Popular Science Monthly/Volume 33/August 1888/Ainu Houses and their Furnishing

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ON approaching an Ainu village one is deceived as to the number of houses, and apt to underestimate them. I fancy this is because of their being scattered about most irregularly, and because there are no streets to guide the eye. Along the coast the villages are, as a rule, built just inside of the first row of sand-dunes, which afford considerable protection from the heavy gales. Since the Japanese Government has undertaken the management and development of the Hokkaido, a good road leads through each village; but off on either side of this road the houses are built according to the fancy of the various occupants, and if a stranger visits the village in summer, many of the outlying huts will be hidden among the tall, rank weeds, and by the growing vegetables. In every village which I visited I was constantly being surprised at the guides taking me off by some narrow foot-path in a direction where I had not suspected there was a house, and always we would find one or more.

The Ainu huts possess no claims to consideration from an architect. Their light frames have just strength enough to carry the thatch and resist the ordinary winds that blow from the ocean, on the shore of which most of the Ainu villages are built. We will consider a large house in which will be domiciled a family consisting of father, mother, and several well-grown sons and daughters. In building such a habitation the quadrilateral roof is first made. The ridge-pole and plates will probably be roughly hewed sticks of considerable size, in one piece if possible, though jointed if necessary. The girders and rafters are round sticks, lashed together and to the ridge-pole and plates with withes. No nails or tree-nails are used. Strong tie-beams support the plates, and when the roof is raised to its place, will carry shelves for stores, clothing, implements, etc. The thatch of the roof is laid on in courses of about eighteen inches in length, conforming to the length of the tall reeds and arundinaria of which it is made.

PSM V33 D514 Ainu houses.jpg
Fig. 1.—Ainu Houses[1]

The ridge is usually thicker and stronger than the rest of the roof, and is lashed by seizings at short intervals; the ends of the ridge-pole often project slightly, and small openings are left at either end under the ridge, which serve as smoke-holes. The roof is closely laid, turns water well, and has sufficient pitch to cause the melted snow to run off freely. Its strength is quite remarkable, as the weight of snow, which often lies three and four feet deep, is considerable; while the force of the ocean-gales which speed in from the Pacific must subject it to very heavy strain. The eaves reach to within about four feet of the ground.

When the roof is quite finished it is raised by main strength and stupidity, and the corner posts, which are substantial sticks roughly squared, are placed in position. Then the wall-frames of smaller sticks, oftentimes with the bark left on, are lashed to the plates and to cross-pieces, to which are fastened the rushes of the wall. These are not laid on in a heavy thatch, as they are on the roof, but in one or two flat courses; very often they are so thin in places that it is possible to see between them. The median line of the house is always in an east and west direction. A sacred window is left in the middle of the eastern wall, through which the sun-god is worshiped, and before this an inao is placed. Another window, perhaps two, will be cut in the south wall just under the eaves. All the windows are closed by shutters opening outward and swinging from the top, being caught up and held by a lanyard secured to the eaves on the outside.

In the house which we are describing there will be an addition on the west of about fifteen feet square, but much lower than the main building. The roof of this is also made first, raised to its proper position, and the thatch joined to that of the main house. This roof slopes toward the north, west, and south. The walls are the same as those of the main building, the entrance-door being in the southern wall and protected by a small porch with thatch roof and rush walls; opposite the entrance-door a small window is cut in the north wall, and beneath it is placed a rude sink for culinary purposes. As the occupations of the inmates do not require much light, the windows are quite sufficient, while ample ventilation is secured through them and the thin walls. There are no partitions inside the hut, though the western extension is sometimes separated from the main room by a light wicker framework, about three feet high, with openings at the sides of the fireplace, which is always directly under the ridge-pole, but rather nearer the western end. The fireplace is oblong in shape, the ashes being kept at about the level of the floor on either side. Sometimes the whole floor of the main apartment is boarded over on the north, east, and south sides of the fireplace, but usually this flooring only extends along the eastern end under the sacred window, the entrance-door always being in the western end of the single building, or in the southern wall of the western extension. The northern side of the fireplace is sacred to the family, a small sleeping-box being usually built under the eaves; the head of the house, or eastern end, is reserved for permanent or distinguished visitors, and the southern side is for occasional callers.

With the house built and the family in possession, let us enter and see how they conduct themselves, and how they arrange their various goods and belongings. And, in order to make the picture more real, I will describe some houses which I actually visited in the village of Horobetsu, province of Iburi, on the east coast of the island of Yezo. Passing through the porch of the first house into the western extension or vestibule, we found a medley of articles hanging from the beams and pegs in the walls or resting on shelves hanging from the cross-beams, or tossed into the corners and lying on the earthen floor. There were pack-saddles, bundles of grain and hemp, some strips of smoked fish, clothing (old and new), fishing and hunting implements, and apparently a thousand and one useful and useless things scattered about in the wildest confusion. This room was evidently the workshop, and two old women were busily occupied, nor did our entrance in the least disconcert them; for, after giving us a pleasant greeting and a laughing permission to examine everything, and to write and sketch as much as we pleased, they went on with their work—nor did they stop from time to time to see what we were about and to talk about the foreigner, as I am sure Japanese peasant-women would have done under similar circumstances. One of those women was cutting off the heads of a lot of barley with an old knife, preparatory to thrashing, and preserving the straw for future use in making rough mats; the other was washing a lot of potatoes that had evidently been torn from the earth all too soon, or else they were of the kind known as "small potatoes and few in the hill." This one had apparently left her weaving to care for the potatoes, as a mat-loom was lying on the ground near her.

Between this vestibule and the main room the wall had been cut away (probably had never been built), and a light, open wicket fence made of rushes, about three feet high, thrown across the dividing line, with openings on the north and south sides giving entrance to the living-room. Passing through the southern entrance we found that the fireplace was surrounded on the west, north, and south sides by a narrow passage-way, the floor of which was the ground itself. This was backed up by a narrow shelf on the north and south, but on the east the raised dais came up flush with the rim of the fireplace.

The south side of the house is devoted to the younger members of the family and to occasional visitors. Close to the wall were some small boxes containing the private belongings of some of the girls. Strange to say, these boxes, although without locks or fastenings of any kind, are considered inviolable by the men, and no one ventures to open them save the owner. Even if the master himself knows that they contain the much-coveted saké, to get which an Ainu man will resort to any expedient, or contain ready money with which he might purchase the one thing essential to perfect happiness according to his light, he does not dare to violate their sanctity.

PSM V33 D517 Plan of an ainu house.jpg
Fig. 2.—Plan of an Ainu House.

Back of the eastern dais, along the wall under the sacred window, were hung some very pretty mats with a curious, semi-geometrical pattern picked out in brown and red. These served as a background for one or two sets of open shelves, on which were arranged a number of cups, plates, and other pieces of crockery for every-day use. These were all of Japanese manufacture, and had evidently been brought from the main island, for the Ainu do not make pottery of any kind; nor is there any authentic record of their ever having done so, though they have a myth that in ancient times they possessed the art, but that all specimens were destroyed, and the written instructions for making ware were stolen from them. It may be remarked, parenthetically, that this is entirely discredited by those who know most about Ainu ethnology.

In the northeastern corner of the house—which, next to the eastern window, is held sacred—on shelves, some of them covered with mats, were a number of Japanese household utensils in lacquer, carved wood, earthenware, and brass. Many of these were very old and excellent specimens of art, and some bore the crests of Daimiyo (feudal lords of Japan), showing that they had very likely been received as presents from their former owners.[2]

There were food-boxes, clothing-boxes, and clothes-frames (clothes-horses), bowls for food and saké, rests for swords, urns or tea-chests, about two feet high on four small legs, tubs for sake of the same height; all ranged in order, rarely used, and not to be bought unless for fabulous prices. Hanging from a beam in front of the corner, transformed into an open cupboard, were four swords, a matchlock, a bow with accompanying quiver full of arrows, and a pair of winter half-boots, made of salmon-skin. The swords were similar to the Japanese in most particulars, though not quite so long, nor so well made, and certainly not as well cared for as a Japanese sword would be; the handles were of wood, rudely carved and ornamented with little studs of brass or tin, secured by short nails, and tiny bells; the guards were just the same as those of Japanese swords; the scabbards were of wood, in two pieces neatly joined. The swords are worn on the left side, well up under the arm, and hang by a broad strap which passes over the right shoulder.

Passing along the north wall of the house, we came to the sleeping-box, as I must call it, for it can not be designated a room. It was tucked well under the eaves, was about ten feet long by eight wide, and raised eighteen inches above the floor of the house. One end of it formed the side of the curio corner just described. On the floor was spread a piece of matting, and the futons, or heavily wadded cotton quilts, on which and under which the family sleep at night, were neatly folded and laid in a pile on one side; the pillows in this house were of the Japanese pattern, little stands that support the neck, and which look to be wretchedly uncomfortable, but which are not so very bad when one gets accustomed to them. At night, or whenever any one is sleeping, a mat curtain is hung up in front of the sleeping-quarters, thus sealing up the inmates almost hermetically. I can not imagine any greater misery than to be compelled to be one of half a dozen to occupy that miserable little box at night, deprived of all fresh air save the little that might strain through the reeds of the house wall, for "freshness" can not be applied to the air from the interior of the house itself, that must reek with the stench of rancid oil, half-cured fish, smoke, etc., and, as for fleas and insects not usually mentioned in polite society, let us draw the curtain!

We have now passed quite round the hut and reached the entrance on the north side of the wicket fence. In this corner were the spare clothes, rough-weather garments, and private boxes of the master and mistress.

An iron kettle was hanging from a crane over the fireplace, and strips of sword-fish and salmon-flesh were curing on a frame suspended over the fire, the smoke being increased by burning green wood and leaves. The effect of this pungent, stinging smoke was very trying to eyes and lungs, and compelled me to cut my visit and minute description rather shorter than I would have wished.

Various fishing and hunting implements and miscellaneous odds and ends were placed on the cross-beams, or on shelves

PSM V33 D519 Ainu at home.jpg
Fig. 3.—Ainu at Home. (From a Japanese sketch.)

resting upon them, just as will be seen in farmers' and peasants' houses the world over. Though hunting and fishing are essentially the occupations of the men, and the women's assistance is only called in to perform the drudgery of cleaning, salting, and curing the fish and dressing and cooking the bear's meat, still the women are tacitly permitted to go fishing by themselves on moonlight nights, when they use the spear and nets almost as dexterously as the men.

There was no ceiling of any kind, and the inner side of the thatch, the beams, girders, etc., were black with smoke and glistening with oil and grease. When foreign guests remain overnight, a temporary room is set off for them at the eastern end by spreading a mat over the beams and hanging others therefrom.

There was nothing resembling a chair in the remotest degree; the men sit in true Turkish fashion, and the women either rest in that way or squat upon their heels like the Japanese. The nearest approach to a table was the small zen upon which the dishes of food are placed, an independent zen for each person, but these are not often used by the Ainu. At meals each person's bowl is filled from the pot by the mistress and handed to him, and, as their dishes are generally stews containing a little of everything in one grand mess, a series of bowls or dishes for a variety of courses is not necessary. Of wall ornaments, such as pictures and kakemono (the favorite hanging scroll picture of the Japanese), there was nothing at all.

This is rather a superficial description of an Ainu hut. Not the slightest attempt at architectural ornamentation was anywhere visible, the single idea seemingly being to provide a slight protection from the worst of the weather.

At a short distance from each hut is a small storehouse, raised on a framework about five feet from the ground. In construction this is quite the same as the house itself, the walls sloping inward slightly for the sake of strength. The door is at one end, and is reached by a ladder or a notched stick. It was a delightful comment upon the character of the Ainu to note that none of these storehouses were locked or fastened in any way against thieves. They contain the spare food, the unthrashed grain, etc. I should think, however, that some sort of locks would be necessary now that the population of the villages is becoming more and more mixed each year, for the average Japanese's ideas of meum and tuum are apt to be somewhat vague.

Another hut which I visited, and where I made a much longer stay, was not so large as the first, having no western extension. It was more modern in its appointments, being floored over entirely, excepting a small space just inside the western door, where visitors put off their sandals or shoes. We were fortunate in finding some men here, and the master took great pride and apparently much pleasure in displaying his treasures, but he refused to be at all communicative as to their history. He, too, possessed many choice bits of old lacquer, and many Japanese curios, which he said had been given to his ancestors. More than that he would not say, and I finally concluded that he could not. All of the men and some of the women wore large brass ear-rings. There was one woman with a roguish, gypsy face, that strongly confirmed Miss Bird's comparison of these people to the inhabitants of southern Spain. Her peculiarity of speech in the matter of final a and e was so marked as to induce a smile, and, as soon as she detected it, she was so much disconcerted that she would say

PSM V33 D521 Ainu storehouse.jpg
Fig. 4.—Ainu Storehouse.

nothing more. I was sorry for this, as her voice was truly musical, and I know she was sorry also, because, being the mistress of the house, she was itching to have a word in the bargaining that ensued. This house was comparatively clean, and, when mats had been spread for us at the eastern end, we were quite contented to remain for a long time.

At first, the master of the house pretended to be very reluctant to sell any of his possessions, but, after much persuasion, he at last consented to let us have a sword, a bow and arrows, and a lot of small things which we still keep as souvenirs. Then, when the others found that trading for money had commenced, they went off for things, and soon we were overwhelmed with bargains. Evidently the Ainu have advanced in foreign civilization, in one respect at any rate; for, instead of evincing any disinclination to take money for the articles we wanted, they at first asked exorbitant prices, over which we did considerable haggling before agreeing upon a sum that was very high for them, but fairly reasonable for us.

In a third house half a dozen women were cutting up sword-fish and preparing strips for smoking, by stretching them with pieces of stick into a regular V-diamond pattern. Several men sat round smoking and giving orders, but loftily refusing to do anything to assist their wives. The men apologized for the dirty appearance of the place, and truly an apology was in order, for a dirtier, more malodorous house I never entered! They said we would not care to sit down, nor did we. A hasty glance was enough to show us that, in all essentials, this was quite similar to the others.

I paid a visit to the village chief, who lives in a large house, a part of which is occupied by a Japanese Christian, who is trying to do missionary work among the people. The chief, a very old PSM V33 D522 Ainu patriarch.jpgFig. 5.—Ainu Patriarch. man, received me sitting in front of his cabinet of Japanese curios. He bowed, extended both his hands with the palms up, waved them toward himself, and stroked his long gray beard. These actions were repeated twice, and were accompanied by a low, murmured greeting, which was translated to me as meaning that he deemed himself highly honored by my call, and hoped I would enjoy myself during my stay in his village. The Ainu, he said, were too poor and too ignorant of the manners of honorable foreigners to do anything to entertain me; and a lot of compliments and pleasant things. His quiet dignity of manner, and his low, musical voice impressed me very favorably; and, although he was dirty and clad in rags, he looked the chief.

One of my guides brought something in his hand and asked, in rather a mysterious way, if I wished to see an Ainu musical instrument. Of course I said that I did, when, to my great astonishment, he produced an iron Jew's-harp of orthodox pattern, and to my utter astonishment told me that it was an original Ainu invention! Aside from the fact that it evinced a degree of skill in metal-working to which the Ainu have never attained, its whole appearance betrayed it at once. It is true that they have a musical instrument, of which Miss Bird writes: "They have another which is believed to be peculiar to themselves, consisting of a thin piece of wood, about five inches long and two and a half inches broad, with a pointed wooden tongue, about two lines in breadth and sixteen in length, fixed in the middle, and grooved on three sides. The wood is held before the mouth, and the tongue is set in motion by the vibration of the breath in singing. Its sound, though less penetrating, is as discordant as that of a Jew's harp, which it somewhat resembles." I did not see one of these wooden instruments, but that which they showed me was so unmistakably of foreign manufacture that I could not suppress a smile when the extraordinary claim was made, and thereby hurt the feelings of the sensitive Ainu. This claiming priority in inventing the Jew's-harp quite jumps with their assertion that their progenitors used tobacco (though the dates of the introduction of tobacco to China and thence to Japan are quite well known, and it is beyond question that the Ainu learned of tobacco and how to use it from the Japanese); that they used to have a written literature, all traces of which were stolen by Yoshitsune; and other minor but equally untenable claims.

The only Ainu weapons which show any individuality are the bows and arrows. Their knives, swords, spears, and matchlocks are clearly of Japanese make. They have discarded flint and stone arrow-heads and spear-points, but only a comparatively short time ago; specimens in obsidian, etc., can be dug up in the vicinity of most of their villages.

The Ainu bow is made of a light, rather coarse-grained wood, resembling red cedar in appearance. This wood is called on-ko; in Japanese, probably, araragi, (Taxus cuspidata); the Chinese character which the Japanese employ for this wood seems to refer to the Ailanthus glandulosa by the synonyms, but may also denote a kind of Rhus (Rhus cotinus). Batchelor says that the onko is the yew-tree. It is very inelastic, and, unless a singularly good piece can be obtained, the bow is wrapped with thin strips of wild cherry to increase its elasticity—just as the Esquimaux seize their bows and brace them with intestines. I examined a great many bows, but did not see any "stout saplings with the bark on," as mentioned by Miss Bird, and I am inclined to think that she may have mistaken the cherry-seizing for bark. The bows are short, the longest I saw being only fifty-three inches, the shortest not over thirty-six inches. They are all roughly dressed to a round shape, and are quite devoid of ornamentation.

Miss Bird's description of their poison-arrows is so exact that I take the liberty of transcribing it entire: "The arrows are very peculiar, and are made in three pieces, the point consisting of a sharpened piece of bone with an elongated cavity on one side for the reception of the poison. The point or head is very slightly fastened by a lashing of bark to a fusiform piece of bone about four inches long, which is in turn lashed to a [reed] shaft about fourteen inches long, the other end of which is sometimes [usually] equipped with a triple feather, and sometimes is not. The poison is placed in the enlongated cavity in the head in a very soft state, and hardens afterward. In some of the arrow-heads, fully half a teaspoonful of the paste is inserted. From the nature of the very slight lashings which attach the arrow-head to the shaft, it constantly remains fixed in the slight wound that it makes, while the shaft falls off."

The exact composition of this poison is not known, I believe, but aconite (Aconitum Japonicum, a monkshood) is doubtless the principal ingredient. The Ainu claim, that a single wound kills a bear in ten minutes, seems to be well grounded, although few foreigners have ever accompanied them on their bear-hunts. They allege that the flesh is not rendered unfit for eating, though they take the precaution of cutting away a considerable quantity of it round the wound as soon as they can get at the bear.

In using the bow, it is held upright, grasped near the middle by the left hand, and held as nearly as possible at arm's length. The string and nock of the arrow are caught between the thumb and first inner joint of the forefinger of the right hand. The arrow is passed on the right-hand side of the bow and between the first and second fingers of the left hand. The pull is made toward the right ear, as in Western archery, but, owing to the stiffness of the bow and the shortness of the arrow, it is not a very long pull. That is not necessary, however, for the bow is only used at close quarters, when the aim need not be very accurate. The string was formerly made of attush, but they now use hemp or hard-twisted cotton.


Attention is now directed to the provision for recreation and exercise in girls' schools. While a great improvement has been realized in the matter, it is still in most schools quite insufficient. The usual provision for calisthenics, light games, and geological and botanical walks, is only held to be good as far as it goes. It can not pretend to contribute to the making of sound women in the sense in which the perfect freedom of activity given to boys tends to make them sound men. Perhaps notions of the degree of physical freedom it is proper to allow girls at school are at fault.
  1. For the illustrations in this article we are indebted to "Unbeaten Tracks in Japan," by Isabella L. Bird.—Editor.
  2. Miss Bird says: "Some of these things were doubtless gifts to their fathers when they went to pay tribute to the representative of the Shôgun and the Prince of Matsumae, soon after the conquest of Yezo. Others were probably gifts of samurai, who took refuge here during the rebellion, and some must have been obtained by barter. They are the one possession which they will not barter for saké, and are only parted with in payment of fines at the command of a chief, or as the dower of a girl." At the close of the rebellion of 1868, one last stand was made by the Tokugawa adherents in Yezo. The Ainu were non-combatants, and doubtless had many opportunities of befriending the unfortunate ones, who showed their appreciation of Ainu kindness and hospitality by leaving some of their belongings.