Speaking in Ainu: Cultural and Personal Recovery

Culture History Society Family

Born in Tokyo, but interested in his Ainu roots from a young age, Kitahara Jirōta Mokottunas was inspired by conversations with his grandmother, who grew up on the island of Sakhalin, to research the diversity of Ainu culture.

An Ainu in the Tokyo Area

I am an Ainu. However, sometimes when I tell people I was born not in Hokkaidō, but in Tokyo, and was raised in Saitama Prefecture, it brings the conversation to a halt, as if they are thinking, “Oh, so maybe he’s not really an Ainu.” This is probably not the case now, but around 20 years ago, it was little known that there were thousands of Ainu in Kantō, along with a number of Ainu organizations active in the area.

The author gives a public lecture. (Courtesy Kitahara Jirōta Mokottunas)
The author gives a public lecture. (Courtesy Kitahara Jirōta Mokottunas)

I knew I was an Ainu, but still there was almost nothing around me that made me feel or consider what that meant. From when I left home in the morning to when I got back from school, I did not encounter a single utari—another name for an Ainu person. The only reminder of that identity was the pair of carved wooden dolls of an old Ainu couple in a neighborhood barber’s shop. I came to look forward to seeing them in the mirror when I went for my monthly haircut.

In 1980, a mothers’ group established the Kantō Utari Association in Tokyo and began holding monthly meetings. As they had no fixed place for these, they used meeting rooms at labor and welfare centers in Shinjuku and Itabashi. These women had been born in the late 1940s, so their generation was a little removed from the Ainu language and what was seen as traditional culture. Even so, there were chances to learn a number of upopo songs from older women who sometimes attended, which was good fun.

When I was in the second grade of elementary school, I watched an Ainu ku rimse bow dance performance by the members of a troupe called Warabiza. I was excited by the energetic movements, which made a lasting impression on me. It was another year before I had the opportunity to learn an Ainu song and dance, and two more before I mastered it. It was really difficult to find information then—almost unbelievably so, from today’s perspective.

Learning the Language

The mothers attended several lectures on the Ainu language at Waseda University. When they taught me the words they picked up there, I was so happy to learn our own language—as foreign as it still felt—and enjoyed putting it into use. But they had their jobs to do as well, so I could not make as much progress as I would have liked.

I think I was in sixth grade when Nakagawa Hiroshi, an Ainu language researcher (now a professor at Chiba University), held classes for our group. I took part, although I was obsessed with manga and video games at the time, so I was not at all conscientious. Still I liked how he included tongue twisters, songs, and kamuy yukar (divine epic poems), which I repeated until I could recite them from memory. They were full of words I did not know, so I learned them as strings of sounds. It was not until I was in university that I came to understand their meaning.

My Grandmother’s Name

When I was in my second year at junior high school, there was a gathering in Shizunai (now part of Shinhidaka) in Hokkaidō with talks from elderly speakers who knew a lot about the Ainu culture and language. I went with my father, and my grandmother also attended after my mother told her about it.

My grandmother lived in nearby Biratori then. Apparently, my mother remembered that when she was very young, adults used to talk to each other in Ainu, but my grandmother never spoke the language either in the family or outside the house. Before I was born, my mother asked her about the family history as well as words and customs, but she would never reply.

Unexpectedly, after a kamuy yukar was performed in front of my grandmother at the Shizunai gathering, she turned around completely and supported my efforts to learn about the Ainu.

I went to visit my grandmother during school vacations. She told me that she had an Ainu name and taught me the Ainu names of my great-grandfather and great-grandmother. She was called Toonintemah, a name apparently derived from the fact she drank a lot of milk. My great-grandfather was Asketoku and my great-grandmother was Cikasuhpa. It should have been obvious that my grandmother had an Ainu name, but I had not thought about it until then. I felt like I had been hit in the chest when I learned this, and I gained a firm conviction of the connection between Ainu history and myself.

Diversity Within the Culture

Conversations with my grandmother had a strained atmosphere. Talking about Ainu things meant bringing up a lot of complex emotions for her, and often she would not speak at all when she was not in the mood. I found it strange that at times, the Ainu words she used sounded different from those I had learned.

For example, when she said that it was because she lived among wajin (the Yamato ethnic majority in Japan) that she did not know Ainu, the vowels she used sounded longer and her pronunciation of ha was like a short burst of breath. I mentioned it to her, and she replied that it was because she was from Karafuto (the Japanese name for Sakhalin, a large island now under Russian control), so that was why it was different from how people speak Ainu in Hokkaidō. The word “Karafuto” lodged itself in my brain.

Until then I had associated Ainu only with Hokkaidō, but before the modern era, they lived from southern Sakhalin and the Kuril Islands to Hokkaidō and northern Tōhoku. At the end of World War II, the Soviet Union took control of the Kuril Islands and Sakhalin, and most of the Ainu living there moved south to Hokkaidō. Some other members of indigenous peoples from Sakhalin like the Uilta and Nivkh also went to Hokkaidō at this time. My grandmother lived in a village called Raichishi on the west coast of Sakhalin, and in the neighboring village there were Uilta people who had moved there due to marriage or work. While the Ainu had a shared language and culture overall, each location had its own individual character. I felt this strongly in talking with my grandmother.

After that, I was always thinking about Sakhalin. I wanted to know about the customs and language of my forebears, but maybe these were different from those in Hokkaidō. I began to think about the diversity of Ainu language and culture.

Sakhalin is at the southern edge of dog-sled culture in East Asia. The equipment and names used among the Sakhalin Ainu are very similar to those of northern peoples. The illustration shows a seta kiraw, a head decoration for the lead dog.
Sakhalin is at the southern edge of dog-sled culture in East Asia. The equipment and names used among the Sakhalin Ainu are very similar to those of northern peoples. The illustration shows a seta kiraw, a head decoration for the lead dog.

Dismissive Attitudes

While my interest in Ainu culture grew from when I was a junior high school student, I talked about it less to the people around me. My teachers and classmates either did not know about the Ainu or were not interested, and I was regarded as a curiosity, winning only unwelcome reactions. In the study of racism, the word “microaggression” describes how typical daily communication can, on an unconscious level, often be lightly condescending or defamatory. It is hard to make it into an issue when it is minor and unintentional, but it is very hurtful. For many years, I did not know how to describe my experience, but now the word “microaggression” seems to fit the dismissive reactions or lack of interest in my ancestors’ language and culture, and the people who developed them.

I went on to study Ainu beliefs and language, attending night classes at a university in Sapporo. This included just two classes on the regular curriculum; the rest of the time I went to private seminars. The more I studied, the more painfully I felt how all of the prevalent information was about Hokkaidō, and that I would have to conduct my own research to learn about Sakhalin.

While I gathered materials about Ainu beliefs in Sakhalin during my postgraduate studies, I began to feel that Ainu culture in Hokkaidō was not homogenous, but richly varied. I also found that there were others working hard to find out about their ancestors in Hokkaidō. Fortunately, in 2005 I was hired by the Ainu Museum, where I worked as a curator. I had visited it many times as a student and learned a lot there. I too came to want to share what I had learned from my research with many utari.

A man prays, holding in his right hand an ikupasuy, a ceremonial stick used when making offerings of alcohol to the gods. In his left hand is a lacquered sake bowl acquired through trade with Japan.
A man prays, holding in his right hand an ikupasuy, a ceremonial stick used when making offerings of alcohol to the gods. In his left hand is a lacquered sake bowl acquired through trade with Japan.

Recently, I had a moment of realization in talking to an utari woman researching material culture. She had no chance to encounter her culture and history while growing up, feeling only the disdain of society toward the Ainu. It was as an adult that she studied traditional culture, became a researcher, and engaged in revival activities and raising awareness. She saw it as a form of “recovery” to learn about her culture and tell other people about it. Hearing this, the meaning of cultural revival became clear for me too.

Recovery for All

Ainu legends, beliefs, crafts, and music all have their own appeal. While the Ainu are said to have lived “in harmony with nature,” oral traditions warning against indiscriminate fishing and hunting, monopolizing, and food waste indicate that in the past our society also had people focused on material wealth. It may have been that actual experience of resource depletion led to the teaching, through literature and religion, that one should be satisfied with what one has. I find gratification in knowing what those ancestors thought and considering it for myself.

There are a number of comic Ainu stories about characters called Pananpe and Penanpe. In this story, the god of the sea teaches them how to worship.
There are a number of comic Ainu stories about characters called Pananpe and Penanpe. In this story, the god of the sea teaches them how to worship.

In addition to intellectual pleasure, I feel this study gives me aid toward my own recovery. Some say that identity is constructed through knowledge of traditional culture, but I did not become an Ainu through learning the language. I was an Ainu from when I knew nothing at all. What happened to me was that by learning the language, culture, and history, I gained my own perspective on the forebears who developed and were a part of them. This did not mean overly romanticizing the Ainu, but I understood that the disdain toward them was groundless and unjustified. And I felt the same sense of recovery I heard about from the other researcher by appreciating this and telling others about the Ainu.

In April 2020, the Upopoy National Ainu Museum and Park will open. [Due to the coronavirus pandemic, the opening has been postponed—Ed.] I greatly hope it will help many utari to achieve their own recovery. In contemporary Japanese society, the Ainu are not the only ones cut off from their roots. Among the wajin, there are those who feel stifled by talk of one homogenous people, while others are often spurred on by conceit to display their intolerance. In this sense, the majority need to achieve recovery too. By seeing Ainu cultural revival, and using it as a mirror to view inside themselves, they will realize their own thoughts do not all match the standard values of society. Respecting diversity is also connected to appreciating the importance of one’s own values that differ from those of others.

(Originally published in Japanese on March 27, 2020. Banner photo: Inau ritual sticks topped with wood shavings are the subject of the author’s research; he made the ones in the picture himself. Photo and illustrations courtesy Kitahara Jirōta Mokottunas.)

Hokkaidō culture Sakhalin Ainu