Monday, August 11, 2008

The Ainu are making a return in Japan

Dear readers, here is an article describing a revival of interest in the folk traditions of the Ainu, the indigenous people of Japan. I read about them long ago in a history text and wondered if they had entirely disappeared from history...but it is not so. Though perhaps less than 20 living individuals speak the Ainu language, there are now, for the first time in many long centuries, Ainu dancers performing on Japanese stages:

For someone who grew up ashamed of her ethnic identity, they are powerful words.

"You are beautiful just as you are. Don't be afraid," Mina Sakai sings to a young, enthusiastic crowd in the language of the Ainu, the indigenous people of northern Japan.

The article I've linked to above focuses on the efforts of Ainu Rebels, a group of a dozen young artists who are fighting to fuse contemporary popular culture with traditional motifs from their own traditions:

In one number, several young women — dressed in typical Ainu blue and purple robes and headbands with bold, geometric patterns — danced in a circle while young men brandished bows and arrows, all to a throbbing techno beat that filled the small concert hall at a recent music festival in Sapporo, the capital of Japan's northern island of Hokkaido.

The article is well worth reading, as it tells the tale of an island people almost entirely forgotten by the rest of the world. The photograph shown below is from another article focused on an Ainu music festival that occurred a few months ago.

Nothing is more critical to the growth of our cultural imagination than the cross-pollination of mythic traditions, the trading of stories between one people and another. What beauty awaits us, and what opportunities for fresh stories and fresh views on our own lives, when we are given at last the gift of Ainu stories, which have had so few listeners? It is said that when an old man or an old woman dies, it is a library burning to the ground. How much of a library is lost to us, when a people with their accumulated lore are hidden away for centuries?

A small collection of Ainu myths and lore is available in English here.


The Endicott Studio said...

Thanks for this. I've long been fascinated by the Ainu (thanks to an essay by poet/mythologist Gary Snyder in The Practice of the Wild), and it's not easy to find information about them.

-- Terri

Dante's Heart said...

Terri, thank you for mentioning that essay. I want to look for that.

I ran into a reference to "the bear people" in an old history text about Japan some years ago, and was startled not to have heard of the Ainu before. So I have been fascinated ever since, and am looking forward to reading through more of the collected Ainu folklore that's available on the Web.