Together with the Ainu: A Vanishing People

Together with the Ainu;: A Vanishing People: Hilger, M. Inez:  9780806109503: Books

For many years I have studied minority languages and cultures of Europe. My focus is Eurocentric yet I do share a great interest in the vanishing Asian languages of Burushaski, Ket and Ainu. After I read the article “Japan’s ‘Sky People,’ the Vanishing Ainu” in the February, 1967 issue of National Geographic, I decided to hunt down the book that the author of the magazine article published four years later. That book, Together with the Ainu: A Vanishing People by M. Inez Hilger is on loan to me from the National Library of Canada. 

Hilger travelled to many Ainu villages and communities on the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido throughout the sixties, returning over several years and at different times of the year. She is an anthropologist and spent much time in her book discussing child rearing, Ainu infancy, the husband and wife relationship, Ainu physical and mental health, religious beliefs and dance and song. In the section entitled “Incentives. Reward and punishment. Threats” Hilger writes about disciplining children: 

> In Rankoshi a child was seldom whipped or spanked. A boy who persisted in disobeying was tied to a tree and was given time thereby not only to ponder his bad deed, but also to resolve not to repeat it. After that, if he did not obey, he was thrown into the river. “Of course, elders would see to it that he did not drown.” 

Only half a page was devoted to a discussion of the Ainu language, however she did include a five-page glossary of Ainu terms and their English translations at the end of the book. Hilger’s interview subjects all lament that the Ainu culture was not being passed down to the next generation, as teenagers and young adults in 1960’s Japan were too interested in becoming assimilated and even hiding their Ainu heritage. Emperor directives in the late 1800’s suppressed the Ainu and forced them to adapt to Japanese ways of life, effectively declaring their hunting and gathering lifestyle as illegal. Even the ritual of tattooing Ainu women was declared illegal, yet the Ainu continued to perform this act in hiding.

I enjoyed Hilger’s section on the Yukar, the Ainu epic. This epic is transmitted orally from generation to generation, and is the main source of Ainu history, poetry and song. Hilger transcribed many Yukar stories from tape recordings she made, as well as Uwepekere, which are traditional folk tales of prose. There are rules that govern the telling of certain Yukar and Uwepekere, such as some tales must be recited by men or women only, depending on the subject matter. The tales are sacred, so only those who are intelligent and of a good voice may recite them. Two Uwepekere are included in the short juvenile book I also finished reading today, The Ainu: A Story of Japan’s Original People by Kayano Shigeru. Kayano was interviewed throughout Hilger’s book and, until his death in 2006, was a cultural hero who devoted himself to the preservation and use of the Ainu language. The short book he wrote included beautiful illustrations by Iijima Shunichi on every page.

The bibliography in Hilger’s book led me to track down two reprints of 1920’s Ainu dictionaries and grammars by John Batchelor, who was a missionary who was the first English-speaker to study the Ainu in depth.

This is my first book review where I did not include an accompanying cover photo that shows the exact copy of the book I read. I simply couldn’t find one on-line without the dust jacket. Until I get a digital camera, I have to rely on the Internet to find my covers. With the exception of Hilger’s book, I am happy to have found exact cover images of all the titles I have posted reviews for. Together with the Ainu: A Vanishing People originally came in this dust jacket yet the copy I have is plain yellow and navy blue cloth and boards.

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