Ainu at the Arctic Studies Center
March 5, 2003 4:29 PM   Subscribe

The Arctic Studies Center at the Smithsonian has several wonderful online exhibitions. I was especially fascinated by Ainu: Spirit of a Northern People. The Ainu are the indigenous people of Hokkaido, Japan, and may be closely related to the first Americans as well (previously discussed here.) There's also a collection of Ainu artifacts and photographs at the Museum of Ethnography in Budapest. [ASC links via plep (again.)]
posted by homunculus (12 comments total)
/me prays homunculus keeps up this generosity of his and envies his perfect sentences and his flawlessly embedded links.
posted by MiguelCardoso at 5:30 PM on March 5, 2003

I lived in Hokkaido for a while, Tsurui to be precise, really lovely place. I also attended an Ainu festival where they rowed a canoe into a lake (as you do) and dropped these little green ball thingies in that apparently only grow in Hokkaido (it's been a while so forgive my lack of info)
posted by zeoslap at 5:33 PM on March 5, 2003

Nice post.

'The Japanese Ainu and Native Americans' speculates on the history and similarities between the two groups.

More on the 'Kennewick Man', and other theories.
posted by hama7 at 6:49 PM on March 5, 2003

Stunning links! Thanks for such an awesome post, homunculus. And a big tip of the hat to the indefatigable plep, whose site is my doorway to so many global wonders.

The Smithsonian exhibit is a great use of the web. I found this story about the anatomy of the exhibit quite fascinating too - interesting to have an inner look at how a concept evolves.

Here are some contemporary photos of Ainu fishing techniques.
Hear some ainu phrases spoken
posted by madamjujujive at 7:38 PM on March 5, 2003

Has anyone here ever seen the "Ballad of Narayama"? (1983, Shohei Imamura)...

One critic: "Unflinching yet beautiful account of savage customs and behavior in medieval Japanese village. Art cinema fans prepared for emotionally devastating material are rewarded with an ultimately thrilling, humanistic film....

Another critic: "The Ballad of Narayama is a brutal and often disgusting film. Clearly, these traits arise from Imamura's attempt to capture life honestly in this setting. Orin smashing her teeth out on a stone and Risuke's exploits with a village dog explicitly detail the desperation of these people to escape their hellish existence..."

I loved this film. I'm fairly sure - not certain though - that it's about the Ainu.
posted by troutfishing at 8:44 PM on March 5, 2003

Great post.
posted by The Jesse Helms at 9:41 PM on March 5, 2003

- that it's about the Ainu.

It's not. It's about a Japanese group in Tohoku, or somewhere in northeast Honshu. Japanese yes, but not Ainu.
posted by hama7 at 10:57 PM on March 5, 2003

hama - Aha. Are they related to the Ainu? (as earlier, more 'aboriginal', inhabitants pushed to the margins by newer settlers of the japanese archipelago). A friend of mine likened them to 'hillbillies'. The neo-documentarian style of "Ballad..." suggests to me that the film makers viewed them as a cultural curiosity - backward, atavastic, even repulsive (hence the dog scene).

The (true) Ainu seem to be gloriously animistic. Alas, their once strong shamanic traditions seemed to have decayed:

(From "Spirit of a Northern People" exhibition)

'Commentary on Shamanism by Curator William Fitzhugh

"The Ainu have a spiritual religion that includes shamanism and many rituals and procedures that are rather similar to the natives of Siberia and also to North America. In this case we see some shaman's drums and small wooden figurines that are similar to Siberian idols, and ritual materials used to help you if you are sick or to change the weather or to make things go better for your family. Shamans were among the most important people in the Siberian Ainu and Sakhalin Ainu populations and wore belts that were very similar to the Siberian shaman's belts. But by the time of the early historical period, the last couple of centuries in Hokkaido, shamanism had disappeared and had changed largely into curing ceremonies that were done by women, without a lot of the ritual known in Siberian shamanism." '

posted by troutfishing at 6:56 AM on March 6, 2003

Unfortunately for the Ainu they are not quaint folkloric castmembers in some primitive arts theme park, but a living and struggling people who are treated with racist contempt by ethnic Japanese. Their role has been reduced to one like the "Travellers" in Europe, with separate subpopulations of urban poor and nomadic fringe people.

While well-off museumgoers in the US and Japan ooh and ahh over carved bone spoons and Stone Age dioramas, the real Ainu are trying to feed their kids in Sapporo and elsewhere.
posted by anser at 7:19 AM on March 6, 2003

Thanks for the reality check, anser. I knew this racism existed, but didn't research it while composing this post. I found this piece on the history of anti-ainu racsim in Japan sad but interesting.
posted by homunculus at 6:20 PM on March 6, 2003

Siberian shamanism

Shamanism is still pretty prominent in Korea still, (third after Buddhism and Christianity) and many of the old customs from that movie were northeast Asian customs, and some were practiced as far east as the Hawaiian islands.

The Ainu look vaguely like Russians, or distant versions of European, with heavy facial hair and bone structure atypical in Han Chinese or Japanese.
posted by hama7 at 7:52 PM on March 6, 2003

hama - Shamanism. Hmmmmm. (see: Mircea Eliade, Michael Harner).....drumming. Trance.......the underworld!

anser - that's what I suspected.
posted by troutfishing at 9:16 PM on March 6, 2003

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