Ainu Komonjo (18th & 19th century records) — Ohnuki Collection

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This collection of books represents the earliest depictions of the Ainu by the Japanese. They are primarily about the Sakhalin Ainu, since the books were acquired by Emiko Ohnuki-Tierney at the time she was studying them. The Ainu, who lived on Sakhalin, Hokkaido and the Kuriles are earliest known occupants of these islands.

All the Ainu engaged in a hunting-gathering way of life. Men hunted and trapped land and sea mammals and other animals, and fished in rivers and sea. Women gathered root crops and other edible and medicinal plants. Although “art” was not a separate sphere of their activity, men were skilled carvers and women were talented in weaving and embroidery. Their oral tradition, both of the Sakhalin and Hokkaido Ainu, was highly developed and some scholars view their lengthy epics comparable to the Greek epics. For the Sakhalin and Hokkaido Ainu, the bear is their supreme deity. They would catch a bear cub, nurture it and send its soul back to the mountains in an elaborate bear ceremony, which was not only a religious ritual to express their respect for the bear during which they feasted on its meat. It was also a political occasion to display the wealth and power of the political leader and his settlement. While the Sakhalin Ainu moved seasonally between warm and cold-season settlements, some Hokkaido Ainu, who lived in the areas where the natural resources, especially salmon and deer, were abundant, formed permanent settlements. The Kurile Ainu moved about more frequently. They were the hardest-hit victim of diseases transmitted by Russian and Japanese fur traders. The last Kurile Ainu died in 1941.

Far from being isolated, the Ainu engaged in extensive trading, offering natural resources abundant in the area. Sakhalin, on which the Ainu, the Nivkhs (formerly known as Gilyak), and Oroks lived, was easily reached from interior China via the rivers that led to the mouth of the Amur. People crossed the narrow Tartar Strait to Sakhalin either by boat or, when the strait is frozen, by dog sled. Chinese influence reached the island through this natural route, at least indirectly via other peoples, as early as the first millennium C.E. The Ainu fought several times in the 1300s with the forces of the Yuan dynasty (1271-1368) on the lower Amur and Sakhalin; however the Ainu of northern Sakhalin submitted to Mongol suzerainty following the Mongol conquest of China. The Manchus who had conquered the Chinese demanded tributes from all the peoples along the trade route. The trade, known as the Santan Trade, reached its height during the eighteenth century. Japanese ironware from Osaka reached the Manchus, who supplied the Ainu with brocade, glass beads and metal ornaments and the Ainu in turn traded marten furs, sea mammal pelts, and eagle feathers. The Ainu acquired from the Japanese sake (rice wine), laquerware, and swords. These trade goods were in the main for ritual occasions, such as the bear ceremony, when their political leaders displayed their wealth and power.

The Age of Discovery involved not only trading with the Ainu and others in this area but led to colonial expansion. Already in mid-seventeenth century, Russians, Dutch and Japanese were encroaching on Sakhalin. Germans and British became interested in the natural resources of the area. Both Sakhalin and the Kuriles became pawns between Russia and Japan. At the beginning of the eighteenth century, Russia moved to Kamchatka, to the Kuriles and Sakhalin to seize the rich resources and the political control of the area. Sakhalin came under the direct control of Japan in 1807 but fell under Russian control in 1875. Its southern half returned to Japan in 1905, and the whole island fell under USSR control in 1945. The Kuriles were claimed by Japan in 1875 but its control was turned over to the USSR in 1945. Since 1590 Hokkaido was under Matsumae domain who control it for the Bakufu, Japanese central government, which began direct control in 1886. Under the Japanese colonial rules forced the Ainu to discontinue the bear ceremony and many other vital practices.

The collection of books, all on rice paper, are either hand-written, with illustrations hand-drawn, or are wood block prints. Many of these early documents were authored by explorers and scholars at the order of the Bakufu or the Matsumae clan. Since these authors were sent by the Japanese government which for the first time began to be concerned with territorial expansions and boundaries, these documents often include a number of detailed maps, including the topography and Ainu place names.

Despite the political intent of their missions, these documents contain invaluable descriptions of the Ainu and their way of life, often accompanied by drawings and maps.

Of all the books in the collection, Ezo-shi by Arai Hakuseki must be singled out for its importance. Although he wrote this book on the basis of massive documents collected by others who traveled to the Ainu lands, it is considered to be the first and the most reliable description of the Hokkaido, Sakhalin, and the Kurile Ainu and their lands. This particular edition is accompanied by illustrations, drawn by an anonymous artist, who produced them based on the actual observation of the Ainu and their way of life. Given the details and vivid colors, which were extremely well-preserved, this copy of Ezo-shi may be the best available today.

References:
Ohnuki-Tierney, Emiko. 1981 Illness and Healing among the Sakhalin Ainu: A Symbolic Interpretation. Cambridge University Press.
_____ 1974 The Ainu of the Northwest Coast of Southern Sakhalin. Holt, Rinehart & Winston. Reprinted in 1984 by: Prospect Heights, Illinois: Waveland Press.
Takakura Shin’ichiro. 1960. The Ainu of Northern Japan: A Study in Conquest and
Acculturation. Transl. by John A. Harrison. Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, Vol. 50, Part 4.