This year, with the opening of the
Upopoi, National Ainu Museum and the release of the movie “Ainu Mosir,” the Ainu people are getting more attention than ever before. As English tour guides, with the job of educating foreign tourists about Hokkaido, the story of the Ainu people is essential.
Now since we have more time than
ever due to the coronavirus pandemic, we try to learn more about Hokkaido and Japan to provide interesting and useful guidance.
As part of this effort, on 2020 October
31, SEG invited Mr. Hideo Akibe, owner of the Ainu craft store “Debo’s Shop” in Akan, an eastern Hokkaido town, and who also appeared in the movie “Ainu Mosir,” to give a lecture on the Ainu people.
Mr. Akibe is a dignified man with a fine
beard, and I was a little nervous when I first met him on the screen, but he started to talk to us in a friendly manner with a sense of humor. Here are some parts of the stories I’d like to share.
The Ainu believe that everything in the world has a soul. Among them, the
things that are beyond human power, that give them blessings, and that are indispensable to their lives, the Ainu people call them kamuy, which are a kind of deity. Deity of mountains, deity of fire, deity of water, deity of lakes, and so on. There are so many kamuys. Eight million kamuys. It’s similar to the old Japanese Shinto.
When I was a child, when I spilled some juice on the floor, the tatami mat
became squishy. Ordinary Japanese parents would say, “Look, don’t make a mess,” and wipe it up, but we were different.
There was a kamuy who wanted to drink the juice, so he spilled it on the tatami mat. You shared the juice with kamuy. You gave it to him. It’s good.
He thought, “Don’t drink it by yourself, give some to me”.
That’s why you spilled it. But don’t give it too much because if you give it to him all the time, you won’t have enough for yourself. If you grow up with this kind of attitude in your lives, you’ll develop a unique sense of the Ainu.
I had a bear ten years ago because I was trying to do Iomante.
(Iomante is the biggest Ainu ritual, known as the sending back of the spirit. The Ainu believe that the world consists of the Ainu mosir (the world of humans) and the kamuy mosir (the world of the deities). Ainu means humans in their words. Kamuy usually live in kamuy mosir, they look like humans, and bring down food such as salmon and deer to Ainu mosir. Sometimes they visit the Ainu mosir in the form of animals or objects. The fur and flesh of that animal are gifts for a good Ainu. They receive the gifts by separating the soul from the body of the animal, which means killing it. Then they send the soul back to kamuy mosir with inau (wooden fringe, a currency for kamuy), sake, and a feast with words of gratitude.)
When the kamuy returns to the kamuy mosir, he gathers the other kamuys
there for a banquet. Then he talks about how beautiful the Ainu mosir was and how kind his father and mother were to him who raised him. The spirit of the bear that returned to kamuy mosir says, “Oh! I want to go back to Ainu mosir again”. When the other kamuys hear this, they say, “I’m going too, I’m going too”. If they don’t feel how fun it was and how kind their parents were to them, they won’t come back to Ainu mosir again. That’s why the Ainu people love and cherish the bears and send them off in tears.
The bear we got for Iomante was a cute little bear. I named him Chibi. He
always walked with me. Actually, we weren’t allowed to walk with bears, but I did. He wore a collar like a dog. We went to a local pub and got drunk.
When we met tourists, they said to me,
“Oh no, this dog looks just like a bear.”
“I’ve been told that a lot.”
“The nails are great too.”
“This dog has especially great nails.
He was a really friendly bear. I adored him and my daughter adored him too. The neighbors were always coming to visit to see him. At night, I picked him up and he slept in my arms. I’d put him in a cage, then he’d cry all the time after I came back home. He would cry in a loud voice that the whole neighborhood could hear, “oye – oye – oye”. He would cry for half an hour, and finally get tired and go to sleep with one cry of “ahhhhhh”.
Such days lasted for half a year. But after a year, we had to increase the
size of the cage from 3㎥ to 6㎥, and build a cage around the cage so that it was inaccessible to humans. We couldn’t keep him on a personal level anymore. So we decided to do Iomante when he turned 1 year old.
But everyone was against it. Some of the old people who had experienced Iomante before also said
“Please don’t do Iomante.”
They told me,
“It’s so poor, we can’t stand it.”
My wife was the one who objected the most. She said she would divorce me if I did Iomante. Maybe that’s not the only reason for divorce, though.
So finally I gave up on performing Iomante and took the bear to a bear farm.
Iomante is not an easy thing to do. It’s not a
matter of doing it because it’s a cultural tradition. It’s a matter of thinking from the heart about how we treat life. That’s the most important thing. There are many references to the relationship between brown bears and the Ainu, but there is a big difference between people who have actually killed them and those who have not. I seriously thought that I couldn’t settle this matter with the light term “cultural tradition”.
He said the struggle is reflected in the movie “Ainu Mosir”, which is released
now. I’d like to see how they settled on whether they did or didn’t do Iomante in the movie.
The Ainu people are not living in the past; they live in the modern world as
Ainu. They wear their traditional costume for ceremonies, but they usually wear T-shirts, jeans and Uniqlo. The Ainu way of thinking is mixed in their daily lives.
The Ainu people still struggle between carrying on their culture and living
in the present. It was a great experience for me to hear directly the thoughts of the Ainu people. It cannot be found just by reading books and documents. Thank you, Mr.Akibe.