Yukar: The timeless oral tales that are our window on Ainu life

Milestones on the ascent to civilization include mastery of fire, sharpening and poisoning of hunting arrows; the domestication of beasts and cultivation of crops; stone, bronze, iron and steel; villages, towns, cities and nations; kings, armies, war — and onward: the motor car, the space ship, cyberspace, artificial intelligence and beyond, no one knows where.

Here and there were pockets of resistance, or non-compliance, or sloth, or simple contentment with the way things were. Nature was bountiful — why force her hand? Civilization offered much but demanded more. Was the game worth the candle? It was not, said Japan’s indigenous Ainu, among others.

It was a doomed course in the long run. Civilization is restless and expansive. Never content with what it has, it preys on the defenseless uncivilized for treasures they possess without knowing their value — gold, for instance. About 100 years ago, a young Ainu woman named Yukie Chiri (1901-22) wrote her people’s sad epitaph: “In the past, this spacious Hokkaido was our ancestors’ world of freedom. Living with ease and pleasure in the manner of innocent babes in the embrace of beautiful, vast nature, they were truly the beloved children of nature. Oh what happy people they must have been!”

“Vast nature” and her happy children were pretty much gone — did they ever really exist? — by the time Chiri came, toward the end of her short life, to commit to writing the timeless oral tales known as yukar. They are our window on Ainu life. The monthly magazine Moe, in its December issue, invokes Chiri in a feature on the vastly popular, award-winning serial manga “Golden Kamuy.” Kamuy are the spirits the Ainu worship. The standard translation, gods, is inaccurate, the magazine explains. Gods are complicated; spirits, simple. Simplicity is the point. Don’t we all, consciously or not, long for it? Would a manga celebrating pre-civilization have such appeal otherwise?

The Ainu represent an astonishing continuity, their origins traceable to the prehistoric Jomon Period (circa 10,000 B.C. to circa 200 B.C.). Not much had changed when the British traveler and writer Isabella Bird (1831-1904) sojourned briefly among them here and there in Hokkaido in 1878. They neither farmed nor fought — agriculture rejected, war apparently unknown. They hunted and gathered, worshipping their prey and the kamuy who sent it. They lived in settled communities called kotan (villages). Bird, Victorian British to the core, deplored a way of life “not much raised above the necessities of animal existence,” but discerned in the Ainu finer qualities as well; they were “truthful and, on the whole, chaste, hospitable, honest, reverent and kind to the aged.”

She saw them in their decline. Mainland Japanese were settling en masse — farming, mining, trading, turning boundless land into bounded property, a concept unknown to the Ainu. A pristine landscape was being “civilized.”

“Golden Kamuy,” brainchild of manga artist Satoru Noda, is set a generation later. Japan, victorious in the Russo-Japanese War (1904-05), was suddenly a world power. War veteran Saichi Sugimoto, Noda’s protagonist, survived the epic and deadly Siege of Port Arthur and now pans for gold in Hokkaido. A sacred obligation to support the ailing widow of a dead comrade leaves him desperate for quick riches — an improbable buried treasure, for instance, which he hears about and pursues, following the tattoo-map on the torso of an old man torn apart by a bear. Partner in his quest is a young Ainu girl named Asirpa.

These bare bones will suffice here — the plot is long and winding, ongoing since 2014 and spread over 27 volumes, with 17 million copies currently in print.

Asirpa merits special mention. She’s a remarkable character — a child and a girl to boot, but as strong, mentally if not physically, as a grown man; accoutered besides with such male hunting gear as a bow and a quiver of arrows fashioned from cherry bark.

“Surely she’s not typical?” the magazine asks. Surprisingly typical, Noda replies. The image of Ainu women as dependent and subservient is “a prejudice,” he says. Known for meticulous research, he claims to have come across numerous accounts of Ainu women coming to the fore and taking charge in times of crisis.

Yukie Chiri must herself have been of their stamp. Descended from yukarkur (women who recited the yukar and transmitted them down the generations), she mustered her waning strength as she lay dying of heart disease and, for the first time ever, cast some of the yukar into written Japanese.

Her work was translated into English by the American scholar Sarah Strong, who includes them in her 2011 book “Ainu Spirits Singing.”

This, in all-too-brief summary, is the song the fish owl sings about himself:

Famine rages. Human beings are dying. The salmon no longer swarm the rivers, the deer no longer leap down from the mountains. What are the Keeper of the Game and the Keeper of the Fish — the responsible kamuy — thinking? The fish owl dispatches a messenger — an aquatic songbird called a brown dipper — to inquire. The answer it returns with is disconcerting. Human beings are being punished. They had grown careless, killing their prey without reverence; their spirits returned “naked and crying” to the spiritual world.

So, sings the fish owl, “I taught the human beings in their sleep, in their dreams, that they absolutely should not do such things.” Their ways amended, they were restored to prosperity and, as we might say, lived happily ever after — or would have, perhaps, if “civilization” had left them alone.

Big in Japan is a weekly column that focuses on issues being discussed by domestic media organizations. Michael Hoffman’s latest book is “Cipangu, Golden Cipangu: Essays in Japanese History.”

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