Unbeaten Tracks in Japan, by Isabella L. Bird

Letter 37 —(Continued)

A Simple Nature–Worship — Aino Gods — A Festival Song — Religious Intoxication — Bear–Worship — The Annual Saturnalia — The Future State — Marriage and Divorce — Musical Instruments — Etiquette — The Chieftainship — Death and Burial — Old Age — Moral Qualities.

There cannot be anything more vague and destitute of cohesion than Aino religious notions. With the exception of the hill shrines of Japanese construction dedicated to Yoshitsune, they have no temples, and they have neither priests, sacrifices, nor worship. Apparently through all traditional time their cultus has been the rudest and most primitive form of nature-worship, the attaching of a vague sacredness to trees, rivers, rocks, and mountains, and of vague notions of power for good or evil to the sea, the forest, the fire, and the sun and moon. I cannot make out that they possess a trace of the deification of ancestors, though their rude nature worship may well have been the primitive form of Japanese Shinto. The solitary exception to their adoration of animate and inanimate nature appears to be the reverence paid to Yoshitsune, to whom they believe they are greatly indebted, and who, it is supposed by some, will yet interfere on their behalf. 21 Their gods — that is, the outward symbols of their religion, corresponding most likely with the Shinto gohei — are wands and posts of peeled wood, whittled nearly to the top, from which the pendent shavings fall down in white curls. These are not only set up in their houses, sometimes to the number of twenty, but on precipices, banks of rivers and streams, and mountain-passes, and such wands are thrown into the rivers as the boatmen descend rapids and dangerous places. Since my baggage horse fell over an acclivity on the trail from Sarufuto, four such wands have been placed there. It is nonsense to write of the religious ideas of a people who have none, and of beliefs among people who are merely adult children. The traveller who formulates an Aino creed must “evolve it from his inner consciousness.” I have taken infinite trouble to learn from themselves what their religious notions are, and Shinondi tells me that they have told me all they know, and the whole sum is a few vague fears and hopes, and a suspicion that there are things outside themselves more powerful than themselves, whose good influences may be obtained, or whose evil influences may be averted, by libations of sake.

The word worship is in itself misleading. When I use it of these savages it simply means libations of sake, waving bowls and waving hands, without any spiritual act of deprecation or supplication. In such a sense and such alone they worship the sun and moon (but not the stars), the forest, and the sea. The wolf, the black snake, the owl, and several other beasts and birds have the word kamoi, god, attached to them, as the wolf is the “howling god,” the owl “the bird of the gods,” a black snake the “raven god;” but none of these things are now “worshipped,” wolf-worship having quite lately died out. Thunder, “the voice of the gods,” inspires some fear. The sun, they say, is their best god, and the fire their next best, obviously the divinities from whom their greatest benefits are received. Some idea of gratitude pervades their rude notions, as in the case of the “worship” paid to Yoshitsune, and it appears in one of the rude recitations chanted at the Saturnalia which in several places conclude the hunting and fishing seasons:-

“To the sea which nourishes us, to the forest which protects us, we present our grateful thanks. You are two mothers that nourish the same child; do not be angry if we leave one to go to the other.

“The Ainos will always be the pride of the forest and of the sea.”

The solitary act of sacrifice which they perform is the placing of a worthless, dead bird, something like a sparrow, near one of their peeled wands, where it is left till it reaches an advanced stage of putrefaction. “To drink for the god” is the chief act of “worship,” and thus drunkenness and religion are inseparably connected, as the more sake the Ainos drink the more devout they are, and the better pleased are the gods. It does not appear that anything but sake is of sufficient value to please the gods. The libations to the fire and the peeled post are never omitted, and are always accompanied by the inward waving of the sake bowls.

The peculiarity which distinguishes this rude mythology is the “worship” of the bear, the Yezo bear being one of the finest of his species; but it is impossible to understand the feelings by which it is prompted, for they worship it after their fashion, and set up its head in their villages, yet they trap it, kill it, eat it, and sell its skin. There is no doubt that this wild beast inspires more of the feeling which prompts worship than the inanimate forces of nature, and the Ainos may be distinguished as bear-worshippers, and their greatest religious festival or Saturnalia as the Festival of the Bear. Gentle and peaceable as they are, they have a great admiration for fierceness and courage; and the bear, which is the strongest, fiercest, and most courageous animal known to them, has probably in all ages inspired them with veneration. Some of their rude chants are in praise of the bear, and their highest eulogy on a man is to compare him to a bear. Thus Shinondi said of Benri, the chief, “He is as strong as a bear,” and the old Fate praising Pipichari called him “The young bear.”

In all Aino villages, specially near the chief’s house, there are several tall poles with the fleshless skull of a bear on the top of each, and in most there is also a large cage, made grid-iron fashion, of stout timbers, and raised two or three feet from the ground. At the present time such cages contain young but well-grown bears, captured when quite small in the early spring. After the capture the bear cub is introduced into a dwelling-house, generally that of the chief, or sub-chief, where it is suckled by a woman, and played with by the children, till it grows too big and rough for domestic ways, and is placed in a strong cage, in which it is fed and cared for, as I understand, till the autumn of the following year, when, being strong and well-grown, the Festival of the Bear is celebrated. The customs of this festival vary considerably, and the manner of the bear’s death differs among the mountain and coast Ainos, but everywhere there is a general gathering of the people, and it is the occasion of a great feast, accompanied with much sake and a curious dance, in which men alone take part.

Yells and shouts are used to excite the bear, and when he becomes much agitated a chief shoots him with an arrow, inflicting a slight wound which maddens him, on which the bars of the cage are raised, and he springs forth, very furious. At this stage the Ainos run upon him with various weapons, each one striving to inflict a wound, as it brings good luck to draw his blood. As soon as he falls down exhausted, his head is cut off, and the weapons with which he has been wounded are offered to it, and he is asked to avenge himself upon them. Afterwards the carcass, amidst a frenzied uproar, is distributed among the people, and amidst feasting and riot the head, placed upon a pole, is worshipped, i.e. it receives libations of sake, and the festival closes with general intoxication. In some villages it is customary for the foster-mother of the bear to utter piercing wails while he is delivered to his murderers, and after he is slain to beat each one of them with a branch of a tree. [Afterwards at Usu, on Volcano Bay, the old men told me that at their festival they despatch the bear after a different manner. On letting it loose from the cage two men seize it by the ears, and others simultaneously place a long, stout pole across the nape of its neck, upon which a number of Ainos mount, and after a prolonged struggle the neck is broken. As the bear is seen to approach his end, they shout in chorus, “We kill you, O bear! come back soon into an Aino.”] When a bear is trapped or wounded by an arrow, the hunters go through an apologetic or propitiatory ceremony. They appear to have certain rude ideas of metempsychosis, as is evidenced by the Usu prayer to the bear and certain rude traditions; but whether these are indigenous, or have arisen by contact with Buddhism at a later period, it is impossible to say.

They have no definite ideas concerning a future state, and the subject is evidently not a pleasing one to them. Such notions as they have are few and confused. Some think that the spirits of their friends go into wolves and snakes; others, that they wander about the forests; and they are much afraid of ghosts. A few think that they go to “a good or bad place,” according to their deeds; but Shinondi said, and there was an infinite pathos in his words, “How can we know? No one ever came back to tell us!” On asking him what were bad deeds, he said, “Being bad to parents, stealing, and telling lies.” The future, however, does not occupy any place in their thoughts, and they can hardly be said to believe in the immortality of the soul, though their fear of ghosts shows that they recognise a distinction between body and spirit.

Their social customs are very simple. Girls never marry before the age of seventeen, or men before twenty-one. When a man wishes to marry he thinks of some particular girl, and asks the chief if he may ask for her. If leave is given, either through a “go-between” or personally, he asks her father for her, and if he consents the bridegroom gives him a present, usually a Japanese “curio.” This constitutes betrothal, and the marriage, which immediately follows, is celebrated by carousals and the drinking of much sake. The bride receives as her dowry her earrings and a highly ornamented kimono. It is an essential that the husband provides a house to which to take his wife. Each couple lives separately, and even the eldest son does not take his bride to his father’s house. Polygamy is only allowed in two cases. The chief may have three wives; but each must have her separate house. Benri has two wives; but it appears that he took the second because the first was childless. [The Usu Ainos told me that among the tribes of Volcano Bay polygamy is not practised, even by the chiefs.] It is also permitted in the case of a childless wife; but there is no instance of it in Biratori, and the men say that they prefer to have one wife, as two quarrel.

Widows are allowed to marry again with the chief’s consent; but among these mountain Ainos a woman must remain absolutely secluded within the house of her late husband for a period varying from six to twelve months, only going to the door at intervals to throw sake to the right and left. A man secludes himself similarly for thirty days. [So greatly do the customs vary, that round Volcano Bay I found that the period of seclusion for a widow is only thirty days, and for a man twenty-five; but that after a father’s death the house in which he has lived is burned down after the thirty days of seclusion, and the widow and her children go to a friend’s house for three years, after which the house is rebuilt on its former site.]

If a man does not like his wife, by obtaining the chief’s consent he can divorce her; but he must send her back to her parents with plenty of good clothes; but divorce is impracticable where there are children, and is rarely if ever practised. Conjugal fidelity is a virtue among Aino women; but “custom” provides that, in case of unfaithfulness, the injured husband may bestow his wife upon her paramour, if he be an unmarried man; in which case the chief fixes the amount of damages which the paramour must pay; and these are usually valuable Japanese curios.

The old and blind people are entirely supported by their children, and receive until their dying day filial reverence and obedience.

If one man steals from another he must return what he has taken, and give the injured man a present besides, the value of which is fixed by the chief.

Their mode of living you already know, as I have shared it, and am still receiving their hospitality. “Custom” enjoins the exercise of hospitality on every Aino. They receive all strangers as they received me, giving them of their best, placing them in the most honourable place, bestowing gifts upon them, and, when they depart, furnishing them with cakes of boiled millet.

They have few amusements, except certain feasts. Their dance, which they have just given in my honour, is slow and mournful, and their songs are chants or recitative. They have a musical instrument, something like a guitar, with three, five, or six strings, which are made from sinews of whales cast up on the shore. They have another, which is believed to be peculiar to themselves, consisting of a thin piece of wood, about five inches long and two and a half inches broad, with a pointed wooden tongue, about two lines in breadth and sixteen in length, fixed in the middle, and grooved on three sides. The wood is held before the mouth, and the tongue is set in motion by the vibration of the breath in singing. Its sound, though less penetrating, is as discordant as that of a Jew’s harp, which it somewhat resembles. One of the men used it as an accompaniment of a song; but they are unwilling to part with them, as they say that it is very seldom that they can find a piece of wood which will bear the fine splitting necessary for the tongue.

They are a most courteous people among each other. The salutations are frequent — on entering a house, on leaving it, on meeting on the road, on receiving anything from the hand of another, and on receiving a kind or complimentary speech. They do not make any acknowledgments of this kind to the women, however. The common salutation consists in extending the hands and waving them inwards, once or oftener, and stroking the beard; the formal one in raising the hands with an inward curve to the level of the head two or three times, lowering them, and rubbing them together; the ceremony concluding with stroking the beard several times. The latter and more formal mode of salutation is offered to the chief, and by the young to the old men. The women have no “manners!”

They have no “medicine men,” and, though they are aware of the existence of healing herbs, they do not know their special virtues or the manner of using them. Dried and pounded bear’s liver is their specific, and they place much reliance on it in colic and other pains. They are a healthy race. In this village of 300 souls, there are no chronically ailing people; nothing but one case of bronchitis, and some cutaneous maladies among children. Neither is there any case of deformity in this and five other large villages which I have visited, except that of a girl, who has one leg slightly shorter than the other.

They ferment a kind of intoxicating liquor from the root of a tree, and also from their own millet and Japanese rice, but Japanese sake is the one thing that they care about. They spend all their gains upon it, and drink it in enormous quantities. It represents to them all the good of which they know, or can conceive. Beastly intoxication is the highest happiness to which these poor savages aspire, and the condition is sanctified to them under the fiction of “drinking to the gods.” Men and women alike indulge in this vice. A few, however, like Pipichari, abstain from it totally, taking the bowl in their hands, making the libations to the gods, and then passing it on. I asked Pipichari why he did not take sake, and he replied with a truthful terseness, “Because it makes men like dogs.”

Except the chief, who has two horses, they have no domestic animals except very large, yellow dogs, which are used in hunting, but are never admitted within the houses.

The habits of the people, though by no means destitute of decency and propriety, are not cleanly. The women bathe their hands once a day, but any other washing is unknown. They never wash their clothes, and wear the same by day and night. I am afraid to speculate on the condition of their wealth of coal-black hair. They may be said to be very dirty — as dirty fully as masses of our people at home. Their houses swarm with fleas, but they are not worse in this respect than the Japanese yadoyas. The mountain villages have, however, the appearance of extreme cleanliness, being devoid of litter, heaps, puddles, and untidiness of all kinds, and there are no unpleasant odours inside or outside the houses, as they are well ventilated and smoked, and the salt fish and meat are kept in the godowns. The hair and beards of the old men, instead of being snowy as they ought to be, are yellow from smoke and dirt.

They have no mode of computing time, and do not know their own ages. To them the past is dead, yet, like other conquered and despised races, they cling to the idea that in some far-off age they were a great nation. They have no traditions of internecine strife, and the art of war seems to have been lost long ago. I asked Benri about this matter, and he says that formerly Ainos fought with spears and knives as well as with bows and arrows, but that Yoshitsune, their hero god, forbade war for ever, and since then the two-edged spear, with a shaft nine feet long, has only been used in hunting bears.

The Japanese Government, of course, exercises the same authority over the Ainos as over its other subjects, but probably it does not care to interfere in domestic or tribal matters, and within this outside limit despotic authority is vested in the chiefs. The Ainos live in village communities, and each community has its own chief, who is its lord paramount. It appears to me that this chieftainship is but an expansion of the paternal relation, and that all the village families are ruled as a unit. Benri, in whose house I am, is the chief of Biratori, and is treated by all with very great deference of manner. The office is nominally for life; but if a chief becomes blind, or too infirm to go about, he appoints a successor. If he has a “smart” son, who he thinks will command the respect of the people, he appoints him; but if not, he chooses the most suitable man in the village. The people are called upon to approve the choice, but their ratification is never refused. The office is not hereditary anywhere.

Benri appears to exercise the authority of a very strict father. His manner to all the men is like that of a master to slaves, and they bow when they speak to him. No one can marry without his approval. If any one builds a house he chooses the site. He has absolute jurisdiction in civil and criminal cases, unless (which is very rare) the latter should be of sufficient magnitude to be reported to the Imperial officials. He compels restitution of stolen property, and in all cases fixes the fines which are to be paid by delinquents. He also fixes the hunting arrangements and the festivals. The younger men were obviously much afraid of incurring his anger in his absence.

An eldest son does not appear to be, as among the Japanese, a privileged person. He does not necessarily inherit the house and curios. The latter are not divided, but go with the house to the son whom the father regards as being the “smartest.” Formal adoption is practised. Pipichari is an adopted son, and is likely to succeed to Benri’s property to the exclusion of his own children. I cannot get at the word which is translated “smartness,” but I understand it as meaning general capacity. The chief, as I have mentioned before, is allowed three wives among the mountain Ainos, otherwise authority seems to be his only privilege.

The Ainos have a singular dread of snakes. Even their bravest fly from them. One man says that it is because they know of no cure for their bite; but there is something more than this, for they flee from snakes which they know to be harmless.

They have an equal dread of their dead. Death seems to them very specially “the shadow fear’d of man.” When it comes, which it usually does from bronchitis in old age, the corpse is dressed in its best clothing, and laid upon a shelf for from one to three days. In the case of a woman her ornaments are buried with her, and in that of a man his knife and sake-stick, and, if he were a smoker, his smoking apparatus. The corpse is sewn up with these things in a mat, and, being slung on poles, is carried to a solitary grave, where it is laid in a recumbent position. Nothing will induce an Aino to go near a grave. Even if a valuable bird or animal falls near one, he will not go to pick it up. A vague dread is for ever associated with the departed, and no dream of Paradise ever lights for the Aino the “Stygian shades.”

Benri is, for an Aino, intelligent. Two years ago Mr. Dening of Hakodate came up here and told him that there was but one God who made us all, to which the shrewd old man replied, “If the God who made you made us, how is it that you are so different — you so rich, we so poor?” On asking him about the magnificent pieces of lacquer and inlaying which adorn his curio shelf, he said that they were his father’s, grandfather’s, and great-grandfather’s at least, and he thinks they were gifts from the daimiyo of Matsumae soon after the conquest of Yezo. He is a grand-looking man, in spite of the havoc wrought by his intemperate habits. There is plenty of room in the house, and this morning, when I asked him to show me the use of the spear, he looked a truly magnificent savage, stepping well back with the spear in rest, and then springing forward for the attack, his arms and legs turning into iron, the big muscles standing out in knots, his frame quivering with excitement, the thick hair falling back in masses from his brow, and the fire of the chase in his eye. I trembled for my boy, who was the object of the imaginary onslaught, the passion of sport was so admirably acted.

As I write, seven of the older men are sitting by the fire. Their grey beards fall to their waists in rippled masses, and the slight baldness of age not only gives them a singularly venerable appearance, but enhances the beauty of their lofty brows. I took a rough sketch of one of the handsomest, and, showing it to him, asked if he would have it, but instead of being amused or pleased he showed symptoms of fear, and asked me to burn it, saying it would bring him bad luck and he should die. However, Ito pacified him, and he accepted it, after a Chinese character, which is understood to mean good luck, had been written upon it; but all the others begged me not to “make pictures” of them, except Pipichari, who lies at my feet like a staghound.

The profusion of black hair, and a curious intensity about their eyes, coupled with the hairy limbs and singularly vigorous physique, give them a formidably savage appearance; but the smile, full of “sweetness and light,” in which both eyes and mouth bear part, and the low, musical voice, softer and sweeter than anything I have previously heard, make me at times forget that they are savages at all. The venerable look of these old men harmonises with the singular dignity and courtesy of their manners, but as I look at the grand heads, and reflect that the Ainos have never shown any capacity, and are merely adult children, they seem to suggest water on the brain rather than intellect. I am more and more convinced that the expression of their faces is European. It is truthful, straightforward, manly, but both it and the tone of voice are strongly tinged with pathos.

Before these elders Benri asked me, in a severe tone, if I had been annoyed in any way during his absence. He feared, he said, that the young men and the women would crowd about me rudely. I made a complimentary speech in return, and all the ancient hands were waved, and the venerable beards were stroked in acknowledgment.

These Ainos, doubtless, stand high among uncivilised peoples. They are, however, as completely irreclaimable as the wildest of nomad tribes, and contact with civilisation, where it exists, only debases them. Several young Ainos were sent to Tokiyo, and educated and trained in various ways, but as soon as they returned to Yezo they relapsed into savagery, retaining nothing but a knowledge of Japanese. They are charming in many ways, but make one sad, too, by their stupidity, apathy, and hopelessness, and all the sadder that their numbers appear to be again increasing; and as their physique is very fine, there does not appear to be a prospect of the race dying out at present.

They are certainly superior to many aborigines, as they have an approach to domestic life. They have one word for HOUSE, and another for HOME, and one word for husband approaches very nearly to house-band. Truth is of value in their eyes, and this in itself raises them above some peoples. Infanticide is unknown, and aged parents receive filial reverence, kindness, and support, while in their social and domestic relations there is much that is praiseworthy.

I must conclude this letter abruptly, as the horses are waiting, and I must cross the rivers, if possible, before the bursting of an impending storm.

I. L. B.

21 Yoshitsune is the most popular hero of Japanese history, and the special favourite of boys. He was the brother of Yoritomo, who was appointed by the Mikado in 1192 Sei-i Tai Shogun (barbarian-subjugating great general) for his victories, and was the first of that series of great Shoguns whom our European notions distorted into “Temporal Emperors” of Japan. Yoshitsune, to whom the real honour of these victories belonged, became the object of the jealousy and hatred of his brother, and was hunted from province to province, till, according to popular belief, he committed hara-kiri, after killing his wife and children, and his head, preserved in sake, was sent to his brother at Kamakura. Scholars, however, are not agreed as to the manner, period, or scene of his death. Many believe that he escaped to Yezo and lived among the Ainos for many years, dying among them at the close of the twelfth century. None believe this more firmly than the Ainos themselves, who assert that he taught their fathers the arts of civilisation, with letters and numbers, and gave them righteous laws, and he is worshipped by many of them under a name which signifies Master of the Law. I have been told by old men in Biratori, Usu, and Lebunge, that a later Japanese conqueror carried away the books in which the arts were written, and that since his time the arts themselves have been lost, and the Ainos have fallen into their present condition! On asking why the Ainos do not make vessels of iron and clay as well as knives and spears, the invariable answer is, “The Japanese took away the books.”

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