The Wire

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In Writing

Biba Kopf's Ainu music portal

November 2014

Biba Kopf and Keiko Yoshida travelled to Hokkaido for The Wire 370's Global Ear feature, reporting back on the music of northern Japan’s indigenous Ainu people. Below, they extend their article with a set of links and online resources

Yukie Chiri
The guiding spirit behind this Global Ear column from Shiraoi (The Wire 370) on Japan’s northernmost main island of Hokkaido is Yukie Chiri, whose anthology of Ainu to Japanese translations Songs Of Ainu Shin'yoshu: Collected Stories Of The Ainu Gods was published in 1923. An Ainu woman born in 1903, Yukie had translated 13 songs learnt from her grandmother and aunt – in line with the oral tradition of a people with no written language until the late 19th century passing down their history and culture through sagas and chants. Acutely sensitive to the destructive affects of Japan’s colonisation of Hokkaido and policy of assimilation of her people, she wrote in the introduction to Ainu Shin’yoshu: “Nature unchanged from ancient times has faded before we realised it. And where are the many who used to live pleasurably in the fields and the mountains? The few of us Ainu who remain watch wide-eyed with surprise as the world advances. And from those eyes is lost the sparkle of the beautiful souls of the people of old, whose every move and motion were controlled by religious sentiment; our eyes are filled with anxiety, burning with complaints, too dulled and darkened to discern the way ahead so that we have to rely on others’ mercy. A wretched sight. The vanishing – that is our name; what a sad name we bear.” Yukie did not live to see its publication. Though she suffered from poor health she travelled down from Hokkaido to Tokyo to help edit her collection for publication. She died, aged 19, on the day she delivered the final manuscript. These song translations into the language of the colonisers were undertaken amid fears of Ainu culture being on the verge of extinction. 100 years on, after half a century of postwar campaigning, the Japanese have finally recognised the Ainu as a different indigenous people. Including her English translations of the 13 epics anthologised by Yukie Chiri, Sarah M Strong’s Ainu Spirits Singing: The Living World Of Chiri Yukie’s Ainu Shin’yoshu (University of Hawaii Press) is a tremendously useful study that restores the songs to the environment and culture from which they came.

Mutsuko Nakamoto: “The Ocean Spiritual Being [Orca] Sings About Himself”
Yukie Chiri was born in Horobetsu, a rural area not so far from the model Ainu village and museum in Shiraoi, southwest of Sapporo. Before the Japanese colonisation of Hokkaido precipitated the threatened extinction of its people, language and culture, the Ainu spoke in many dialects. These variations aren’t so readily discernible when travelling from one Ainu centre to another. Over time the official folklore presentation of Ainu ways preserved and passed down to the present through songs and chants have become standardised. In one of the 13 songs making up Chiri’s Ainu Shin'yoshu recorded in 2003, Mutsuko Nakamoto sings the tale of the Ocean Spiritual Being talking about itself:“And I arranged a platform beside the treasure stand, and on that platform/I would sit […] earnestly carving/The decorative face of the scabbards/And with that sole task in life I spent my days”. Sustained and projected across time through song, that image of the Ainu way of life takes material form in the tableaux vivants enacted in the storefronts of souvenir shops opposite a main dropping off point for tour buses pulling in to Ainu Kotan Village on Akan Lake, some five hours or so by coach east of Sapporo. The contemporary image of Ainu craftsmen stoically chiselling away their days on a raised dais placing them in full view of passing trade carving sculptures of bears, owls and foxes sold inside is somewhat disheartening.

Emi Toko performing
Those early impressions after getting off the bus are somewhat misleading. As the street laden with souvenir shops twists into a narrower lane on a slight incline leading up to an Ainu theatre/cultural centre, the outward appearance of the storefronts looks less buffed, becoming a little more redolent of the dark forests distantly evoked by all the wood-carved souvenirs of owls, bears and foxes on sale. Consisting of two rows of tables lining the walls of its narrow dining area, a tiny Ainu restaurant at once belongs to and stands to one side of its surroundings. The walls of its small lobby are posted with fliers of upcoming DJ parties and concerts, Ainu and otherwise, while tonkori (a simple lute-like instrument originating on the island of Sakhalin, north of Hokkaido which now belongs to Russia) decorate the main room. Joni Mitchell’s Blue album plays out as we arrive. It’s followed by a stunning Ainu recording that’s at once age-old traditional and intimately now. The music, it turns out, is a forthcoming album by the owner of the restaurant and her sister, who play out as Kapiw & Appapo. We’re told that one of the sisters, Emi Toko, will be singing and playing tonkori and the jew’s harp-like mukkuri at 6:30am the following morning on board a boat tour of Akan Lake. Seeing and hearing her close up in this tour boat setting dissolved any residual kultursnobbismus I had about Ainu performers proudly consolidating and building on their musical heritage in whatever circumstance they get to reanimate it.

A piece of transhistorical fusion music featuring an Ainu song sung by Umeko Ando supported by Oki on tonkori and Toshi Tsuchitori playing jomonko pottery drums from the Jomon era (2000–3000 BC)
Though the Ainu were were finally officially acknowledged as being a unique indigenous people different from the Japanese, not everyone with an Ainu background shares the desire to proclaim themselves as such. After more than a century of enforced assimilation many people keep their family origin secret, indeed if they were aware of their Ainu roots at all. The tonkori player and singer Oki Kano was already an adult by the time he became aware that his estranged father, a nationally known sculptor, came from an Ainu background. The discovery prompted him to learn Ainu and teach himself how to play tonkori. (His step-brother, on the other hand, is one of an estimated 300,000 individuals around Japan who for personal reasons or fear of discrimination have no interest in coming out as Ainu.) One of Oki’s most significant achievements as a musician and a producer is to dissolve the idea that Ainu music is primarily a heritage culture, through an unspoken belief that songs and chants passed down through oral traditions are permafixed forever in the eternal now. The two Oki produced albums by the late, great Ainu singer and mukkuri player Umeko Ando for his Chikar Studio label are more appealingly immediate than, say, earlier, undeniably important and absorbing ethnological style recordings such as those made by the pioneering Ainu rights campaigner, politician and performer Shigeru Kayano (See Songs Of The Ainu in JVC World Sounds Series, which demands a little more effort, but is well worth it).

Oki Kano
Oki is as at home playing solo tonkori or backing the female vocal ensemble Marewrew at the Tobiu Camp outdoor festival as he is performing alone before a liquid digital graphics backdrop at the international forum Media Arts City 2014 called Aesthetics Of Mediation: Creativity In An Age Of Social Media.

Ifukube and the Ainu Influence
This summer Sapporo launched its first international art festival. Though its theme was City and Nature, Ainu contributions were minimal. Antye Greie-Ripatti incorporated Ainu elements into a soundwalk designed to be listened to strolling through one of the city’s long underground passages. The Former Hokkaido Government Office Building held a double exhibition called Two Great Men Of Hokkaido, one of whom was the composer Akira Ifukube, best known outside Japan for his Godzilla film soundtracks. Born in Hokkaido, Ifukube claimed that he grew up listening to Ainu music, which subsequently exerted a deep influence on his own work.


I was in Hokkaido this summer for 5 weeks. You can listen to a 1 hour compilation of field recordings made during that stay on De Concertzender. Also with MaRewRew and OKI!

I was in Hokkaido this summer for 5 weeks. You can listen to a 1 hour compilation of field recordings made during that stay on De Concertzender. Also with MaRewRew and OKI!

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