Saturday, December 11, 2010

Run To The Hills

Who are the Ainu?

The Ainu are a race of people in Japan and Russia (Russia's inclusion depends on which of the two countries actually owns some islands).

These people speak their own language, and live in Hokkaido (the northern large island in Japan, the Kuril Islands and Sakhalin. Officially, there are some 25,000 people who consider themselves Ainu, but unofficially--meaning census takers have been a tad lax--the numbers might be closer to 200,000.

Ainu culture dates from around 1200 AD which may itself have emerged from the joining of two other cultures: the Okhotsk and the Satsumon... which to me shows that we're all pretty much from the same genetic stock if we go back far enough - if you believe in evolution, of course, but it's safe to say that not everyone is convinced it really occurs in nature.

The Ainu were hunter-gathers who did lots of hunting and fishing, and followed a religion similar in scope to Shinto in that it followed a belief in nature.

It's known that the Ainu had contact with the mainland Japanese (known as the Waijin) as of the 13th century, and between 1600 thru 1868, they did lots of trade with the Japanese  and became dependent on such trade to exist in their day-to-day life... which to me already means the Ainu culture is on a fast road to ruin.

In fact, as of 1868, with the onset of the Meiji Restoration (end of the Shogun military reign and reversion back to the reign of the Emperor), Japan looked to control the land of Hokkaido as a means to protect itself from expansionist Russia. So Japan annexed Hokkaido, and the Ainu, as of 1869, were labeled as being 'former aboriginals' implying that they were now Japanese.

As former aboriginals, the Ainu lost their land to the Japanese government. Provided with automatic citizenship, the Ainu lost their heritage - at least as far as Japan was concerned.

Land. Language. Religion. Customs. Gone. They were expected to toe the line like the rest of the Japanese population, because they were now Japanese. I'm unsure if there was a heated discussion with the Ainu asking them if this was what they wanted.

But let's not be too critical of Japan here. The U.S. has its Native Americans - the Indians; Canada has the Indians and the Inuit (once known as the Eskimo); Australia has its Aboriginals (which seems kind of generic to me, but perhaps it was used to describe these folks and their multiple languages, as we do with the Indians). I'm sure there are many, many other instances of indigenous folks being usurped - feel free to enlighten us with a comment.

The Ainu land of Hokkaido was offered to the Waijin people who were encouraged to go there to exploit the land's abundant natural resources.

Basically, the Ainu got screwed. Screwed royally. The Japanese made them become Japanese. They had to learn the language. They had to adopt Japanese names. They were told to stop their religious practices of animal sacrifice, and not to partake in their tattooing custom - which may be Polynesian.

There were mixed marriages between cultures. Nowadays, are there any pure Ainu left? Maybe a few. It's said that perhaps only one hundred people can speak the Ainu language nowadays.

Full-blooded Ainu are lighter skinned than their Japanese neighbors and have more body hair. That was the telling feature of the Ainu for all of the people I talked to in Ohtawara-shi, Tochigi-ken, Japan. They are hairy men. To me that what implied is that they are not of Polynesian stock, and perhaps are Mongolian, as far as a genetic background is concerned.

Back when the Ainu were Ainu and not Japanese and had their own cultural identity, after reaching adulthood, the men grew their beards and mustaches - never cutting it. Head hair on both men and women was usually kept at shoulder length, with the back length cut in a semi-circle. The female Ainu performed mouth tattooing, doing the side of the mouth and added more as they got older. 

Check out my photo at the top of the Ainu man and woman (I'll assume it's his wife) taken in the 1930s by the original owner of a scrapbook I purchased at a church sale in Utsonomiya-shi. I wish the photo showed colour. I'd love to know what colour the clothing is! Out on a limb, I'm going to guess an indigo with white, though some current Ainu wear grey and white clothing with bands of pale red. The clothing - a robe - is made from spinning the inside bark of the elm tree - of course, in the Winter time, they would add deerskin leggings, boots from dog or fish (I'm guess dog would be warmer--and thicker!). While both men and women could wear earrings made from a vine, the women would wear bead necklaces (see the photo - it's a sign of 'affluence' or at least 'status').   

The Ainu traditionally would eat the local wildlife of the north: fish, birds, vegetables, grains, herbs, bear, fox, wolf, oxen... which just makes sense. Deer and salmon were their two big meats. Food was always cooked - roasted or boiled in a stew. No one ate sushi or sashimi. They did use chopsticks, however - at least the men did, while the women only used a spoon... but I'm going out on a limb here and suggest that  the men probably used a spoon too, prior to the Japanese introduction of chopsticks into their culture.

They lived in reed-thatched huts - a one room home with two doors and a single window to allow in some light. There was a hole angled into the roof to allow smoke from the cooking fire to escape - and to prevent rain water from coming straight down onto the fire. They did not have conventional furniture - no desks or chairs - but would use mats on the floor, and would bring out the beddings at night time, consisting of a a low slung hammock-like device, with animal skins for blankets.

There... who says you can't learn something from a stupid blog? Okay, I say that, but this time I'm wrong - except about everything I wrote before this paragraph. 

Somewhere being hairy,
Andrew Joseph
Today's title is by Iron Maiden - now even if hard rock/heavy metal isn't your cup of tea, listen to the words - it's an epic battle between the U.S. army and the Indians, and while the Japanese (or Waijin) did not resort to genocide, it's possible some of the same feelings expressed in this song are appropriate.
PS: Today is my son Hudson's 5th birthday!

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