Monday, October 10, 2022

A review of the Ainu memoir of Kayano Shigeru

For Indigenous People’s Day today, here is a review of Our Land Was a Forest, by the late Ainu cultural historian, museum founder, school director and statesman Dr Kayano Shigeru (1926 – 2006). This memoir is a heartfelt, though at times bleak and rather bracing, read. I searched for it for a long time during my quest to find more source books in English about the Ainu, and turned to it after being rather disappointed with Dr Emiko Ohnuki-Tierney’s treatment of the Ainu living in Sakhalin Oblast in Russia. As clearly well- and methodically-researched as it was, and as clearly motivated as it was by good scholarly intentions on Ohnuki-Tierney’s part, it still nevertheless reflected an outsider’s view looking in at Ainu culture. The limits of this approach became more and more glaringly obvious the more I read, and the more I found myself longing to hear an Ainu perspective, speaking genuinely about themselves to outsiders.

This memoir by Kayano Shigeru does provide precisely that perspective about the Ainu people. It gives voice to the concrete historical experience of the Ainu as a people, and to one man’s struggle to preserve as much of the material history (in folk utensils and artefacts) and as much of the non-tangible history (the yukar tales, the funerary rites and the language in general) as possible. But more importantly even than these narrow goals, perhaps—Kayano gives voice to an entire body of experience which seems to be common to a broad swathe of Indigenous peoples worldwide. When he speaks of his grandmother’s worries about the traditional ways being passed on, of his grandfather’s family being decimated by TB, of his father’s struggles with alcoholism, or of his own attempts in his youth to distance himself from anything Ainu… and then when he speaks of the historical acts of dispossession, forced labour, forced relocation and forced assimilation—he is not merely speaking for himself, and not merely speaking for his own people. The experience of the Ainu as Kayano Shigeru describes it, shares definite and concrete resonances with the historical struggles of the Anishinaabe and Dakhóta Indigenous peoples of Minnesota, and with the Indigenous nations all across the North American continent.

Dr Kayano Shigeru, born with the surname Kaizawa, begins his memoirs with his childhood living together with his traditional-minded grandmother, and ends with his most recent endeavours to raise money for an Ainu-language primary school in his home village of Nibutani in the late 1970s. His lifetime spans several eras in terms of Japanese history—he lived through the late militarist era, through the Second World War, through American military occupation and into the current (Heisei) period. Yet the perspective he offers—being politically inside ‘Japan’ but not culturally a part of it—creates intriguing insights and connexions.

He begins by talking about how Nibutani must have looked before he was born. He recounts seeing a table at the nearby Fujiwara Eatery made from a single slab of katsura tree-trunk, one and a half metres wide, that was felled in Nibutani, and surmises both from his interviews with elderly loggers and from his own observations of the area that Nibutani used to be an immense virgin old-growth katsura forest, with trees growing as large as two metres in diameter. All of these trees growing in Nibutani were cut down by the time the author was born. Forestry and logging were an important part of the Hokkaidô economy throughout most of Kayano’s early life. Both Ainu and shamo (that is to say, Yamato Japanese) engaged in logging, and the author himself spent much of his early life doing forestry, surveying and harvesting lumber. However, according to his account, the deforestation of Nibutani and its surroundings happened only after the Yamato Japanese moved into the area.

Maple syrup: evidently an export of Hokkaidô even today

The author recounts that the Ainu used to live mostly by hunting venison (and occasionally bear) in the forests, and by fishing salmon in the Saru River. They had other sources of nourishment as well: interestingly from my view, the Ainu harvested nitope (maple sugar) from the topeni maple (Acer pictum mono) and used hollow bamboo tubes encased in ice to make, essentially, sugar on snow (a confection made by different means in New England). However, both deer and bear became rare in Hokkaidô, not enough to support the Ainu’s traditional lifestyle within the author’s lifetime. Indeed, Kayano Shigeru recounts only ever having seen a bear once, when he was working as a logger—and he counts himself fortunate to have lived to tell the tale.

The Japanese appropriated Ainu land, without any compensation to the Ainu people—and in the name of ‘preserving’ the ‘former aborigines’ of the renamed ‘Hokkaidô’, forced the Ainu to leave their villages by good farmland, forests and rivers, and move into barely-habitable marginal territory (like the village of Kaminukibetsu, practically in the mountains). Once there, many Ainu—now lacking access to good food or water, succumbed to hunger (many were forced to subsist on grass), or else to tuberculosis. In Kayano Shigeru’s grandfather’s time, given the medical supplies available to the Ainu, TB was tantamount to a death sentence.

The Japanese also rounded up able-bodied Ainu as forced labour. Because the feudal Japanese lords of Ezo (as Hokkaidô was then called) couldn’t pay their retainers in rice the way those on Honshû could, they compensated their retainers with land. In order to make this land profitable, they sent in samurai to essentially enslave the Ainu and force them to work, with barely the minimum necessary for survival as compensation. Many Ainu were worked to death in these camps. The author’s grandfather was forced to work in one of these camps as a young boy of ten. He recounts his grandmother telling him how his grandfather used to weep over the separation from his family, and made plans to escape the camp first by getting sick (this didn’t work), and then by cutting off one of his fingers with a kitchen knife (this didn’t work either; the cook callously told him to put salt on the stump of the wound), and finally by using pufferfish venom to poison himself, making it appear like he had jaundice (this worked). Much of Kayano Shigeru’s knowledge of Ainu culture came from his grandmother. She taught him how the Ainu would only go into the woods or go fishing during the proper season, and also to make the proper offerings of thanks to the kamuy (the gods, or non-human spirits of nature), so that game and fish would always be plentiful.

Salmon fishing with drift nets

Once the salmon became scarce (due to overfishing by the Yamato Japanese), however, the Japanese government began introducing new laws prohibiting ‘poaching’ along arbitrary lines, and enforced these laws inequitably on the Ainu. Dr Kayano’s father was one who fell foul of these laws: the author recounts how a policeman arrested his father, where the local court convicted him and sent him to gaol for the crime of… catching only enough salmon in the Saru River to feed his family and make appropriate sacrifices to the kamuy. Unfortunately, this arrest had a bad effect on the author’s family. The Kaizawas sent young Shigeru to live with an aunt, named Kayano, whose surname he adopted—to evade the stigma of being related to a convict. And when he came back from prison, Kaizawa suffered from a drinking problem which led him to squander his money and the family property. Kayano Shigeru vowed not to touch alcohol after seeing what it did to his father.

Kayano Shigeru also did not do very well in school, although he recounts that his school days were a great deal happier in Nibutani than those of Ainu children who went to majority-shamo schools. Such Ainu children were bullied and taunted mercilessly. Punning Ainu with ‘inu 犬’, the Japanese word for ‘dog’, was, in the author’s words, ‘only the beginning’. Ainu students were mocked for how hairy they were, or how poor their clothing was. In the Meiji period, wealthy Japanese students showed up to school with Western-style clothing: the predecessor of the modern Japanese school uniform. Less well-to-do students, particularly from rural areas, showed up in the Japanese kimono. In general, Ainu children were fortunate if they could afford a kimono for school; Western clothes were entirely beyond their grasp. It doesn’t take a great deal of imagination to understand how hard it would have been at school for an Ainu child who wore traditional clothing to school.

Early on, Shigeru formed an ambition of becoming a logging foreman, and when he left school he went straight into the lumber business. He was called up to serve in the Second World War as a reservist, and his reminiscences of wartime were generally those of working at the base, or supervising POWs who came in from China. He kept a journal during this time, recounting his experiences in the forest as well as during the war, which sadly he was forced to burn by his own commander after the Japanese surrender to keep it from falling into the hands of the Allies. (The Japanese military had a policy of burning its records before surrendering.)

In the years shortly after the war, Kayano began collecting folk utensils and artefacts (like ceremonial chopsticks used to offer sacrifices to the kamuy) from the people around him in his village. His reasoning, he said, was that of preservation. He detested the anthropologists who came to study the Ainu at that time. The anthropologists he was familiar with at this time came to draw Ainu blood, examine Ainu arms and backs to see how ‘hairy’ they were, and to take humiliating photographs of Ainu with numbered placards around their necks, like you’d see in mugshots. These anthropologists also had a nasty habit of essentially stealing folk artefacts from their Ainu hosts, which is one reason why Kayano was so insistent on getting hold of as many of them as he could. He always offered (to his wife’s chagrin and to his neighbours’ bemusement) above-market prices for what most of his neighbours considered to be ‘old junk’: reasoning that he didn’t want his neighbours to suffer loss from what they had made, and also that these goods would one day be considered antiques. He often had to save for months to acquire items this way, but he says that he preserved goodwill among his neighbours by this method.

Ikupasuy: ornate carved ceremonial chopsticks used when giving offerings to kamuy

Later on he somewhat revised his view of anthropologists, and although he was still selective in whom he chose to trust (particularly after an incident with a con artist who left him and several other Ainu stranded away from home before absconding with all their savings), he came to appreciate the work anthropologists were doing at preserving the non-tangible aspects of Ainu culture mentioned above: particularly the language. He notes he had a particularly warm relationship with Kindaichi Kyôsuke: the linguist who collaborated with Chiri Yukie in compiling the yukar tales. Kayano notes with particular appreciation Kindaichi’s love of poetry and his ability to compose. He began cooperating with Kindaichi and others, and recording stories and funeral rites on cassette tapes (even though this was considered rude by Ainu standards at the time), in order to preserve the language as well as the cultural context within which that language lived. He ended up establishing a museum in Nibutani, funded mostly by the Ainu community themselves but with considerable help from conservationist and sport societies in Japan, to display his collection and archival material. The book ends with recounting his experiences serving on the local council, and attempting to prevent the local primary school in Nibutani from being shut down and merged with the majority-Japanese primary school in neighbouring Biratori, although a postscript speaks of his later successes in preserving the school.

One of the things that makes this memoir so fascinating, is that he preserves inside it many examples of Ainu culture: diagrams of traditional Ainu houses; photographs and illustrations of Ainu crafts and instruments, including traps for hunting; and examples of Ainu oration and poetry (some of which are of his own composition). Oratory is evidently a highly prized art among the Ainu: they prided themselves on resolving conflicts between people or villages peacefully, and the way that was done was by having one village representative basically out-talk or out-bullshit the other one. Pawetok, or eloquence, is one of the three primary virtues in Ainu society, along with rametok (courage) and siwetok (harmony, or beauty).

China-Japan Youth Friendship Tour

Another interesting point of Kayano Shigeru’s later experiences, was his trip in February 1976 to China as part of the Youth Friendship Tour. He was not initially appreciative of the Chinese representative’s insistence on calling him Japanese—as far as he was concerned, he wasn’t Japanese, but Ainu. But he later came to observe and appreciate the way in which the Chinese government treated ethnic minorities within its own borders. He approved the way the Chinese published official materials and signs in Korean for the benefit of their Korean minority, as well as for the other 54 minority groups in Chinese borders, and wondered why the Japanese government couldn’t do the same thing for the Ainu. Kayano Shigeru was insistent, indeed, not on removing Japanese people from Hokkaidô, but on promoting policies that would conserve the natural resources and the cultural heritage of the Ainu people. While a representative of the Ainu people in Hokkaidô, Dr Kayano affiliated himself with the (now-defunct) Japan Socialist Party.

I don’t think I need to densely or in an obvious way spell out all of the parallels between Kayano Shigeru’s experiences as recounted in this memoir, and those of Indigenous people at least in the US who have suffered through many of the same experiences. These experiences, particularly those relating to the expropriation of land and the disappearance of the traditional ways, are in a certain sense common to Indigeneity writ large. Again, despite the obvious value of the latter, I’m still really glad to have read a book by an Ainu versed in his own people’s ways, rather than just another book about the Ainu by Western or Japanese anthropologists. I highly recommend this book to people who are interested in the history of the Ainu, the history of Japan, or in Indigenous literature in general.

Dr Kayano Shigeru

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