Tuesday, March 22, 2022

Chiri Yukie and the Ainu Shinyôshû


I recently finished reading the Benjamin Peterson translation of The Song the Owl God Sang by Chiri Yukie. I was largely spurred to begin reading literature by and about peoples like the Ainu of Sakhalin, Hokkaidô and the Kuril Islands, as well as the Sámi of the Kola Peninsula and the northernmost reaches of the Scandinavian Peninsula, by the recent troubles in the Ukraine. Both groups of people have suddenly found themselves again the victims of geopolitical machinations between East and West (or, in the case of the Ainu, between East and further East).

The yukir tales of the Ainu, compiled and translated into Japanese by Chiri Yukie shortly before she died tragically of heart failure at the age of nineteen, are valuable in part because they represent the first written work in Ainu, by an Ainu person, written from an Ainu perspective. Chiri Yukie wrote the tales as she recalled them from the aunt and grandmother who raised her, in large part to honour them and the stories she felt were slipping away. Ms Chiri provides also this preface to her only work, which highlights her deep affection for her ancestors and for her land, and itself manages to tug rather hard at the old heartstrings:
Long ago, this broad land of Hokkaidô was a world in which our ancestors lived lives of freedom. Like children of unspoilt innocence, they lived their carefree lives in the embrace of mother Nature, whose beloveds they were—what happy people they must have been!

In winter, kicking aside the thick snow that covered field and forest, hunting the bear across mountain after mountain in defiance of the frost that froze all the world—on the summer ocean, in the cool wind, swimming the green waves, setting sail, under the cries of the white seagulls, in little leaf-like boats to seek fish—in the flower-filled spring, bathing in the gentle sunlight, singing along with the endlessly-warbling birds, plucking sagebrush and butterbur—in the red-leafed fall, splitting the ripe ears of grain, not extinguishing until midnight the salmon-fishing fires, hearing the deer cry to one another in the ravine, falling, beneath the round moon, into a dream-laden slumber. Oh, what a wonderful way of life it must have been! That tranquil state of mind is already a thing of the past, a dream torn apart by the passing decades, for this earth is changing quickly, with hills and meadows becoming villages and villages becoming cities one after another.

Somehow, almost unnoticed, the form that Nature had worn in ancient times began to fade, and of the people who once dwelt so happily in field and mountain, most are no longer to be found. The few of us who remain of our race do nothing but stare in astonishment at the way the world has gone. Yet what we see from these eyes is that the radiance of the beautiful spirits of our forebears, whose every gesture was ruled by a sense of the spiritual, has been burdened with unease, consumed with discontent, weakened, dizzied, become helpless, gone beyond the reach of outside help, a miserable sight, something doomed to annihilation… such is the name we have now—what a sad name it is that we now bear.

Our happy ancestors of long ago—it must have been impossible for them to imagine that in the end their native land would decay to this wretched state.

Time flows ever on, the world endlessly goes on changing. If from the worthless remnant who still exist on the site of our great defeat, there could someday emerge just two or three strong leaders, then perhaps the day when we catch up again with the changing world might not be far off. That is our true cherished wish, for which we pray morning and night.

But… the language that we use each day to share our feelings with our beloved ancestors has become worn with use. Even the beautiful words that have been handed down to us are mostly timid things, things which will surely be extinguished along with their weak, doomed users. Oh, what a heartbreaking thing—and almost already only a memory.

I, born an Ainu and living among Ainu speakers, in my spare moments, in rainy evenings and snowy nights, have put together with my clumsy brush just one or two of the very least of the tales our ancestors told for amusement. If it should turn out that this work is read by some who are kind enough to understand us, then I shall share with our race’s ancestors joy without limit, happiness unsurpassable.
Evidently the Ainu Shinyôshû was of remarkable interest both from an ethnographic-sociological perspective, and from a linguistic one. The Ainu tales that Chiri Yukie relates here, all concern the various kamui (spirits, gods or devils which inhabit animal forms like those of the owl, the fox, the otter, the killer whale or the mussel) that both inhabit their own world and interact with the human world and the world of nature in a way that irrevocably ties all three worlds together.

In the yukar, Chiri Yukie describes spirits both benign and malevolent, and the ways in which human beings are encouraged to exchange gifts with them (in particular decorated staves called inau and jars of sake) in order to ensure continued sources of sustenance in hunting and fishing. The picture that emerges from the yukar is one of a complex gift economy, in which the key demands are restraint and respect for the other living creatures in the ecosystem. Polluting the water by using walnut wood, for example, was considered a capital offense against the salmon and their young.

It is also of interest that even when the gods are referring to human beings as children or as ‘little’, playing with toy weapons and toy traps, the kamui are still held to account, often quite harshly, for their part in the cosmic balance. The yukar often take the form of ironic morality tales, in which the narrator transgresses some point of the agreement between Ainu and kamui, and dies ‘a pointless death, a horrible death’ as a result. And the human culture-hero in many of these stories, Okikirmui, exemplifies the virtues of modesty, temperance and reverence; though he usually gets one over on a kamui who goes too far, by acts of cunning or by cutting deals with other kamui (like Apefuchi, the goddess of the hearth) rather than by acts of individual bravery. Thus it seems there is already something of a Russian influence on Ainu folklore, as Okikirmui often exemplifies the virtues of a hero of Russian folklore: humility, simplicity, compassion for simple folk combined with a cunning that puts him one step ahead of those more powerful than him.

It’s truly a shame that Chiri Yukie died at the young age she did. This collection of Ainu yukar that she transcribed was supposed to be the first of many, coming out of her collaboration with linguist Kindaichi Kyôsuke. As it stands, this collection is barely enough to whet the appetite, a mere glimpse upon a culture and a mode of living that was already being killed off when she began to commit it to writing.

Likewise, this English translation by Benjamin Peterson is an intriguing look into a culture which has been badly understood by its Japanese conquerors, and even worse-understood by the Anglophone interpreters of Japanese sources on the Ainu. It also furnishes us with an intriguing and informative window into the world of Ainu shamanic literature and poetry, much the same as The Nisan Shamaness does. However, it is limited. I would have preferred it (and given the short length of the collection, this could easily have been managed) if Peterson had included a transcription of the original Ainu alongside his English translation, which would also have been truer to the intertextual project that Chiri Yukie herself completed between Ainu and Japanese.

I am looking forward to reading more about the Ainu and their way of life. As some among the non-aligned (and therefore considered unimportant in Western media) victims in another theatre of the Ukraine war, they deserve far better than to be forgotten.

Friday, January 14, 2022

Kazakhstan’s recent troubles


Before saying anything else, my prayers go out to Kazakhstan and its people. I do have something of a personal stake in this: I love both the country and the people very much, having lived for two months in a small village in the vicinity of Almaty. I utterly hate to see unrest and violence impacting people that I care about. I hope that my Kazakh and Russian acquaintance who live there are safe, sound and well. And I pray that Kazakhstan recovers quickly and returns to a more orderly and just mode of living.

There are, however, a number of angles to the recent troubles which, well, trouble and raise questions for me. I will attempt to sketch them with some analysis here.

First of all: Kazakhstan has long been under the hand of Nursultan Nazarbaev, whose policies could be summed up in the following way. Geopolitical non-alignment and strategic multipolarity. Papering over ethnic tensions between Kazakhs, Russians and others in favour of a multi-ethnic Kazakhstani identity. Neoliberal privatisation reforms making a small handful of his cronies ridiculously wealthy while leaving everyone else poorer than they were in Soviet times. And above all: do not question the Big Bread. This model worked, with its bumps, for the three decades he was in power following independence, but the inner tensions and contradictions were all too easily noticed by astute political observers: even sympathetic pro-Nazarbaev reformists like Orazaly Sabden.

So you had a society that, struggling as all post-Soviet republics did through the economic collapse and lawless years of the 90s, emerged with its outward face fairly clean. Kazakhstan began to rise in prominence and clout, with its skilful manoeuvres between Russia, China and the United States. Investment rose. Kazakh cultural traditions regained a certain pride-of-place. But the brutal neoliberal economic policies combined with the cult of the leader left – if you will pardon the simplification, dear reader – both a material and a spiritual lacuna: a massive, almost globally-unparalleled wealth gap combined with a lack of moral direction and clarity. These lacunae can be observed most poignantly in the films of Kazakhstani director Dárejan Ómirbaev: particularly Cardiogram, The Killer and The Student.

However, there were notable shifts even during Nazarbaev’s time. I already mentioned Sabden above. His book on the moral philosophy of Abai Qunanbaiuly clearly had the imprimatur of official approval. However, the final chapter of that book was a deep, incisive critique of contemporary Kazakhstani economic policy and political culture. Dr Sabden excoriated the government for allowing Kazakhstan’s wealth to be concentrated in the hands of a select few, as well for abdicating completely the field of spiritual and moral renewal and leaving it open to the depredations of fundamentalist Wahhâbi Islâm. Dr Sabden advocated a ressourcement of Abai Qunanbaiuly’s moral philosophy and poetic Sufî sensibility in order to revitalise the Kazakh sense of moral purpose. (Given the prominent placement of Abai’s portrait in the key scene of Ómirbaev’s The Student, I find it likely he would agree.)

The current president, Qasım-Jomart Toqaev, came into power with populist, Bernie Sanders-style promises to redistribute Kazakhstan’s wealth, end bank bailouts, and make the rich pay their fair share. And indeed, he did carry through on at least one part of his economic-populist reform platform, to eliminate consumer debt for a significant swathe of Kazakhstan’s beleaguered working class. This evidently trod on the toes of some former Nazarbaev loyalists, because the reforms didn’t seem to really go anywhere after that.

But the current protests carry, at least in some degree, the flavour of dissatisfaction at precisely these failings of the Nazarbaev years, in which Toqaev himself – having been by necessity a long-standing Nazarbaev loyalist – is viewed as complicit. The demands for higher wages, price caps on liquefied petroleum gas and basic commodities, direct representation at the local level—these are responses to the crisis in material conditions. However, the lack of spiritual direction has also infected the protests. The protesters’ demand for Kazakhstan to break ties with Russia is almost certainly exogenous to Kazakhstani popular opinion and stinks of colour-revolution tactics. In addition, at least some of the protesters seem to be guided by appeals to radical Islâm, and indeed some of the street violence (like the brutal decapitations of two policemen) seemed to follow a modus operandi that Wahhâbi groups in Central Asia have tended to follow. This would seem to lend at least some credence to the government’s claim that ‘bandits and terrorists’ had infiltrated the protest movement.

So… I’m seeing some definite strands in both the protests and the response.

Among the protests, first and most prominently: there is an economic-populist dissatisfaction with living conditions and the wealth gap. Second: there is an element that has been coopted for geopolitical purposes and mobilised against the Eurasian bloc of countries. Third: there is an element that is guided by violent fundamentalist Wahhâbism. The first strand is worthy of support. The latter two are not.

And then the response by the government. Interestingly, there seems to have been a bit of a power struggle going on behind the scenes between Toqaev and Nazarbaev et al. Nazarbaev was stripped of his office on the Security Council, and at least one of his Otan diehards (former PM Kárim Másimov) was detained on charges of treason. The response by CSTO countries, sending in troops to restore order in support of Toqaev, seems to indicate that the new president is getting support from Russia and the other members of the security org.

The drastic and draconian nature of the state’s response to the protests is regrettable (with over 9,000 arrests so far reported), but there are reasons to be cautiously hopeful. Auntie Beeb reports that Toqaev has reiterated his pledges to reform the government and redistribute Kazakhstan’s wealth to its neediest citizens. If Toqaev no longer sees a need to cater to Nazarbaev’s clique now that he’s out of the picture, he may in fact be able to move forward to meet some of the justified economic demands of the protesters – but it’s still very early days as yet. In the meanwhile: prayers from the bottom of my heart to God for those who have been killed, prayers for those who have been arrested, prayers for those who have lost their homes and businesses to the looting, and prayers for Kazakhstan’s orderly public life to improve.