Popular Science Monthly/Volume 33/June 1888/A Study of the Ainu of Yezo

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FOR many years I have been very much interested in the Ainu[1] of Japan and Saghalien, and have read carefully everything upon which I could lay my hand containing information about them. Finding that Mr. Batchelor says, "Miss Bird's remarks upon the Ainu are perhaps the best that have been written in English,"[2] I came to the conclusion that anything like a satisfactory knowledge could only be obtained by visiting, as she did, some of the Ainu villages of Yezo. My desire to see them for myself has always been stimulated by the rather conflicting statements about them which are found in different books, and I have always had a sort of a forlorn hope (as I thought it) that fortune would some time turn me back to the shores of Asia, which I left nearly twenty years ago.

This long-wished-for opportunity has at last been granted. I landed in Japan the second time in the spring of 1886, and after waiting only long enough to get a slight working knowledge of the language, I spent a good part of the summer of 1887 in roaming about the northern parts of the empire, and have been permitted to see, live with, and study the Ainu in their homes. The Japanese officers have made special efforts to afford me facilities, and have enabled me to do much more than I could have done without their aid in so short a time.

I have learned of the Ainu history, of their habits and customs, of their myths and superstitions, from the man in Japan who is admitted to know this people better than any other person; and I here wish to thank the Rev. John Batchelor, Church Missionary Society, Hakodate, for his kindness, and for the patient way in which he submitted to my cross-questioning; for the advice he gave me how to make the best use of the limited time at my disposal, and for the assistance he rendered in making what is at the best a rough, hard trip as easy as possible. To Mrs. Batchelor my thanks are due for creature comforts which supplemented the trying fare of Japanese inns most acceptably.

I do not hesitate to say that all the valuable information contained in these notes has come originally from Mr. Batchelor; and that I have only confirmed what he has told me by my own observation, or by questioning the people themselves, when I found some who understood Japanese. Perhaps it would be better for me to leave Mr. Batchelor to tell Ms own story about the Ainu, but a missionary who is working single-handed (practically) over the extent of territory which he is trying to cover, can have but little time for ethnological work, and one wonders how Mr. Batchelor has managed to put together even the few stray bits that have come from his pen.

In the villages of the southern and eastern coasts of Yezo, nearly all the men (and many of the women and children) speak Japanese well. Hence it is always easy to get information from them; but, though deserving in a large measure their character for honesty and truthfulness, the Ainu have become sufficiently civilized to thoroughly love "taking a rise" out of a stranger—and if a bit of a lie will make the inquisitive one's eyes pop open and his pencil and note-book spring into unusual activity, the "gentle, truthful savage" is not going to spoil a good story by sticking to dry facts.

In the extreme northern and northeastern coasts of the island, and in the mountain fastnesses of the interior, there are still some villages of Ainu (not great numerically, but preserving their integrity) in which the people have quietly but firmly resisted Japanese advances and civilization. In those places many of the inhabitants can not speak Japanese. They use a few household utensils of Japanese manufacture, but, with this exception, continue to live as much as possible as they did before they came into contact with the Japanese. This seclusion can not last long now, however, for the Japanese are pushing their way slowly but surely (and of late it may be said kindly) into every nook and corner; establishing police stations and customs barriers, and fast breaking down the last trace of distinctive lines between the two races. There is a marked difference between—what I may call—the civilized and savage Ainu, and therefore he who would see something of them in anything like their natural condition must come quickly.

It is not my present purpose to discuss this people exhaustively, but merely to present a brief ethnological sketch of them in such a form as may be found interesting to the general reader, which may serve as a skeleton for me or some one who may have time and opportunity to deal with the subject thoroughly, to fill out in the near future.

There are very few tribes remaining on the earth who are as interesting in themselves as the Ainu; and none, perhaps, about whom so little can ever be known. Without a literature, without any monuments or reliable records, dreading to speak of the dead or the acts and deeds of their ancestors, they must be taken as they are, and speculation as to what they have been will always be more or less unsatisfactory.

Their number can not be given with the least degree of satisfaction. The Japanese Government census is not correct, nor is it claimed to be. Individual estimates range from 15,000 to as high as 50,000, but I fancy 16,000 or 18,000 would be about the number of Ainu in the empire of Japan. It is rather satisfactory to learn, from those who have been among the Ainu of late years, that they are holding their own, if not actually increasing in population. They may have survived their usefulness, though it is not easy to say just what that usefulness has been; but the same reason for alleging that they now but cumber the earth can not be advanced in their case that has been charged against the North American Indians (with whom the Ainu have been compared, though upon what grounds I can not see). The Indian is naturally a bloodthirsty savage, while a more peaceful, law-abiding race than the Ainu can not be imagined. In my general opinion of the Ainu I hold a middle ground between Miss Bird's enthusiasm, which makes him a gracious courtier, and the contempt of most Japanese who say, "The Ainu are just dogs, and have no souls."

The people know themselves as Ainu—Ainu utara. Ainu is singular, and utara is a plural suffix: Ainu, however, is often used when speaking of them collectively. Inasmuch as the Japanese word for dog is inu, there is some. ground for supposing that the tradition concerning the Ainu descent from a "large white dog" was invented by the Japanese after they became acquainted with the Ainu name for themselves, and was intended to show the contempt of the conquerors for the "vile and ignominious Aino." I do not venture to express any opinion as to the origin of this race of people, since it is a subject about which they themselves know nothing for certain. Batchelor says: "The older Ainu have a tradition to the effect that a person named Okikurumi" (who is strongly suspected to have been none other than the Japanese hero Yoshitsune—J. K. G.) "was the true Ainu ancestor. He descended from heaven to a mountain in Piratoru many years before the Japanese knew or were known by the Ainu. Okikurumi had a wife who was called Turesh, and who is always known by name—Okikurumi Turesh Machi. Okikurumi Turesh Machi bore a son, whom they called Wariunekuru, and from Wariunekuru the Ainu are said to be descended. Some of the Sara Ainu say that their forefathers came from the islands which lie to the northeast of Karafuto, or Saghalien, meaning thereby the Kurile Islands. The Kurile-Islanders are said to be ' quite as hairy as the bear,' and this accounts for the hairiness of the Ainu."

I think that the character of the Ainu house would seem to indicate that the people are of southern origin, and have been pushed toward the north by the aggressive, disciplined Japanese, Plainly they have not been very long inhabiting the island of Yezo, for the traces of their predecessors are too clearly to be seen; and all signs seem to indicate that at a not very remote period they were spread over the whole of Japan: it is certain that within the Japanese historical period they were as far south as the latitude of Nikkó in sufficient numbers to be deemed dangerous. Now, every feature of the Ainu hut points to a southern—one might almost say tropical—origin. The frame is made sufficiently strong to resist a heavy gale of wind, but not to carry a stout weather-boarding or a light, substantial roof. It seems to me that the original design of the thick, well-laid thatch was to turn a tropical rain, and that the exigencies of environment have produced a certain change and added strength to carry the weight of snow. Had the Ainu come from the north or northwest, it is probable that they would have brought with them a style of architecture adapted to a rigorous climate; that the roof would have been light but strong, and the walls sufficiently thick to break the force of the gales which are known to sweep over the regions of northern Asia. One of the strongest evidences that the Ainu hut is of southern rather than northern origin is the light, thin wall. In this respect it closely resembles the habitation of the East Indies. The low, overhanging eaves is another indication which supports this opinion. The Ainu have never displayed imitative powers, or even the faculty of adapting themselves to their surroundings; hence it is not surprising that they have chosen to accustom themselves to withstand the cold instead of remodeling their habitations.

Another argument to be adduced in support of the opinion that the Ainu are of southern origin is the fact that the girls mature early. I was unable to get any reliable statistics on this point, and depended upon my own observation and that of others. The climate of Yezo, and indeed of all of Japan—with the possible exception of the southern part, the island of Shikoku, for example—is not sufficiently hot to cause the early maturing which is conspicuous among the Japanese, and noticeable among the Ainu. In Japan, mothers of fourteen are by no means uncommon; and, although the Ainu women do not usually marry before they are probably sixteen or eighteen, they are fitted for maternity long before that age.

Warfare was most irregular with the Ainu. In the case of internecine strife the village chief was the nominal commander, but every person who took part in the engagement conducted his battle after his own fashion. In fights between villages men engaged against men, women contended with women, and even children did battle with children. Internal warfare was not characterized by the wholesale butchery and merciless slaughter of women and children that is usually so marked a feature of savage warfare. In a foreign war—e. g., against the Japanese—the chief of Sara, who was the recognized head of the nation, assumed command of all the combined forces, the village chiefs acting as colonels. But the utter want of discipline militated heavily against the Ainu, and this undoubtedly was one of the leading causes of their defeat, numbers being a secondary consideration. With the greater strength and superior power of endurance of the Ainu, had they been drilled in concerted action by skillful officers, such as the Japanese generals have been since the time of authentic history, and taught to make the most of their numbers, it can hardly be doubted that they would have made a much better showing than they did.

The language of the Ainu is entirely different from the Japanese. Many "click" sounds are heard, and it is much more consonantal, and there seems to be much less objection to the consonant ending of a word, which is so cordially hated by the Japanese. In the use of pronouns the Ainu language would be considered as philologically in advance of the Japanese, as they are used to indicate the antecedent or person in many instances where Japanese would leave the determination of the person speaking, spoken to, or spoken of, to the context and to the form of the verb. Honorific and humble forms of the verb are not used. The emphasis is similar to that of Japanese; intonation does not always convey the same shade of meaning—that is, interrogation, exclamation, etc.—as in English, although stress is often indicated by an explosive sound.

The tone of voice is always lower and more musical than that of the Japanese, and in the case of younger women is really quite pleasing. One peculiarity of the speech of women is a drawing out of the final vowel of words ending in a or e. At times this approaches the long a-a-h or e-e-h of a contented little baby.

The Ainu have been called the hairy people, and, contrasted with the Japanese, the name is well given; still, I could not find any of the animal-like pelts I had been led by some authors to expect to see. The men have heavy, coarse shocks of black hair on the head, cut off short behind across the nape of the neck, and allowed to grow nearly to the shoulders on the sides, being roughly brushed to either side from the forehead. Their beards are very strong and quite long, being allowed to grow without restraint. Most of them have "mossy breasts," and a few have a furry growth on the shoulders and down the back, but not more than I have seen on the shoulders of coolies in the south of China; while for hairy growth on legs and arms, I have seen Caucasians as well covered as any Ainu that I saw.

In stature they are rather under the average of the Caucasian, nor do they seem to be as tall as the southern Japanese, but upon this point I am not prepared to make any positive statement, as I took no measurements. Batchelor says: "Their men would measure about five feet seven inches in height. . . . Their foreheads are high, and the facial angle measures about 70°." I can not but think this is rather taller than the average; for one young man who seemed quite a giant among his fellows could not have been more than five feet eight inches in height. Their proportions are good, and the men are both stout and squarely built, the whole appearance being rather more attractive than that of the Japanese of the same relative standing. Their attractiveness, however, does not tempt one to anything like familiarity, as in their personal habits they are the very personification of dirtiness. Washing of person or clothing for the sake of cleanliness never seems to be considered of the slightest importance to them. In warm weather the younger people are tempted to cool off a bit by bathing and swimming in the rivers or saltwater estuaries near the villages; but, during all of my experience '(and this is fully confirmed by the statements of others who have had longer knowledge of them), I never once saw a man or a woman performing anything like ablutions in an Ainu village. When brought under civilizing influences, they adapt themselves to their environment, and make very good servants.

An old custom of the people forbids an Ainu woman exposing her person in any way. Some go so far as to say that they must not be unclothed even in private. Consequently, the girls whom I saw in bathing wore their cotton gowns, cut in the shape of a shift, while the boys were without clothing of any kind, though some of them wore amulets (of Japanese origin) tied around their necks.

I was particularly struck by the shapeliness of the Ainu limbs and extremities. Some of the women had small hands and feet, attached to well-turned wrists and ankles, whose symmetry and delicacy of shape dirt could not hide. The color of the skin seems to be darker than that of the Japanese, but just how much of this is due to exposure, and how much to their antipathy to water and utter ignorance of soap, it is impossible to even guess.

The face is round and broad, and although it is lacking in length as a rule, yet in many instances the chin is not badly shaped; the lips are large without being disgustingly gross; the eyes are dark-brown in color, and rather larger than those of the Japanese, without any drooping of the inner corner of the upper lid, and hence appear to be straight, without any of the obliquity which characterizes the Mongolian eyes; the cheek-bones are high, but not specially prominent; the nose is usually large, and, in the men, oftentimes indicates a strength of will which is not confirmed by the character of the people; the forehead is high and broad, sometimes overhanging to such a degree as to intensify the apparent lowness of the base and bridge of the nose, and I think this fact has led most observers to overlook a certain shapeliness of that member. The faces of the men impress one with their appearance of dignity, the long hair and the flowing beard giving them a truly patriarchal look. When in repose the face is apt to have an appearance of sadness, for the eyes—except when hunting or aroused by some momentary excitement—are rather dull and expressionless. This appearance of sadness is particularly noticeable in the younger people and children, but it is very evanescent, and disappears instantly when anything is said or done in the least likely to provoke a laugh; then the face breaks into smiles, and presents a singularly attractive aspect. Though naturally as shy as a young fawn, even the little children will respond with a laugh to a kind word and smile from a foreigner. I do not understand their language at all, and therefore can not speak authoritatively, but I do not think that I was ever called by foul names in an Ainu village. One can usually tell by the tone and manner, and the reception of the insult by others, whether or not opprobrium is being shouted after one. I can not say the same of all the Japanese places I have visited.

The robustness and general physique of the Ainu may be due to the fact that—so far as known—they have always eaten meat freely; whereas their neighbors and conquerors, the Japanese, have been practically vegetarians for many centuries—fish, a little fowl, and rarely a bit of game, not being a sufficient compensation for the absence of solid flesh from their regular diet.

No exact idea of the shape of the Ainu men's heads can be formed from their appearance, for the hair forms a heavy shock, standing out all around; but when the women's hair is dressed, their heads seem to be rather small and shapely, and well set on necks which are often long and graceful.

The women certainly have larger hips than the Japanese women. This may be due to their never having used the tight dresses, with the strong under-bands and enormous belts (obi) which are swathed around the Japanese girl when she is yet very young. In freedom of motion, in elasticity of gait, and in grace of carriage, the Ainu woman, with all her dirt and rags, is in pleasing contrast to the awkwardness of her Japanese sister in purple and fine linen!

Almost the first thing to attract the attention of a stranger visiting an Ainu village is the tattooing around the mouth of the women and girls. At the first glance one is deceived into supposing that the young men wear very delicate mustaches and train them carefully! As there are no written records of any kind among the Ainu, no means of communication except oral, it is impossible to get at anything like a satisfactory explanation of this curious and thoroughly disfiguring custom. The people themselves say that they adopted it from the people whom they found in possession of the land (Yezo) when they came to the island from the West (?). Those people, the Koropok-guru, they say were smaller than themselves, and were very soon and easily subjugated; but, evincing a kindly disposition, and a desire to affiliate with the new-comers, rather than to continue to wage war upon them, they (the Ainu) met their overtures half-way, ceased to fight them, and adopted some of their customs, one of them being this curious tattooing. The process commences when a girl is about ten years of age. A woman makes a number of small cuts with a sharp knife on the lips and around the mouth, deep enough to cause the blood to flow freely. With some of the blood, and soot obtained by catching on the bottom of an iron pot, or anything else which may come handy, the smoke from burning birch-bark, a paste is made and well rubbed into the incisions. After the resulting inflammation has subsided, a number of blue marks are seen, and the process is continued until the girl becomes a woman, when the mouth presents the appearance of being surrounded by a growth of hair trained into the dainty mustaches of a most consummate dandy. The tattooing around the mouth covers about one half of the lips, so that when the mouth is closed they appear of rather a sickly color. In the mean time the tattoo-marks have been applied to the forehead, and a heavy line drawn just over the bridge of the nose to connect the eyebrows (which are not shaved off, as was the universal custom among the married women of Japan),[3] and on the back of the hands and up the forearm to the elbow in a rude geometrical pattern.

Although the Ainu now use Japanese cotton and hemp as materials for clothing whenever they can get them, they still are compelled, at times, to resort to the material called attush. This is "the inner bark of a kind of elm, possibly Ulmus montana of Franchet and Savatier's catalogue of Japanese plants, generally known in Yezo as Ohiyo, but the true Ainu name of which is At-ni, attush meaning 'elm-fiber.'" It is thoroughly hackled, then spun (or drawn out into strands), and afterward woven with a small hand-loom, which is held by the toes and a cord passing around the body. This loom is a very rough affair, but in all essential parts is similar to the hand-loom still to be seen in parts of the United States. • The cloth is very rough and hard, but extremely durable. The piece is narrow, but just suited to the one pattern of outer garment worn by men and women alike: this is something like the Japanese kimono, but higher in the neck, and has more shapely sleeves. It is a long, perfectly straight gown, reaches nearly to the feet, folds across the body, and is secured at the waist by a girdle similar to the Japanese obi, but much narrower and nothing like so elaborate. The Ainu are very fond of ornamenting this gown with broad stripes of blue cotton cloth (an inch or two wide), stitched on in geometrical figures with thread, which makes a contrast: these figures are usually put on the front corners, around the neck, on the yoke, and on the sleeves. A burial-robe, which I saw in the Ainu collection of the Satporo Museum, was made of the attush, tan-colored, and ornamented with stripes of Turkey-red (an inch and a quarter wide), stitched with black, and with dark-blue cotton cloth stitched with thread of a lighter shade. The design was straight or at right angles, only one or two slightly curved lines appearing in a most intricate pattern.

The durability of the Ainu coat, with a certain attractiveness about the trimming, makes it quite popular with the Japanese, and as soon as one lands on the island of Yezo the Ainu styles are seen. The sleeves of this coat are much more sensible than those of the Japanese, which are long and constantly flapping about the legs, whereas the Ainu fits rather snugly about the wrist. Like the Japanese, the Ainu married women wear an under-garment, or smock, of cotton cloth; usually this is merely a straight piece of cloth folded around the waist and loins. In winter the Ainu wear skin-clothing, and leggings and boots made of deerskin; the coast Ainu make boots of salmon-skin.

Girdles—or obi—are made of attush or elm-fiber. A woman's obi, which I have, is made of hemp. It is eight feet long and only two inches wide, coarsely woven of large thread, with narrow, dark-blue stripes on the edges and half-way between the edges and middle, and one broader stripe in the center with a light-blue median line. Near each end is a little bit of red as an added ornament. The Karafuto (Saghalien) Ainu women wear girdles made of leather, and ornamented with rings and Chinese cash, which they probably get from Mantchooria. The Ainu do not protect their heads and feet at all, except during the winter.

One of the most common things seen in an Ainu village is the tara, or strap used for carrying all manner of bundles, and even children. It is made from attush, the same material as was formerly used altogether for their clothing. One in my possession is eight feet long. The bark has been roughly hackled, and in the center of the strap is braided into four strands, the outer ones three quarters of an inch wide, being about twice the width of the inner ones. Just at the middle for five inches these are caught together by a cross-weaving of blue and white cotton yarn, in a regular lozenge pattern; this is the part which is placed over the forehead when carrying a load. About seven and a half inches from this, toward each end, the four strands are brought together into a round, double strand, by a seizing which crosses itself regularly. This seizing extends for nearly four inches, and then the braiding is continued in a single flat plait for about eighteen inches, when it runs out into frayed ends. In using, the bundle is slung upon the back, the broad part of the tara being brought over the forehead, so that, while the back bears the weight, the forehead keeps the bundle in place.

  1. I adopt the spelling of the name which the Rev. Mr. Batchelor favors, as I yield precedence to him in all matters of exact knowledge concerning this people.
  2. "Unbeaten Tracks in Japan," by Isabella L. Bird.
  3. This custom is rapidly disappearing from the neighborhood of the treaty ports, and to some extent in the interior, as is also the still more disfiguring sign of a married woman, viz., the blackened teeth. With them are going the short queue and partly shaved head of the men.