Unbeaten Tracks in Japan, by Isabella L. Bird

Letter 37 —(Continued)

Aino Clothing — Holiday Dress — Domestic Architecture — Household Gods — Japanese Curios — The Necessaries of Life — Clay Soup — Arrow Poison — Arrow–Traps — Female Occupations — Bark Cloth — The Art of Weaving.

Aino clothing, for savages, is exceptionally good. In the winter it consists of one, two, or more coats of skins, with hoods of the same, to which the men add rude moccasins when they go out hunting. In summer they wear kimonos, or loose coats, made of cloth woven from the split bark of a forest tree. This is a durable and beautiful fabric in various shades of natural buff, and somewhat resembles what is known to fancy workers as “Panama canvas.” Under this a skin or bark-cloth vest may or may not be worn. The men wear these coats reaching a little below the knees, folded over from right to left, and confined at the waist by a narrow girdle of the same cloth, to which is attached a rude, dagger-shaped knife, with a carved and engraved wooden handle and sheath. Smoking is by no means a general practice; consequently the pipe and tobacco-box are not, as with the Japanese, a part of ordinary male attire. Tightly-fitting leggings, either of bark-cloth or skin, are worn by both sexes, but neither shoes nor sandals. The coat worn by the women reaches half-way between the knees and ankles, and is quite loose and without a girdle. It is fastened the whole way up to the collar-bone; and not only is the Aino woman completely covered, but she will not change one garment for another except alone or in the dark. Lately a Japanese woman at Sarufuto took an Aino woman into her house, and insisted on her taking a bath, which she absolutely refused to do till the bath-house had been made quite private by means of screens. On the Japanese woman going back a little later to see what had become of her, she found her sitting in the water in her clothes; and on being remonstrated with, she said that the gods would be angry if they saw her without clothes!

Many of the garments for holiday occasions are exceedingly handsome, being decorated with “geometrical” patterns, in which the “Greek fret” takes part, in coarse blue cotton, braided most dexterously with scarlet and white thread. Some of the handsomest take half a year to make. The masculine dress is completed by an apron of oblong shape decorated in the same elaborate manner. These handsome savages, with their powerful physique, look remarkably well in their best clothes. I have not seen a boy or girl above nine who is not thoroughly clothed. The “jewels” of the women are large, hoop earrings of silver or pewter, with attachments of a classical pattern, and silver neck ornaments, and a few have brass bracelets soldered upon their arms. The women have a perfect passion for every hue of red, and I have made friends with them by dividing among them a large turkey-red silk handkerchief, strips of which are already being utilised for the ornamenting of coats.

The houses in the five villages up here are very good. So they are at Horobets, but at Shiraoi, where the aborigines suffer from the close proximity of several grog shops, they are inferior. They differ in many ways from any that I have before seen, approaching most nearly to the grass houses of the natives of Hawaii. Custom does not appear to permit either of variety or innovations; in all the style is the same, and the difference consists in the size and plenishings. The dwellings seem ill-fitted for a rigorous climate, but the same thing may be said of those of the Japanese. In their houses, as in their faces, the Ainos are more European than their conquerors, as they possess doorways, windows, central fireplaces, like those of the Highlanders of Scotland, and raised sleeping-places.

The usual appearance is that of a small house built on at the end of a larger one. The small house is the vestibule or ante-room, and is entered by a low doorway screened by a heavy mat of reeds. It contains the large wooden mortar and pestle with two ends, used for pounding millet, a wooden receptacle for millet, nets or hunting gear, and some bundles of reeds for repairing roof or walls. This room never contains a window. From it the large room is entered by a doorway, over which a heavy reed-mat, bound with hide, invariably hangs. This room in Benri’s case is 35 feet long by 25 feet broad, another is 45 feet square, the smallest measures 20 feet by 15. On entering, one is much impressed by the great height and steepness of the roof, altogether out of proportion to the height of the walls.

The frame of the house is of posts, 4 feet 10 inches high, placed 4 feet apart, and sloping slightly inwards. The height of the walls is apparently regulated by that of the reeds, of which only one length is used, and which never exceed 4 feet 10 inches. The posts are scooped at the top, and heavy poles, resting on the scoops, are laid along them to form the top of the wall. The posts are again connected twice by slighter poles tied on horizontally. The wall is double; the outer part being formed of reeds tied very neatly to the framework in small, regular bundles, the inner layer or wall being made of reeds attached singly. From the top of the pole, which is secured to the top of the posts, the framework of the roof rises to a height of twenty-two feet, made, like the rest, of poles tied to a heavy and roughly-hewn ridge-beam. At one end under the ridge-beam there is a large triangular aperture for the exit of smoke. Two very stout, roughly-hewn beams cross the width of the house, resting on the posts of the wall, and on props let into the floor, and a number of poles are laid at the same height, by means of which a secondary roof formed of mats can be at once extemporised, but this is only used for guests. These poles answer the same purpose as shelves. Very great care is bestowed upon the outside of the roof, which is a marvel of neatness and prettiness, and has the appearance of a series of frills being thatched in ridges. The ridge-pole is very thickly covered, and the thatch both there and at the corners is elaborately laced with a pattern in strong peeled twigs. The poles, which, for much of the room, run from wall to wall, compel one to stoop, to avoid fracturing one’s skull, and bringing down spears, bows and arrows, arrow-traps, and other primitive property. The roof and rafters are black and shiny from wood smoke. Immediately under them, at one end and one side, are small, square windows, which are closed at night by wooden shutters, which during the day-time hang by ropes. Nothing is a greater insult to an Aino than to look in at his window.

On the left of the doorway is invariably a fixed wooden platform, eighteen inches high, and covered with a single mat, which is the sleeping-place. The pillows are small stiff bolsters, covered with ornamental matting. If the family be large there are several of these sleeping platforms. A pole runs horizontally at a fitting distance above the outside edge of each, over which mats are thrown to conceal the sleepers from the rest of the room. The inside half of these mats is plain, but the outside, which is seen from the room, has a diamond pattern woven into it in dull reds and browns. The whole floor is covered with a very coarse reed-mat, with interstices half an inch wide. The fireplace, which is six feet long, is oblong. Above it, on a very black and elaborate framework, hangs a very black and shiny mat, whose superfluous soot forms the basis of the stain used in tattooing, and whose apparent purpose is to prevent the smoke ascending, and to diffuse it equally throughout the room. From this framework depends the great cooking-pot, which plays a most important part in Aino economy.

Household gods form an essential part of the furnishing of every house. In this one, at the left of the entrance, there are ten white wands, with shavings depending from the upper end, stuck in the wall; another projects from the window which faces the sunrise, and the great god — a white post, two feet high, with spirals of shavings depending from the top — is always planted in the floor, near the wall, on the left side, opposite the fire, between the platform bed of the householder and the low, broad shelf placed invariably on the same side, and which is a singular feature of all Aino houses, coast and mountain, down to the poorest, containing, as it does, Japanese curios, many of them very valuable objects of antique art, though much destroyed by damp and dust. They are true curiosities in the dwellings of these northern aborigines, and look almost solemn ranged against the wall. In this house there are twenty-four lacquered urns, or tea-chests, or seats, each standing two feet high on four small legs, shod with engraved or filigree brass. Behind these are eight lacquered tubs, and a number of bowls and lacquer trays, and above are spears with inlaid handles, and fine Kaga and Awata bowls. The lacquer is good, and several of the urns have daimiyo’s crests in gold upon them. One urn and a large covered bowl are beautifully inlaid with Venus’ ear. The great urns are to be seen in every house, and in addition there are suits of inlaid armour, and swords with inlaid hilts, engraved blades, and repousse scabbards, for which a collector would give almost anything. No offers, however liberal, can tempt them to sell any of these antique possessions. “They were presents,” they say in their low, musical voices; “they were presents from those who were kind to our fathers; no, we cannot sell them; they were presents.” And so gold lacquer, and pearl inlaying, and gold niello-work, and daimiyo’s crests in gold, continue to gleam in the smoky darkness of their huts. Some of these things were doubtless gifts to their fathers when they went to pay tribute to the representative of the Shogun and the Prince of Matsumae, soon after the conquest of Yezo. Others were probably gifts from samurai, who took refuge here during the rebellion, and some must have been obtained by barter. They are the one possession which they will not barter for sake, and are only parted with in payment of fines at the command of a chief, or as the dower of a girl.

Except in the poorest houses, where the people can only afford to lay down a mat for a guest, they cover the coarse mat with fine ones on each side of the fire. These mats and the bark-cloth are really their only manufactures. They are made of fine reeds, with a pattern in dull reds or browns, and are 14 feet long by 3 feet 6 inches wide. It takes a woman eight days to make one of them. In every house there are one or two movable platforms 6 feet by 4 and 14 inches high, which are placed at the head of the fireplace, and on which guests sit and sleep on a bearskin or a fine mat. In many houses there are broad seats a few inches high, on which the elder men sit cross-legged, as their custom is, not squatting Japanese fashion on the heels. A water-tub always rests on a stand by the door, and the dried fish and venison or bear for daily use hang from the rafters, as well as a few skins. Besides these things there are a few absolute necessaries — lacquer or wooden bowls for food and sake, a chopping-board and rude chopping-knife, a cleft-stick for burning strips of birch-bark, a triply-cleft stick for supporting the potsherd in which, on rare occasions, they burn a wick with oil, the component parts of their rude loom, the bark of which they make their clothes, the reeds of which they make their mats — and the inventory of the essentials of their life is nearly complete. No iron enters into the construction of their houses, its place being supplied by a remarkably tenacious fibre.

I have before described the preparation of their food, which usually consists of a stew “of abominable things.” They eat salt and fresh fish, dried fish, seaweed, slugs, the various vegetables which grow in the wilderness of tall weeds which surrounds their villages, wild roots and berries, fresh and dried venison and bear; their carnival consisting of fresh bear’s flesh and sake, seaweed, mushrooms, and anything they can get, in fact, which is not poisonous, mixing everything up together. They use a wooden spoon for stirring, and eat with chopsticks. They have only two regular meals a day, but eat very heartily. In addition to the eatables just mentioned they have a thick soup made from a putty-like clay which is found in one or two of the valleys. This is boiled with the bulb of a wild lily, and, after much of the clay has been allowed to settle, the liquid, which is very thick, is poured off. In the north, a valley where this earth is found is called Tsie-toi-nai, literally “eat-earth-valley.”

The men spend the autumn, winter, and spring in hunting deer and bears. Part of their tribute or taxes is paid in skins, and they subsist on the dried meat. Up to about this time the Ainos have obtained these beasts by means of poisoned arrows, arrow-traps, and pitfalls, but the Japanese Government has prohibited the use of poison and arrow-traps, and these men say that hunting is becoming extremely difficult, as the wild animals are driven back farther and farther into the mountains by the sound of the guns. However, they add significantly, “the eyes of the Japanese Government are not in every place!”

Their bows are only three feet long, and are made of stout saplings with the bark on, and there is no attempt to render them light or shapely at the ends. The wood is singularly inelastic. The arrows (of which I have obtained a number) are very peculiar, and are made in three pieces, the point consisting of a sharpened piece of bone with an elongated cavity on one side for the reception of the poison. This point or head is very slightly fastened by a lashing of bark to a fusiform piece of bone about four inches long, which is in its turn lashed to a shaft about fourteen inches long, the other end of which is sometimes equipped with a triple feather and sometimes is not.

The poison is placed in the elongated cavity in the head in a very soft state, and hardens afterwards. In some of the arrow-heads fully half a teaspoonful of the paste is inserted. From the nature of the very slight lashings which attach the arrow-head to the shaft, it constantly remains fixed in the slight wound that it makes, while the shaft falls off.

Pipichari has given me a small quantity of the poisonous paste, and has also taken me to see the plant from the root of which it is made, the Aconitum Japonicum, a monkshood, whose tall spikes of blue flowers are brightening the brushwood in all directions. The root is pounded into a pulp, mixed with a reddish earth like an iron ore pulverised, and again with animal fat, before being placed in the arrow. It has been said that the poison is prepared for use by being buried in the earth, but Benri says that this is needless. They claim for it that a single wound kills a bear in ten minutes, but that the flesh is not rendered unfit for eating, though they take the precaution of cutting away a considerable quantity of it round the wound.

Dr. Eldridge, formerly of Hakodate, obtained a small quantity of the poison, and, after trying some experiments with it, came to the conclusion that it is less virulent than other poisons employed for a like purpose, as by the natives of Java, the Bushmen, and certain tribes of the Amazon and Orinoco. The Ainos say that if a man is accidentally wounded by a poisoned arrow the only cure is immediate excision of the part.

I do not wonder that the Government has prohibited arrow-traps, for they made locomotion unsafe, and it is still unsafe a little farther north, where the hunters are more out of observation than here. The traps consist of a large bow with a poisoned arrow, fixed in such a way that when the bear walks over a cord which is attached to it he is simultaneously transfixed. I have seen as many as fifty in one house. The simple contrivance for inflicting this silent death is most ingenious.

The women are occupied all day, as I have before said. They look cheerful, and even merry when they smile, and are not like the Japanese, prematurely old, partly perhaps because their houses are well ventilated, and the use of charcoal is unknown. I do not think that they undergo the unmitigated drudgery which falls to the lot of most savage women, though they work hard. The men do not like them to speak to strangers, however, and say that their place is to work and rear children. They eat of the same food, and at the same time as the men, laugh and talk before them, and receive equal support and respect in old age. They sell mats and bark-cloth in the piece, and made up, when they can, and their husbands do not take their earnings from them. All Aino women understand the making of bark-cloth. The men bring in the bark in strips, five feet long, having removed the outer coating. This inner bark is easily separated into several thin layers, which are split into very narrow strips by the older women, very neatly knotted, and wound into balls weighing about a pound each. No preparation of either the bark or the thread is required to fit it for weaving, but I observe that some of the women steep it in a decoction of a bark which produces a brown dye to deepen the buff tint.

The loom is so simple that I almost fear to represent it as complicated by description. It consists of a stout hook fixed in the floor, to which the threads of the far end of the web are secured, a cord fastening the near end to the waist of the worker, who supplies, by dexterous rigidity, the necessary tension; a frame like a comb resting on the ankles, through which the threads pass, a hollow roll for keeping the upper and under threads separate, a spatula-shaped shuttle of engraved wood, and a roller on which the cloth is rolled as it is made. The length of the web is fifteen feet, and the width of the cloth fifteen inches. It is woven with great regularity, and the knots in the thread are carefully kept on the under side. 20 It is a very slow and fatiguing process, and a woman cannot do much more than a foot a day. The weaver sits on the floor with the whole arrangement attached to her waist, and the loom, if such it may be called, on her ankles. It takes long practice before she can supply the necessary tension by spinal rigidity. As the work proceeds she drags herself almost imperceptibly nearer the hook. In this house and other large ones two or three women bring in their webs in the morning, fix their hooks, and weave all day, while others, who have not equal advantages, put their hooks in the ground and weave in the sunshine. The web and loom can be bundled up in two minutes, and carried away quite as easily as a knitted soft blanket. It is the simplest and perhaps the most primitive form of hand-loom, and comb, shuttle, and roll, are all easily fashioned with an ordinary knife.

20 I have not been able to obtain from any botanist the name of the tree from the bark of which the thread is made, but suppose it to be a species of Tiliaceae.


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