted, and in fact, not widely known until very recently.

In 2005, a group of Kushiro citizens established the Kira Heijiro Kenkyuukai (Kira Heijiro Study Group) with the twofold purpose of (1) collecting and documenting accurate information about Heijiro's life and death and (2) producing a stage play to publicize as widely as possible the results of their research.

I first became aware of Heijiro earlier this summer, when his name came up during a discussion with a colleague in indigenous studies research. She kindly arranged for me to get a DVD copy of the aforementioned stage performance. The liberal use of flashbacks, without much in the way of the visual clues provided more easily by motion pictures than by stage performances, was a little distracting. And, at first, I was slightly irritated by what I thought was unnecessarily repetitive references to the Ainu view of the sanctity of life. But a little on-line research explained the need for this persistence very quickly.

Exactly what was it that bothered the Ainu community about the way the Heijiro incident was interpreted by mainstream Japanese society? The Japanese media and government had turned Heijiro into a symbol of the "diminish the self in the service of the state" (genshi-houkou) style of patriotism that was so prized at the time. But the Ainu view of the sanctity of life includes the sanctity of one's own life, and "death in the line of duty" is not an Ainu virtue. Thus, the play's insistence that "Heijiro, while taking responsible action for the safekeeping of the mail, never once gave up trying to preserve his own life." The Kushiro study group has thoroughly researched the police reports and interview records, documenting facts that would seem to support this claim, including the fact that Heijiro's body was found 100 meters away from the secured mail bag, and the fact that he was frozen in a standing position, facing the village.

Imagine the Ainu frustration at having one of their own people turned into a symbol of the so-called Japanese spirit, when it is so contrary to what they themselves value. Societies are always on the lookout for heroes and role-models, and will fabricate them if they can't be conveniently found in real life. Heijiro was, by all accounts, honest, hardworking, and responsible; not giving in to fatalism or self-pity because of his unfortunate life circumstances. He makes a good role-model for us all.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

ando umeko and the ainu lullaby

If you have been following this blog, you know that our latest storybook translation, The Ainu and the Bear~the gift of the cycle of life, will be out very soon through RIC Publications. RIC includes a CD recording of the text with each storybook they publish, and this book is no exception. This is intended as an aid to second-language readers and young children, but in our case, it has the added benefit of enriching the experience of the text with authentic Ainu music.

The music on the CD which accompanies The Ainu and the Bear has been selected from Ando Umeko's critically acclaimed solo album Ihunke (produced by OKI's Chikar Studio in 2001). Ihunke means lullaby in the Ainu language. Ando Umeko, an Ainu from the Tokachi region of Hokkaido, was widely regarded as a master of the mukkuri (Ainu version of a Jew's harp) and upopo (Ainu chanting songs). She worked tirelessly to preserve and pass on traditional Ainu skills and customs for following generations of Ainu. She died of cancer in 2004 at the age of 72.

Experience Ando Umeko's voice on this YouTube segment. Her singing is accompanied by OKI's performance on the tonkori, a slim, 5-stringed instrument that was once popular among the Sakhalin Ainu, and which OKI helped to rescue from extinction.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

ainu wood carving (ikupasuy)

The most important article of spiritual and artistic carving was the ikupasuy or prayer stick, which assisted in taking the men's prayers to the land of the kamuy gods. They were carved from yew, willow, or spindle wood, and were usually twelve to sixteen inches long and two to four inches wide. They had rounded edges and were tapered at one end. The majority of these sticks were basically flat, but they were carved with multi-leveled relief designs that ranged from incredibly complex to quite simple.

The ikupasuy was one of the rare exceptions to the rule that the Ainu did not depict people or animals in their decorations for fear of angering the gods. Carvings on the prayer sticks included representations of bears, killer whales, seals, fish such as salmon and swordfish, birds such as albatross and ducks, snakes, and flowers; or objects made by human hands, such as boats. Markings at each end of the ikupasuy identified the carver's clan so that the gods would know who the prayer had come from. Hours of thought and energy went into making the prayer sticks, and if you ever find one for sale, chances are it is a replica carved by a non-Ainu, and thus not considered sacred by the Ainu.

My favorite single photo of the ikupasuy carvings is the one on the cover of the book Ainu, Spirit of a Northern People published by the Smithsonian Institute, but there are some more awesome ones pictured inside the book. Find a copy if you can. (ref: Ainu, Spirit of a Northern People)

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

ainu wood carving (inaw)

Traditionally, the most important duty of an Ainu man was to carve the inaw. Inaw are the sacred shaved sticks that symbolize birds, and which were believed to deliver human prayers to the gods or chase away demons. Carving inaw involves stripping the outer bark from a tree limb (often willow or dogwood), then shaving the wood underneath so that it forms bunches of paper-thin curls attached at one end. This is time-consuming work and requires both a steady hand and a special carving tool called an inaw-kemakiri. The design and shape of the inaw depends on the particular god to which the prayers are being addressed, and the ceremony in which they are going to be used. Once used, they are never reused, but left where they have been placed until they fall into decay (or burned, if the inaw is for the fire god) after a single use. Inaw have a graceful, understated beauty that contrasts with other Ainu designs, which tend to be visually "busy" and stimulating. (ref: Ainu: Spirit of a Northern People and Sapporo Pirika Kotan museum)

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

ainu tradition of wood carving

As I have mentioned in previous posts about Ainu design, wood carving was, and still is, "men's work." Both of the storybooks I've translated, and many more of the yukar, have scenes involving the menfolk carving wood-- sometimes tools and arrows, but often items of spiritual significance such as the inaw (sacred shaved sticks) and ikupasuy (prayer sticks). The photo posted here was borrowed with permission from a site called Old Photos of Japan, which displays photos of Japan between the 1860s and the 1930s, and includes some rare scenes from Ainu life. This particular photo shows an Ainu man carving what appears to be a prayer stick. Click here to read the informative article that goes with the photo. More about the purposes and designs of wood carving in my next post.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

the owl and the message

The Owl and the Message is my English version of the Song Sung by the Owl God~ Konkuwa from Chiri Yukie's yukar anthology. I translated and retold it in view of getting it published as a storybook for English-speaking children. The message to which my title refers, is a timely one for our day. In the story, the Ainu villagers are starving because the mountains and rivers no longer provide the food they need. The owl kamuy, who is the guardian of the village, sends a message to the land of the kamuy gods to find out why this situation has come about. He receives a reply with an explanation, a warning, and a chance for the village to redeem itself. I find it easy to imagine this yukar being chanted to generation after generation of young Ainu, as a lesson in both personal and group responsibility, the consequences of one's behavior, and how to co-exist with nature.

The Owl and the Message

When I was young my voice was strong. Now I am old and my voice has become weak. But I have an important message and I need someone I can count on to deliver it for me. So I called out, “Is there anyone who is good at speaking and can be trusted to deliver my message?”

A young crow came to my door and said, “No one is better at speaking than I am. You can count on me to deliver your message.” So I began to tell him the message as I beat on the lid of the wine cask, for my message was a long one. Three days passed and I was still only part way through the message. But I looked up and saw that the young crow had fallen asleep next to the hearth. I became very angry and beat the crow to death.

Once again I called out, “Is there anyone who is good at speaking and can be trusted to deliver my message?” A mountain jay came to my door and said, “No one is better at speaking than I am. You can count on me to deliver your message.” So I began to tell him the message as I beat on the lid of the wine cask, for my message was a long one. Four days passed and I was still only part way through the message. But I looked up and saw that the mountain jay had fallen asleep next to the hearth. I became very very angry and beat the mountain jay to death.

Once again I called out, “Is there anyone who is good at speaking and can be trusted to deliver my message?” A young water ouzel came to my door and respectfully entered my house. I saw that he was well-dressed and had good manners. So I began to tell him the message as I beat on the lid of the wine cask, for my message was a long one.

After six days and nights I looked up and saw that the water ouzel was wide awake and still listening carefully to my words. As soon as I finished speaking, the water ouzel flew out of the house through the smoke hole in the roof and took my message up to heaven.

This was my message:

“There is a famine in the human world and the humans are starving. There is nothing to eat on land or in the water. When they hunt in the hills, there are no deer. When they go to the river, there are no fish. Is there a reason the gods will not provide for their needs?”

After several days passed, the water ouzel returned to my house with an answer from heaven. The water ouzel said, “Humans have been treating the deer and fish without respect, hitting them with rotten sticks and leaving parts abandoned in the forest. The spirits of the deer and fish return to heaven in a mess, and this has made the gods angry. But if humans improve their ways by showing respect to wildlife, and once again treat the deer and fish with honor, the gods will make sure they will have enough to eat.”

That night I went to the humans in their dreams and explained to them the reason for the famine. I then taught them how to treat the deer and fish with honor. The humans changed their ways from the very next day. They began to treat wildlife with respect. They used beautifully carved sticks for fishing and hunting, and they adorned the deer and fish after catching them, so that their spirits could return to heaven in honor.

The gods now provide the humans with enough to eat, and there is no fear that they will starve any more. The crisis is over and my spirit is free to leave this old body at last. I will now go to heaven, leaving the human world in the care of younger owl guardians.

The End

I'm not sure whether I should stick to the relatively formal language of the original yukar, or if I should revise it to sound more modern and informal. I also wonder how Western readers will react to what happens to the crow and the mountain jay. Will I have to soften the language? Or should I be true to the original? If you have any thoughts on these issues, I welcome comments. The attached illustration is the work of Stephanie Gagnepain.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

rimse: traditional ainu dance

This year, 2009, traditional Ainu dance was inscribed on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. Here's a quote from the UNESCO site on intangible cultural heritage:

Traditional Ainu dance is ...closely connected to the lifestyle and religion of the Ainu. The traditional style involves a large circle of dancers, sometimes with onlookers who sing an accompaniment without musical instrumentation. Some dances imitate the calls and movements of animals or insects; others, like the sword and bow dances, are rituals; and still others are improvisational or purely entertainment. Believing that deities can be found in their surroundings, the Ainu frequently use dance to worship and give thanks for nature. Dance also plays a central role in formal ceremonies such as
Iyomante, in which participants send the deity embodied in a bear they have eaten back to heaven by mimicking the movements of a living bear. For the Ainu, dance reinforces their connection to the natural and religious world and provides a link to other Arctic cultures in Russia and North America.

For the rest of the article click here: UNESCO site. It also has slides and a video showing traditional Ainu dance. The video I've posted below is from YouTube. It's one of my absolutely favorite videos, and shows both the stunning dance of real red-crested cranes and the Ainu dance that derives from it. Enjoy!

Saturday, October 3, 2009

children put on play about the ainu

This article was in the October 4 edition of the Mainichi Daily News.

SAPPORO -- A children's performance group here will stage musical performances featuring Ainu culture next week.

The Sapporo Kodomo Musical Ikuseikai, a group from Hokkaido Prefecture, will perform two original musicals at the New National Theater in Tokyo's Shibuya Ward on Oct. 6 and 7.

Through the musical pieces featuring Ainu, an ethnic group indigenous to Japan's Hokkaido area, some 40 children aged 5 and 15 will depict the splendor of Ainu culture and the message of coexistence.

The theater group was established by director Mariko Hosokawa, 78, in 1981. Born in Nagasaki, Hosokawa moved to Sapporo in 1958 when she married her husband. She then came across Ainu culture, and became captivated by the lifestyle of the aboriginal Ainu people.

At the same time, however, Hosokawa came to learn about the deep-rooted discrimination and prejudice against Ainu people. Hosokawa says that she founded her musical troupe because she wanted to introduce her Ainu knowledge to children, who are far more open-minded than adults.

In 1979, the group performed its first Ainu musical with the participation of about 100 children in Sapporo. Hosokawa received a vast number of threatening calls.

"I thought someone might come to kill me," said Hosokawa. "It was a spirit of rebellion that pushed me. I wanted to denounce the discrimination through the musical."

During the Tokyo performance, the children will perform "Pororintan," a musical production based on the life of Hosokawa's late Ainu teacher Shigeru Kayano, the first Ainu to become a member of the Japanese Diet, and "Hitotsu no owande tu miku miku," an Ainu saga called "Yukar."

None of the 40 children performing the musical has Ainu background; however, they hope to promote understanding of the ethnic culture among people.

"Ainu people respect all living creatures including animals and plants. I want people in Tokyo to realize how great that is," a 10-year-old boy from the troupe said.

Last year, the Japanese Diet officially recognized Ainu as Japan's indigenous people. The government is now moving forward to establish new laws to protect Ainu from discrimination and poverty.

It has been 30 years since Hosokawa started her activities in the hope of eradicating prejudice against Ainu people. "We've finally come this far," Hosokawa said.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

first salmon festival

Asir chep nomi ("welcoming the first salmon of the year") is an Ainu festival that takes place each year on the banks of the Toyohira River, a mere ten-minute bicycle ride from where I live in Sapporo. At the core of the festival is a solemn prayer ceremony in which the Ainu elders, in traditional attire, express thanks to the gods for sending the precious gift of salmon. There are also demonstrations of traditional Ainu fishing using spears of ancient design with hinged hooks, opportunities to watch Ainu craftsmen at work, and lots of food cooked in the Ainu manner. After the ceremony there is singing, dancing, and story-telling. Games and contests are also part of the program, making it a very visitor-friendly festival. One of the things I appreciate about this festival is that it gives me a chance to see, hear, smell, touch, and taste things I've only read about in reference books. The Asir chep nomi takes place on a weekend or national holiday in mid-September. This year it was held on Sunday, September 13.

Monday, September 7, 2009

ainu designs (3)

The morew (swirl) and the ayus (having thorns), which were introduced in earlier posts, are the two basic elements of Ainu design that are often embroidered around the edges of clothing to protect the wearer from evil. When combined with each other or with other motifs-- as they usually are-- the patterns grow increasingly complex and intriguing. In the attached photo there is a third motif added to the equation of the first two. This is the diamond-shaped sik (eye). Go back to the original post on morew, and you will now be able to recognize how the ayus and sik motifs have been worked into the morew-based pattern.

In future posts, I hope to introduce some of the less prominent elements of Ainu design, which enrich the meaning and overall appearance of the decorated item. I will also be shifting the spotlight from "women's work" (embroidery and applique), to "men's work." (carving on wooden utensils). To see the related posts all on one page, type "ainu designs" into the search bar on the right side of this page (near the top). Questions and comments are welcome.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

ainu booklet give-away

I have been building up a collection of Ainu-related books for many, many years and never tire of "wallowing" in my library. Whenever I get the chance to acquire material that isn't readily accessible to the general public, I try to get multiple copies. Recently I was going through my shelves and files, picking out duplicates of booklets I've picked up from various Ainu associations. I've chosen ten booklets to give away, each covering one of the following topics: Ainu food, Ainu arts, Ainu housing, Ainu religion, and Ainu tools. Of the ten, two are of a more general nature, providing an overview of Ainu history, culture, and politics as it relates to the government of Japan. The first eight booklets are bilingual (English and Japanese), and the last two are in English only. I can't promise which booklet you will get, but if you tell me your first and second choices, I will try to send you one you are most interested in. The booklets go to the first ten people who send me a request by email. Send your request and postal address to projectuepeker at

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

ainu designs (2)

In my previous post on Ainu designs, I introduced the morew (swirl, or spiral) pattern. Another often-encountered design is the ayus (having thorns), which consists of straight and curved parallel lines with pointy segments embedded at regular intervals. The ayus pattern is often embroidered or appliqued onto garments, as well as carved into various wooden tools such platters and prayer sticks. The pattern can be used alone or in combination with other designs, such as morew, for the purpose of protecting the user from evil. The attached photo shows leg coverings embroidered with this pattern.

Friday, August 14, 2009

ainu designs (1)

Traditional Ainu designs are based on natural phenomena and are usually depicted by women in embroidery, and by men in wood carvings. One of the basic designs is this one called morew (swirl). It represents the spirals occurring in such things as oceans, rivers, winds, and vines twisted around tree trunks. The regional variations are distinct enough that artifacts can be easily identified by their patterns as originating from either the Hokkaido Ainu or the Sakhalin Ainu.

The morew pattern is often embroidered on clothing near the openings and edges (vulnerable areas where evil gods can gain access). These garment decorations are referred to as "flaming borders" in the yukar tales, and are supposed to give ancient heroes power and protection from the enemy. The morew has also been found carved into wooden paddles which were apparently used in whale hunting long ago.

I will be introducing other basic Ainu designs in future posts.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

ainu gifts (1)

From today, and up until the winter holidays, I will be posting, at the rate of once a month, recommendations of Ainu-related books and other items as gifts (especially for children). Today I'd like to recommend a picture book I've mentioned before. The Ainu and the Fox is a yukar from the Ainu oral tradition, retold by the late Ainu activist and archivist, Shigeru Kayano, and translated into English by Project U-e-peker. Kinji Ishikura's delightful illustrations bring the setting and the characters to life, giving even greater impact to the touching environmental message of the tale. Reading level is appropriate to native English speakers ages 9-12. There is a slightly more expensive version of the book which comes with a CD recording of full text narration and two tonkori instrumentals by the Ainu musician Oki. This version can be ordered directly from the R.I.C. Publications website.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

recommended reading: songs of gods, songs of humans

Songs of Gods, Songs of Humans: The Epic Tradition of the Ainu is filled with Donald Philippi's wonderful, musical, translations of Ainu yukar. The translations are accompanied by insightful commentary on Ainu culture and customs that enrich the reader's appreciation of each yukar. In addition to being a translator of exceptional skill, Philippi's extensive knowledge and love of music and poetry are what make these translations exquisite. The book is, unfortunately, out of print. Used copies can be tracked down through the internet, or in university library systems. It is very much worth the trouble it might take to find.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

silver droplets

Arguably the most famous of Ainu folk tales in Japan is the first one in Chiri Yukie's yukar anthology. It has, in the past, been included in Japanese middle school textbooks as a token example of Ainu oral literature. So if a member of the general public has ever heard or read an Ainu folk tale at all, it will most likely be this one.

In her anthology, Chiri Yukie titles this story "The Song Sung by the Owl God: Shirokani pe ran ran pishkan." Shirokani pe ran ran pishkan literally means "Silver drops fall all around" in the Ainu language, but that seems to have little significance beyond the fact that the sound of the words represents the sound of the Owl's song. It is common practice for the Ainu stories to be labeled with the words that begin the story, and in this case the story begins with shirokani pe ran ran pishkan.

The owl in this story is the shima-fukurou (striped owl), or Blakiston's Fish Owl, a now-endangered species that is traditionally worshiped as the guardian of the Ainu village. My English translation of this yukar is titled "Where the Silver Droplets Fall."

Where the Silver Droplets Fall

"Where the silver droplets fall, where the golden droplets fall..." I sang my song as I descended on the air current. Passing above a human village, I gazed down and saw that those who had once been poor seemed to have become rich and those who had once been rich seemed to have become poor. I passed over the beach where there were young children playing with small toy bows and small toy arrows.

"Where the silver droplets fall, where the golden droplets fall..." I sang as I passed above the heads of the children. The children ran along the ground below me, calling out to me and to one another. "Beautiful bird! Divine Bird! Come on everybody. Let`s shoot our arrows at it. Whoever hits it first is the bravest among us, a true hero."

As they called out to one another in this way, the children of households which had once been poor but were now rich, fit their metal arrows into their metal bows and released the arrows at me. Many little arrows came flying towards me but I caused them to veer up or down and they all missed.

Among them was one child who carried a bow and arrow made only of wood. I saw what the child was wearing and knew that he was from a poor household. But when I looked into his eyes, I thought he must be either the son or grandson of someone of good standing. He stood out among the others in the way he played. This child also fit his wooden arrow into his wooden bow and aimed at me.

As he did so, the children who had once been poor but were now rich laughed at him and said, "Now that’s really funny! You silly pauper, that’s a divine bird. It will never accept your rotten wooden arrow when it won’t even accept our metal arrows. Not in a million years." They kicked him with their legs and hit him with their fists. But the poor boy ignored them and carefully aimed his arrow at me. I watched him and was moved.

"Where the silver droplets fall, where the golden droplets fall," I sang as I drew a circle slowly in the sky. The poor boy drew one leg back and set it firmly behind him while setting the other leg firmly in front of him. He bit on his lower lip and steadied his aim. The arrow was released in a whoosh of air. The tiny arrow flew clean and straight towards me. I stretched out my claw and plucked that little arrow from the air. I sliced through the wind and fluttered to the ground. The children churned up the sand in little storms as they raced one another towards where I had fallen.

I fell to the earth almost at the same moment that the poor boy reached me ahead of the others. He ran to me and grasped me in his hands. But the children who had once been poor and were now rich had caught up with him and endlessly abused him with harsh words and beatings.

"You scoundrel. How dare you beat us to the bird!" And as the children abused him, the poor boy covered my body with his own, pressing me firmly against his belly. He wriggled and squirmed till he had escaped through a gap between the children. Then he leaped away from them and ran as fast as he could.

click here to read the full story.

Friday, July 3, 2009

ainu food

Cooking is one of my many passions, and I have often re-created Ainu meals. This is not hard in Hokkaido, where I have access to the same food sources the Ainu had. In fact, much of their food traditions have been adopted by the Japanese who live in Hokkaido. This is particularly true of salmon, a food source so important to the Ainu that their common word for "food" was the word for salmon. The Ainu Museum in Shiraoi, Hokkaido, has an English section on their website that has some more information about Ainu eating habits.

As I was translating Iyomante~meguru inochi no okurimono (English working title: The Ainu and the Bear~ the gift of the cycle of life), I was struck by how often food is mentioned in the story. At the start of the book, the men of the village return from a hunt laden with bear meat. This is served to everyone in the village in a rich, fatty stew-- a very rare treat for the villagers. The meat that is left over is cut into strips and dried on drying racks above the hearth. When autumn comes, the "trees groan under the weight of acorns and walnuts. The sweet smell of wild grapes and kiwi berries drifts on the air. The river teams with salmon, which cause the river to undulate with silver." The Ainu boy picks the sweetest of the berries and catches the liveliest of the salmon to take back to the bear cub, who has grown big enough to be put in a cage made of logs.

When the date for the "bear-sending" is set, the whole village bustles with the food preparation tasks associated with the ceremony. As they make the millet wine, the women sing the wine-making songs passed down to them from their ancestors, and after a few days "a delicious smell wafts from the wine barrels." After the bear cub is killed, her spirit is invited to a party, a celebration with much eating, drinking, singing, and dancing. Wine is an important gift the bear cub takes back with her to the land of the gods. Later, it is the scarcity of food in the mountains that brings a different bear to the village-- a rogue bear, or "god-gone-bad," from which the Ainu boy, now a man, must protect his people.

In fact, I think it is fair to say that the Iyomante ritual would not exist were it not for the never-ending and pressing need for food, and some sort of assurance that the source of that food will not be cut off. Traditionally, and on a daily basis, the Ainu recognized that their own lives were being sustained by the lives of others. The book closes with these words of the storyteller, "Children... listen carefully to what I have told you and remember it well. Every grain of millet, and every piece of meat and fish, contains the life of another. We feed on the life of others. We are part of a cycle of life. We all partake in the blessing of the cycle of life..."

Friday, June 19, 2009

ainu music cds (1)

When R.I.C. Publications published our translation of Shigeru Kayano's The Ainu and the Fox in 2006, they included a CD with every book. This is something they regularly do with their line of children's storybooks. The CD that came with The Ainu and the Fox contained a recording of the text plus selections of tonkori performances by Ainu musician Oki. In the process of exploring his Ainu roots, Oki revived the nearly extinct tonkori and developed his own interpretations of traditional Ainu tunes. He often fuses traditional Ainu music with that of other genres such as reggae and dub. For the CD that is due to accompany the Iyomante book we are thinking of going with Ainu music that is more starkly traditional. We have an idea of who we are going to ask, but it's not official yet. I'll blog the details when everything is settled.

In the meantime, I wanted to tell you about MOSHIRI, an Eastern-Hokkaido based group that does a thrilling stage performance of Ainu dance and song. I was privileged to see this group perform in Sapporo many years ago, and was entranced by the drama of their performance. The men's dances, which are not often performed elsewhere, are especially intriguing. For the musical background to the dances, traditional instruments are supplemented by modern, non-traditional ones, so the music is fuller than it would be in basic, traditional Ainu tunes. MOSHIRI CDs can be ordered from their website (Japanese only) or purchased at their concerts (which are few and far between). Otherwise you have to travel to Lake Kussharo in eastern Hokkaido where the leader of MOSHIRI and his clan operate the Marukibune inn with regular stage performances for tourists.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

iyomante: adventures in re-titling

With the final revision of my translation of Iyomante: meguru inochi no okurimo (Iyomante: the gift of the cycle of life) safely in the publisher's hands, I let myself relax and unwind for a few days, knowing full well that the lull would not last long. My team members and I had made a list of possible English titles, our first choice being "Iyomante: the Ainu and the Bear." Not very catchy, I admit, but we wanted to retain the Ainu word for the bear-sending ceremony, and also make it fit with our previously published translation, The Ainu and the Fox. The proposed title had already been cleared with the original author, and the illustrator had agreed to draw a new cover illustration that prominently featured a bear (as the original cover was deemed too subtle for English readers). Sure enough, I received a call late last night from our team leader saying that the publisher was advising us to change our title. "Potential buyers will glaze over at the foreign word in the title and pass the book by," he had said. He would know. He's been successfully marketing English translations of Japanese storybooks for a long time. The publisher suggested just plain The Ainu and the Bear. The problem, from our point of view, was that Iyomante was not the simple children's-story-with-a-message that The Ainu and the Fox had been. While Iyomante imitates the yukar style, it isn't actually one of the stories in the Ainu oral tradition designed to be chanted by the tribal storyteller. It is the work of a modern writer for the purpose of informing modern readers about the bear-sending ceremony and the cultural values represented in that controversial, and frequently misunderstood, tradition. We chewed on the problem for a while, and finally came up with a compromise title: The Ainu and the Bear (in large letters) subtitled with the gift of the cycle of life (in small letters). Whether the publisher will accept this compromise remains to be seen.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

official ainu-related websites

The Ainu Association of Hokkaido, an organization of Hokkaido-based Ainu, has an English site that offers information on the history and social conditions of the Ainu, as well as a summary of laws pertaining to the Ainu and an outline of the activities of the association, which aims "to improve the social status of Ainu people and to develop, transmit and preserve Ainu culture in order to establish the dignity of the Ainu people."

The Foundation for Research and Promotion of Ainu Culture, which was established by the Japanese government in 1997, also has an English site that explains the history of the Foundation's establishment and the many FRPAC projects conceived to promote and preserve the Ainu language and culture.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

ainu arts exhibit in portland

For those who will be in the Portland, WA area this month, it may be worth your while to check out “Parallel Worlds: Art of the Ainu of Hokkaido and Native Americans of the Pacific Northwest,” which is being held in honor of Portland’s 50-year, sister city association with Sapporo, Hokkaido’s largest city. “Parallel Worlds” will be in place in the Pavilion at the Portland Japanese Garden from June 6-28 (2009) and includes a series of weaving demonstrations, lectures, dance and storytelling. Masamichi Nitani, of both Sapporo and Portland, is an Ainu woodcarver who will give carving demonstrations on various dates, including June 21, Father’s Day. For a complete schedule of events, go to

Thursday, June 4, 2009

random ainu mentions on the internet (1)

Came across an interesting (but somewhat peculiar) website called "Mythusmage Opines" with articles discussing "the races of AErth." At the bottom of the article called "Minor races" there is this passage about the Ainu:

"Far to the east, north of the Mixed Eastern Azirian Yellow Japanese, live the Ainu. The Ainu are the last remnants of the Jomon people, driven north by the ancestors of the Japanese when they invaded from southern Korea. Once considered White, the Ainu are now known to belong to their own race. Having just a few thousand members, the Ainu are the smallest of Ærth’s races."

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

iyomante preview

I am a newborn bear kamuy.

It is dark and warm in that space, and it is filled with Mother’s smell. I am absorbed in sucking her milk. Then, just as I am about to doze off, I hear a sound from a long way away. It is getting closer.
“What is it, Mother?”
“It’s the noise dogs make.”
“Dogs? Are they scary?”
Mother doesn’t move a muscle. Nor does she answer. But suddenly the snow caves in and a small hole opens up in the snow wall. A single beam of light shines straight through the hole, like a pole reaching toward us. The light reaches my mother and I see her face for the first time. It is shining.
“Everything’s going to be fine, child. Stay right here.” She rises from my side and walks straight into the light. The furry edges of her massive body sparkle like gold.

As Mother stretches to peer through the hole in the wall of snow, I hear a twang.
“Oh!” Slowly she spreads out her arms. Then, quite suddenly, she falls heavily onto her back.
“It’s a clean hit!”
The wall of snow crumbles and sunlight fills the space. White. It’s blinding white. The space is filled with blinding white light. Red. There’s red. Red is sprouting from my mother’s eyes. It spills and spreads all over the white snow.
The dogs are making a furious noise.
“It’s a female. She’s got a cub.”
A huge hand reaches toward me. I smell the smell of humans for the first time.

I am an Ainu boy.
Father is sitting by the hearth carving wood when his hand goes still. He is listening to something. A smile spreads under his thick beard.
“It’s raining,” he says. “It’s the bear cub-cleansing rain.” Today the fierce cold has loosened its grip. Instead of snow, a soft rain is falling.“When it begins to rain like this, there’s sure to be a newborn bear cub in the den.”
“The bear’s den? You mean the one in the mountain?”
“That’s right. The den you and I discovered together at the end of last autumn.”
Last year we found the entrance to a bear’s den by the root of an enormous tree. It was in the middle of a forest ablaze in autumn reds and yellows. Now, that same forest is certain to be under a blanket of snow. Father brings out his bow and arrows, and begins to dab wolfsbane on the tips of the arrowheads.
“This is powerful poison,” he says. “It will quickly kill the largest of bears, before it can even take its next breath.

The next morning, the fearsome cold has returned and the world seems to sparkle as though it has been scattered with stardust. Everything is frozen solid. Even the snow in the forest, which I usually sink into up to my waist, has hardened like bone. I could have walked on its surface for miles without sinking into it.
“We’re going to the mountain to welcome the Kimun Kamuy, the mountain god,” Father says. He means there’s going to be a hunt!
“Take me with you!”
“No, no. Tonight we’ll spend the night in the mountains. A boy like you, not even big enough to catch a rabbit, would just get in the way.” Father fastens on his snowshoes and takes hold of his walking stick. Slinging his bow and arrows across his back, he turns toward the mountain, his face aglow. The dogs follow, leaping and hopping in excitement.
I watch as the men enter the woods, their breath making white puffs in the air. Stamping my feet to keep them warm, I watch until I can no longer see them.


Father does not return home that day. Or the next day, or the next. Outside I can see the triple stars glittering high above in the frozen night sky. I know that the stars are the hearth fires of heaven. I wonder if Father is looking up at them like I am.
“I hope he’s all right,” I murmur.
Mother sits by the hearth, rocking the baby’s cradle. “Of course he’s all right. The fire kamuy is watching over him,” she says in her musical voice.
In the hearth the burning wood makes popping noises and the flame swells upwards. Suddenly the howling of dogs rises from the far distance. I dash outside, and I see Father and the men walking toward the village on the moonlit path. The fruit of their hunt is slung over their shoulders. There are humps on their backs as big as hills. It makes them look like a troop of magnificent bears marching down to earth from heaven.

“Look what Kimun Kamuy has seen fit to give us,” Father says. Reverently he sets down a huge bundle of meat and a bear skin larger than any I’ve ever see before. Then he opens up the front of his shirt and draws out a small animal.
“It’s a bear cub!” I shout.
But Mother reaches for the cub before I can. “Oh you sweet little thing. You must be so cold. You must be so frightened.” She takes the bear cub firmly in her arms and lets it suckle at her breast.
“It’s still a baby,” I say.
“That’s right. Her eyes have only just opened,” Father replies. “But as tiny as she is, she’s a true Kimun Kamuy. She’s an honored guest that has come to us from the land of the gods.”
I am a little scared, but I peer at the bear cub. I smell the smell of bear for the first time.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

what the illustrations tell you

Iyomante~Meguru inochi no okurimono (Iyomante, the gift of the cycle of life) is illustrated by Toshiya Kobayashi, a prolific and award-winning artist better known for his series of books (numbering over 15) illustrating the fantastical tales of Kenji Miyazawa, the nearly legendary storyteller and social activist of the early 1900s. In Iyomante, Kobayashi's illustrations provide a window into the daily life and rituals of the Ainu people beyond what is directly mentioned in author Michico Ryo's text. The illustration I posted in the previous blog pictures a mustache-like tattoo around the mother's mouth, though this custom is not mentioned in the text. The tattooing process began when the girl was twelve or thirteen, and was usually completed by the time she was fifteen or sixteen, at which point she was considered eligible for marriage. Notice the earrings and choker she wears. There are carefully preserved samples of these adornments in Ainu museums. The illustration I posted today shows village elders gathered around a fireplace, preparing for the bear-sending ceremony by offering droplets of wine to the hearth fire god from ornately carved prayer sticks dipped into lacquered bowls of wine. You can see how the elders are dressed for the occasion, particularly the headgear woven from straw. They are surrounded by the food and decorated willow sticks that have been made ready as gifts for the bear to take back with him to the land of the gods. The window at the top of the illustration is the "sacred window," always located on the eastern side of a dwelling, and through which the gods were thought to enter and leave the home. I could go on and on explaining what is represented in this illustration alone! The thought and research that went into each illustration in this storybook boggles the mind.

Friday, May 1, 2009

translating across cultures, tricky spots

I am almost finished with the rough draft translation of Iyomante~Meguru inochi no okurimono, which, as I blogged previously, has been approved by the Ainu Foundation for a publishing grant. Completing the rough (first) draft is always an important milestone. It will take many many more re-writes before I even show the manuscript to my team members, and more re-writes will be needed after I receive their feedback. But the road to this first milestone always feels the hardest part of the journey. This particular book is about the controversial subject of Iyomante, the "bear-sending" ceremony, arguably the most sacred of Ainu ceremonies. It has often been regarded by non-Ainu as a barbaric practice and was eventually outlawed by the Japanese government. The Bear Festival as practiced in modern times no longer includes the ritual killing of a bear cub. This storybook, however, deals with the subject from a traditional Ainu perspective. It is quite sensitively done, giving us a glimpse into the Ainu world view through the eyes of a young Ainu boy and the bear cub he helps to raise, a cub which is destined to be "sent" in the next Iyomante. There are a number of tricky spots in this book when it comes to translating with English-speaking young readers in mind, even apart from the potentially upsetting scene of the bear being killed. One is the reference (with illustration) to the boy's mother nursing the orphaned bear cub at her own breast. Until it was old enough to be "sent," the infant bear chosen for the Iyomante lived in the Ainu community as an honored guest, or beloved family member. This extended even to being nursed by Ainu women until it was old enough to be weaned. The illustration posted here shows such a scene. I only hope western readers will accept it in its context and not be offended. In my next blog I hope to comment further on how much you can learn about Ainu culture just from the illustrations in the book.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

recommended reading: ainu, spirit of a northern people

This is an immensely valuable book suited to mature readers and serious students of Ainu culture and history. Permit me to take the easy way out and quote from the blurb on "This book, which accompanied an exhibit at the Smithsonian's Arctic Studies Center, is the most in-depth treatise available on Ainu prehistory, material culture, and ethnohistory. The clearly written text is divided into six parts, each dealing with an aspect of Ainu culture and each authored or coauthored by noted authorities of Ainu prehistory and culture and benefiting from contributions by Ainu scholars themselves. Included are chapters on theories regarding Ainu origins prehistory; the early scholars of Ainu culture, such as Hiram Hiller and Jenichiro Oyabe; religion and cultural practices; and material culture. Perhaps most significant is the last part of the book,which addresses Ainu social and cultural issues, maintenance of traditional cultural practices, and the future of Ainu language." If you have the time to read it, and the resources to add it to your personal library, it is a must-have book. Otherwise, find a public or school library that has it, and refer to it for the background information that will enrich your enjoyment of Ainu folklore.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

recommended reading: the ainu of japan

One of the things I struggle with when I translate an Ainu folktale, especially one targeted to young readers, is judging whether and how much to include explanatory notes. Such explanations can be woven into the text, or they can be in the form of footnotes, end notes, or appendices. Adding explanations has the potential of compromising the literary quality-- the magical flow-- of the story. But the whole point of Project U-e-peker is to make the world of Ainu culture and verbal expression accessible to the English-speaking world, and a certain amount of compromise must be accepted for the sake of accessibility. The folktales, charming enough on their own, become so much more meaningful with a little background information. A bit of preparatory reading can go a long way in helping a young person, or attending adult, to unlock their full significance. The Ainu of Japan, written for young readers by Barbara Aoki Poisson, fulfills this role perfectly. The writing is clear, accurate, engaging, comprehensive, and accompanied by illuminating photos. I recognize the value of this book all the more as I work on our most recent project, Iyomante: Meguru inochi no okurimono (see previous post), a storybook about the Ainu bear festival. The Ainu of Japan has several subsections that will surely clarify any confusion about the significance of the bear festival to the Ainu world view and way of life. I highly recommend it.

Monday, April 6, 2009

grant approved for FY2009

Our most recent book proposal just won a publishing grant from the Ainu Foundation. This makes it possible to get our English translation of Iyomante: Meguru inochi no okurimono (Iyomante: the gift of the cycle of life) into print. The original book, written by Ryo Michico and illustrated by Kobayashi Toshiya, is a sensitive portrayal of the Iyomante bear-killing ceremony from the perspectives of a little boy and and a bear cub. I plan to blog periodic updates as the project moves forward. Stay tuned...

Sunday, April 5, 2009

the swamp mussel's song

This is the second of the Ainu folk tales that were published in the September 2007 issue of World Literature Today. It is my abridged translation of the original Ainu yukar, and like The Fox's Song (see previous blog), we hope to get it published as a storybook for young readers of English and students of English as a second language. This tale provides an intriguing peek into the daily life of Ainu women of long ago. The accompanying illustration is the work of Stephanie Gagnepain.

The Swamp Mussel's Song

The sun was so hot and intense that my home in the swamp was drying up. I was almost dead, but I called out, “Please, someone, please give me a drink of water.”

A woman carrying a basket was passing close by, so I called to her. But she snorted and said “Quit making such a racket, you disgusting swamp mussel!” She kicked me and my kin, and then she ground us into the mud with her foot. After that, she stomped off toward the hills.

As I was crying out from the terrible pain and begging again for water, another woman with a basket was passing close by. I called out to her for help. This woman was beautiful, and she came quickly to my side. “Oh, you poor mussels. You are all dried out, and it looks like you’ve been stepped upon!” She picked us up, placed us on a big butterbur leaf, and gently put us into the clear water of the lake.

When we were refreshed and had regained our strength, we studied the two women. And we learned that the first woman, the one who had treated us so cruelly, was the sister of Samayunkur. The second woman, the one who had treated us with kindness, was the sister of Okikurumi, the valiant warrior. Because the sister of Samayunkur had been cruel, I caused her millet field to wither. And because the sister of Okikurumi had been kind, I caused her millet field to prosper.

Later the same year, Okikurumi’s sister had a splendid harvest of millet. When she found out that it was my doing, she honored us by using our shells as clippers to harvest the ripe millet. Human women have used mussel shells to harvest the ripe grains of millet ever since. [the end]

the fox's song

The Fox's Song is my abridged translation of the original Ainu tale. We hope that some day we can get it published as a storybook for English-speaking children and students of English as a second language. It is special among the folktales transcribed by Chiri Yukie (see previous blog), in that it has plenty of humor. As to be expected, however, it is a tale with a moral. The fifteen illustrations were done by Sarah Davidson, but only the one posted here was included in the version published by World Literature Today.

The Fox's Song

One day I went to the seashore to search for something to feed my family. I slipped between the rocks and slid between the driftwood, until I saw a whale washed up on the beach up ahead. Humans were hopping around with glee. Some of them were cutting the meat into pieces to carry home. Some were chanting prayers to thank the whale spirit.

I became very excited. “Hooray, hooray! I have to figure out how I can have some of that whale meat,” I thought. I slipped between the rocks and slid between the driftwood until I was very close.

Oh no! Who could have imagined this? What I thought was a whale, was a pile of dog dung. What I thought were humans hopping up and down were crows pecking and scattering the dung. I was furious with myself and called myself terrible names. “You idiot!” I said to myself. “How could you have made such a stupid mistake?”

So once again, I slipped between the rocks and slid between the driftwood. Up ahead I saw a boat. In the boat were two humans who seemed to be arguing. “Now that’s interesting,” I said to myself. “Let me find out what they’re so angry about.” I slipped between the rocks and slid between the driftwood until I was very close.

Oh no! Who could have imagined this? What I thought were humans were two big cormorants. Their long necks were stretching in and out, making me think that they had been arguing. I was furious with myself and called myself terrible names. “You idiot!” I said to myself. “How could you have made such a stupid mistake?”

So once again, I slipped between the rocks and slid between the driftwood. I came to a river and followed it upstream. Up ahead I could see two women standing in the shallows, weeping. “I wonder why they are so sad,” I said to myself. “I think I’ll get up close and find out.” I slipped between the rocks and slid between the driftwood until I was very close.

Oh no! Who could have imagined this? What I thought were women was two fish-trapping poles standing in the river. They were swaying in the current, making me think they had been weeping. I was furious with myself and called myself terrible names. “You idiot!” I said to myself. “How could you have made such a stupid mistake?”

So once again, I slipped between the rocks and slid between the driftwood, following the river upstream towards my home. Up ahead I saw that my house was on fire. The smoke was rising high up towards the sky. I screamed to raise the alarm. Then someone came rushing towards me and I saw that it was my wife. She was in a panic. “What is it? What’s wrong?” she asked. I looked at our house and started to explain.

Oh no! Who could have imagined this? There was no fire and there was no smoke. My wife had been pounding millet, and a strong wind had blown the chaff into the air, making me think that it was smoke from a fire. Not only had I failed to find food, I had startled my wife and caused her to throw out the millet with the chaff. Now we had nothing to eat. I was furious with myself and called myself terrible names. I threw myself onto my bed and pouted. “You idiot!” I said to myself. “How could you have made such a stupid mistake?” [the end]

chiri yukie's yukar anthology

This is the introduction I wrote to give context to the two Ainu folktales that were published in the September 2007 issue of World Literature Today (see previous blog). The focus here is on Chiri Yukie, a remarkable young Ainu woman who played a key role in the preservation of the Ainu oral tradition:

"The Ainu are a people indigenous to the island of Hokkaido, Japan, though they were once spread across northern Japan, the Kurile Islands and Sakhalin. The spoken language, at least as a means of daily communication, was said to have died out by the latter half of the 20th century, to be remembered by only a handful of very elderly Ainu. But increasing worldwide attention to the rights and dignity of indigenous peoples has recently resulted in renewed and better-funded efforts to revitalize Ainu language and culture.

The Ainu language does not have a writing system, but its oral tradition is rich and varied. The two Ainu tales included here were first transcribed from the oral tradition by Chiri Yukie (1903-22), a linguistically gifted Ainu girl who was born and raised in a time when the Ainu were scorned as an inferior people by mainstream Japanese society and authorities. But a timely encounter with the Japanese linguist Kindaichi Kyousuke (1882-1971) transformed Yukie into a forerunner of a movement to reclaim Ainu ethnic pride. And when she died of heart failure at the tender age of nineteen, she left behind an anthology of fourteen animal yukar (chanted epic tales) published posthumously as the “Ainu Shin’youshuu” (Collected tales of the Ainu gods).

“The Fox’s Song” is a retelling of the Ainu tale “Towa towa to: A Song Sung by the Fox,” and “The Swamp Mussel God’s Song” is a retelling of “Tonupeka ranran: A Song Sung by the Swamp Mussel God.” The preface she wrote for the anthology is quoted in part below. These words moved the hearts of many who read them, both Japanese and Ainu, and they continue to speak to readers of all nations and languages today.

Long ago, this vast land of Hokkaido was the free home of our ancestors... But that peaceful sanctuary is now a thing of the past... Before we realized it was happening, Nature... had become faded, and the people, who had once lived so joyfully in the meadows and the mountains, are nowhere to be found. The few of our people who remain are helpless to do anything but watch in astonishment as the world continues to push ahead. Even worse, our eyes have lost the sparkle of the once beautiful spirit our people had in ancient times, when every aspect of our lives was imbued with religious perception. How shameful we appear--filled with unease and discontent, our sense of direction dulled, dependent on the pity of strangers. We are a perishing people--that is what they call us now. What a sorrowful name we have to bear! But... what of the many words and well-used phrases our beloved ancestors used daily to relay their thoughts to one another, the many beautiful expressions they passed from generation to generation--are they doomed to disappear along with our dying people? That would be too tragic to bear! Having been born an Ainu, and raised hearing and speaking the Ainu tongue, I have set down in my awkward hand, a few short tales from among the great many with which our ancestors entertained themselves when they gathered on rainy or snowy nights, or any time they could find a spare minute. If the many people who know of us could read this collection, it would bring me, along with my ancestors, boundless delight and supreme joy."

endangered languages

In the spring of 2007, I received an invitation from World Literature Today to submit some Ainu folk tales in translation for their special issue on Endangered Languages, which was scheduled to come out later that year. It was a wonderful opportunity for us. For those of you familiar with WLT, I don't need to tell you what a first rate magazine it is. I submitted several translations along with artwork equal to or exceeding the high standards of WLT. They chose two of the shorter stories for publication and asked me to write an introduction to give the stories context. In the next few blogs, I will be posting the introduction and each of the two Ainu tales in their entirety. The articles are in the archives of the WLT website, and can be accessed at this address:

the ainu and the fox

In the spring of 2005, our application for a grant was accepted by the Ainu Foundation, making it possible for us to publish our English translation of Ainu to Kitsune. The original tale had been handed down in oral form among the Ainu from generation to generation, finally to be transcribed and translated into Japanese by the Ainu activist Kayano Shigeru (1926-2006). Some time later, at his publisher's request, Kayano rewrote it as a children's story. It was then combined with Ishikura Kinji's marvelous illustrations and published in 2001 by Komine Shoten as a delightful storybook. We had been given the honor of translating this book into English. The translation was published in 2006 by RIC Publications under the title The Ainu and the Fox. In brief, it is the story of a fox who makes a charanke (passionate appeal) to the Ainu community, claiming that the humans are taking more than their fair share of nature's bounty, even refusing to share with the animals as the gods had intended. Kayano, who had been seriously ill for some years, lived just long enough to meet with us and representatives of the press at his home in Nibutani where, to his great satisfaction, we presented him with a copy hot off the press. (See photo in previous blog post.) The entire first printing of the book was distributed all over Japan and even across the sea, to school libraries and institutions known to have an interest in indigenous peoples.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

project u-e-peker is born

Several years ago, I was invited to write about the "birth" of Project U-e-peker for, a website for Japan-based news. I've pasted the bulk of the essay below. You can find the original article at

"Project U-e-peker came into being on February 9, 1999, when three people of different nationalities and professions gathered at my home in Sapporo to discuss what we could do to make Ainu folk tales more readily available in English-- particularly in the light of the potential resources of the recently established Foundation for Research and Promotion of Ainu Culture (hereafter: Ainu Foundation).

Our team rep, Hakodate-based Peter Howlett, had been using his own translations of Ainu folk tales in his ESL (English as a second language) syllabus for years, developing teaching materials that included notes in various languages (primarily Japanese, Korean, and Russian) so that they could be used beyond the context of Japan's ESL classroom, as part of a vision to create "classrooms without borders."

Noriyoshi Owaki, retired English teacher, former president of the Minority Group Conference, and secretary general of the National Network in Support of the Ainu Communal Property Case, approached our project from the perspective of preserving Ainu dignity and ethnic rights.

As a professional translator, my own approach to the project was a deep interest in the oral literature of an overlooked and under-appreciated culture. Like Peter, I had lived all my life in Japan, most of it in Hokkaido, in close proximity to the few remaining Ainu hamlets. Our physical appearance and nationalities had forced us to be categorized as outside the mainstream in the land we have called "home" for over fifty years, and maybe this is one reason why we were drawn so by the plight of the Ainu.

With each subsequent meeting, the membership of Project U-e-peker grew, encompassing more nationalities, professions, and perspectives along the way. Our first breakthrough came when Peter's translation of Ainu Nenoan Ainu was published by Tuttle Publishing as The Ainu: A Story of Japan's Original People (2004). Originally written by the Ainu activist Kayano Shigeru (1926-2006), it is a meticulously illustrated description of the traditional Ainu lifestyle and values in which he had been raised.

In 2005, the Ainu Foundation accepted our application for a publishing grant, and my translation of Ainu to Kitsune, Kayano's rendition of a traditional Ainu folk tale, was published by R.I.C. Publications as The Ainu and the Fox (2006). We hope to eventually publish our English renditions of the tales in Chiri Yukie's (1903-1922) famous yukar anthology, titled Ainu Shinyoushuu (Collected tales of the Ainu gods).

In 2006, shortly after the publication of The Ainu and the Fox, we established a Project U-e-peker website to inform the public of what we hope to accomplish and why. We are spread over several nations and continents, but our common desire is to have a part in drawing the world's attention to the literary charm and social/ecological wisdom contained in the Ainu oral tradition, before it is snuffed out in the general apathy which faces it in Japan."

what is project u-e-peker?

Project U-e-peker is a team of people from a variety of nations and professions who are working to make Ainu folktales available in English. The Ainu are the indigenous people of Hokkaido, the northernmost island of Japan.

With the expansion of the Japanese state into Ainu lands, the Ainu people were displaced, their rights ignored, their language, culture, and dignity diminished in the forcible attempt to assimilate them into mainstream Japanese society. It is a tragic history shared by many native peoples throughout the colonized world.

Japanese schools offer little or no education in the history and culture of the Ainu people. They are virtually ignored in the officially sanctioned curriculum. As ESL (English as a second language) teachers and translators, we felt that we were in a position to do something about this negligence.

Ainu culture and values have been preserved in a rich oral tradition. This includes Yukar (epics), Upaskuma (local history stories), and U-e-peker (folktales told in conversational style). Our goals are (1) to translate Ainu folktales into English and (2) to introduce these translations to the English speaking world and into the ESL syllabus of schools in Japan and its neighboring countries. By doing this, we hope to stimulate interest in Ainu culture, not only abroad, but also among Japanese school children now occupying the land once known in the Ainu language as Ainu Mosir (the land where humans live).

In future blogs I plan to explain what the team has already accomplished toward those goals, and what new challenges lie ahead of us.