Unbeaten Tracks in Japan, by Isabella L. Bird

Letter 37

Barrenness of Savage Life — Irreclaimable Savages — The Aino Physique — Female Comeliness — Torture and Ornament — Child Life — Docility and Obedience.

BIRATORI, YEZO, August 24.

I expected to have written out my notes on the Ainos in the comparative quiet and comfort of Sarufuto, but the delay in Benri’s return, and the non-arrival of the horses, have compelled me to accept Aino hospitality for another night, which involves living on tea and potatoes, for my stock of food is exhausted. In some respects I am glad to remain longer, as it enables me to go over my stock of words, as well as my notes, with the chief, who is intelligent and it is a pleasure to find that his statements confirm those which have been made by the young men. The glamour which at first disguises the inherent barrenness of savage life has had time to pass away, and I see it in all its nakedness as a life not much raised above the necessities of animal existence, timid, monotonous, barren of good, dark, dull, “without hope, and without God in the world;” though at its lowest and worst considerably higher and better than that of many other aboriginal races, and — must I say it? — considerably higher and better than that of thousands of the lapsed masses of our own great cities who are baptized into Christ’s name, and are laid at last in holy ground, inasmuch as the Ainos are truthful, and, on the whole, chaste, hospitable, honest, reverent, and kind to the aged. Drinking, their great vice, is not, as among us, in antagonism to their religion, but is actually a part of it, and as such would be exceptionally difficult to eradicate.

The early darkness has once again come on, and once again the elders have assembled round the fire in two long lines, with the younger men at the ends, Pipichari, who yesterday sat in the place of honour and was helped to food first as the newest arrival, taking his place as the youngest at the end of the right-hand row. The birch-bark chips beam with fitful glare, the evening sake bowls are filled, the fire-god and the garlanded god receive their libations, the ancient woman, still sitting like a Fate, splits bark, and the younger women knot it, and the log-fire lights up as magnificent a set of venerable heads as painter or sculptor would desire to see — heads, full of — what? They have no history, their traditions are scarcely worthy the name, they claim descent from a dog, their houses and persons swarm with vermin, they are sunk in the grossest ignorance, they have no letters or any numbers above a thousand, they are clothed in the bark of trees and the untanned skins of beasts, they worship the bear, the sun, moon, fire, water, and I know not what, they are uncivilisable and altogether irreclaimable savages, yet they are attractive, and in some ways fascinating, and I hope I shall never forget the music of their low, sweet voices, the soft light of their mild, brown eyes, and the wonderful sweetness of their smile.

After the yellow skins, the stiff horse hair, the feeble eyelids, the elongated eyes, the sloping eyebrows, the flat noses, the sunken chests, the Mongolian features, the puny physique, the shaky walk of the men, the restricted totter of the women, and the general impression of degeneracy conveyed by the appearance of the Japanese, the Ainos make a very singular impression. All but two or three that I have seen are the most ferocious-looking of savages, with a physique vigorous enough for carrying out the most ferocious intentions, but as soon as they speak the countenance brightens into a smile as gentle as that of a woman, something which can never be forgotten.

The men are about the middle height, broad-chested, broad-shouldered, “thick set,” very strongly built, the arms and legs short, thick, and muscular, the hands and feet large. The bodies, and specially the limbs, of many are covered with short bristly hair. I have seen two boys whose backs are covered with fur as fine and soft as that of a cat. The heads and faces are very striking. The foreheads are very high, broad, and prominent, and at first sight give one the impression of an unusual capacity for intellectual development; the ears are small and set low; the noses are straight but short, and broad at the nostrils; the mouths are wide but well formed; and the lips rarely show a tendency to fulness. The neck is short, the cranium rounded, the cheek-bones low, and the lower part of the face is small as compared with the upper, the peculiarity called a “jowl” being unknown. The eyebrows are full, and form a straight line nearly across the face. The eyes are large, tolerably deeply set, and very beautiful, the colour a rich liquid brown, the expression singularly soft, and the eyelashes long, silky, and abundant. The skin has the Italian olive tint, but in most cases is thin, and light enough to show the changes of colour in the cheek. The teeth are small, regular, and very white; the incisors and “eye teeth” are not disproportionately large, as is usually the case among the Japanese; there is no tendency towards prognathism; and the fold of integument which conceals the upper eyelids of the Japanese is never to be met with. The features, expression, and aspect, are European rather than Asiatic.

The “ferocious savagery” of the appearance of the men is produced by a profusion of thick, soft, black hair, divided in the middle, and falling in heavy masses nearly to the shoulders. Out of doors it is kept from falling over the face by a fillet round the brow. The beards are equally profuse, quite magnificent, and generally wavy, and in the case of the old men they give a truly patriarchal and venerable aspect, in spite of the yellow tinge produced by smoke and want of cleanliness. The savage look produced by the masses of hair and beard, and the thick eyebrows, is mitigated by the softness in the dreamy brown eyes, and is altogether obliterated by the exceeding sweetness of the smile, which belongs in greater or less degree to all the rougher sex.

I have measured the height of thirty of the adult men of this village, and it ranges from 5 feet 4 inches to 5 feet 6.5 inches. The circumference of the heads averages 22.1 inches, and the arc, from ear to ear, 13 inches. According to Mr. Davies, the average weight of the Aino adult masculine brain, ascertained by measurement of Aino skulls, is 45.90 ounces avoirdupois, a brain weight said to exceed that of all the races, Hindoo and Mussulman, on the Indian plains, and that of the aboriginal races of India and Ceylon, and is only paralleled by that of the races of the Himalayas, the Siamese, and the Chinese Burmese. Mr. Davies says, further, that it exceeds the mean brain weight of Asiatic races in general. Yet with all this the Ainos are a stupid people!

Passing travellers who have seen a few of the Aino women on the road to Satsuporo speak of them as very ugly, but as making amends for their ugliness by their industry and conjugal fidelity. Of the latter there is no doubt, but I am not disposed to admit the former. The ugliness is certainly due to art and dirt. The Aino women seldom exceed five feet and half an inch in height, but they are beautifully formed, straight, lithe, and well-developed, with small feet and hands, well-arched insteps, rounded limbs, well-developed busts, and a firm, elastic gait. Their heads and faces are small; but the hair, which falls in masses on each side of the face like that of the men, is equally redundant. They have superb teeth, and display them liberally in smiling. Their mouths are somewhat wide, but well formed, and they have a ruddy comeliness about them which is pleasing, in spite of the disfigurement of the band which is tattooed both above and below the mouth, and which, by being united at the corners, enlarges its apparent size and width. A girl at Shiraoi, who, for some reason, has not been subjected to this process, is the most beautiful creature in features, colouring, and natural grace of form, that I have seen for a long time. Their complexions are lighter than those of the men. There are not many here even as dark as our European brunettes. A few unite the eyebrows by a streak of tattooing, so as to produce a straight line. Like the men, they cut their hair short for two or three inches above the nape of the neck, but instead of using a fillet they take two locks from the front and tie them at the back.

They are universally tattooed, not only with the broad band above and below the mouth, but with a band across the knuckles, succeeded by an elaborate pattern on the back of the hand, and a series of bracelets extending to the elbow. The process of disfigurement begins at the age of five, when some of the sufferers are yet unweaned. I saw the operation performed on a dear little bright girl this morning. A woman took a large knife with a sharp edge, and rapidly cut several horizontal lines on the upper lip, following closely the curve of the very pretty mouth, and before the slight bleeding had ceased carefully rubbed in some of the shiny soot which collects on the mat above the fire. In two or three days the scarred lip will be washed with the decoction of the bark of a tree to fix the pattern, and give it that blue look which makes many people mistake it for a daub of paint. A child who had this second process performed yesterday has her lip fearfully swollen and inflamed. The latest victim held her hands clasped tightly together while the cuts were inflicted, but never cried. The pattern on the lips is deepened and widened every year up to the time of marriage, and the circles on the arm are extended in a similar way. The men cannot give any reason for the universality of this custom. It is an old custom, they say, and part of their religion, and no woman could marry without it. Benri fancies that the Japanese custom of blackening the teeth is equivalent to it; but he is mistaken, as that ceremony usually succeeds marriage. They begin to tattoo the arms when a girl is five or six, and work from the elbow downwards. They expressed themselves as very much grieved and tormented by the recent prohibition of tattooing. They say the gods will be angry, and that the women can’t marry unless they are tattooed; and they implored both Mr. Von Siebold and me to intercede with the Japanese Government on their behalf in this respect. They are less apathetic on this than on any subject, and repeat frequently, “It’s a part of our religion.”

The children are very pretty and attractive, and their faces give promise of an intelligence which is lacking in those of the adults. They are much loved, and are caressing as well as caressed. The infants of the mountain Ainos have seeds of millet put into their mouths as soon as they are born, and those of the coast Ainos a morsel of salt-fish; and whatever be the hour of birth, “custom” requires that they shall not be fed until a night has passed. They are not weaned until they are at least three years old. Boys are preferred to girls, but both are highly valued, and a childless wife may be divorced.

Children do not receive names till they are four or five years old, and then the father chooses a name by which his child is afterwards known. Young children when they travel are either carried on their mothers’ backs in a net, or in the back of the loose garment; but in both cases the weight is mainly supported by a broad band which passes round the woman’s forehead. When men carry them they hold them in their arms. The hair of very young children is shaven, and from about five to fifteen the boys wear either a large tonsure or tufts above the ears, while the girls are allowed to grow hair all over their heads.

Implicit and prompt obedience is required from infancy; and from a very early age the children are utilised by being made to fetch and carry and go on messages. I have seen children apparently not more than two years old sent for wood; and even at this age they are so thoroughly trained in the observances of etiquette that babies just able to walk never toddle into or out of this house without formal salutations to each person within it, the mother alone excepted. They don’t wear any clothing till they are seven or eight years old, and are then dressed like their elders. Their manners to their parents are very affectionate. Even today, in the chief’s awe-inspiring presence, one dear little nude creature, who had been sitting quietly for two hours staring into the fire with her big brown eyes, rushed to meet her mother when she entered, and threw her arms round her, to which the woman responded by a look of true maternal tenderness and a kiss. These little creatures, in the absolute unconsciousness of innocence, with their beautiful faces, olive-tinted bodies — all the darker, sad to say, from dirt — their perfect docility, and absence of prying curiosity, are very bewitching. They all wear silver or pewter ornaments tied round their necks by a wisp of blue cotton.

Apparently the ordinary infantile maladies, such as whooping-cough and measles, do not afflict the Ainos fatally; but the children suffer from a cutaneous affection, which wears off as they reach the age of ten or eleven years, as well as from severe toothache with their first teeth.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/b/bird/isabella/japan/chapter46.html

Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:31