Poetry Friday: The Oral Tradition of the Ainu

The Ainu are the indigenous people of northern Japan.  I have been reading about them lately through books like Kayano Shigeru’s The Ainu (Tuttle Publishing, 2004).  Kayano Shigeru, who died in 2006, was himself an Ainu and worked tirelessly to preserve and disseminate elements of Ainu culture to the world.

The Ainu had an oral tradition of tale-telling and one of their oral tales or songs known as kamuy yukar is translated into English by Kyoko Selden and given here on the website of the Asia Pacific Journal: Japan Focus.  As typical of many oral tales, it is presented as poetry.  As it explains on the website, kamuy yukar are songs of gods and demi-gods.  This particular story is of the wind goddess, Pitatakamuy and her encounter with the demi-god Okikurumi.    It is a revealing tale insofar as it shows how the Ainu relate to their deities — they relate to their gods not just with reverence, awe and respect but they also challenge and chastise the gods for wanton and destructive behaviour!  I remember being surprised by that when I read The Song of the Cicada by Shizue Ukaji, another Ainu writer and storyteller.  The old woman swept away in the typhoon gets angry at the goddess who has caused the terrible typhoon much like the demi-god Okikurumi becomes angry with Pitatakamuy.

The Ainu have a rich oral tradition of poetic tale-telling, but little of it has been translated into English.  However, this is slowly changing with the efforts of a variety of scholars and students of the culture.  I’ve discovered a wonderful blog called Project Uepeker: Introducing the Ainu Oral Tradition to the English-Speaking World that is chock full of information about Ainu culture in English.   In fact, it was at this blog that I discovered a new book called Ainu Spirits Singing: The Living World of Chiri Yukie’s Ainu Shin’yoshu by Sarah Strong (University of Hawaii Press, 2011), a study and translation of Ainu kamuy yukar as originally translated into Japanese by Ainu writer Chiri Yukie.  I hope more developments like this keep happening and that word gets around about the oral storytelling traditions of this indigenous people of northern Japan.

Poetry Friday this week is hosted by Heidi at My Juicy Little Universe.


9 Responses to “Poetry Friday: The Oral Tradition of the Ainu”

  1. Heidi Mordhorst Says:

    So interesting! The challenging and chastising remind of the Greeks’ way with their gods, and I think that’s a healthy way to regard any deities. : ) Thanks for stopping by mjlu today.

  2. Maria Horvath Says:

    This is the first time I have heard about the Ainu. It’s fascinating how a culture of an oral tradition passes down its stories and literature through the form of poetry. Poetry is such a beautiful tool of the memory.

    Thank you for this.

  3. Deborah Davidson (dosankodebbie) Says:

    Thank you, Sally, for linking your post to our Project Uepeker blog. Some cool things will be reported on in the next few months, including the publication of more of my translations of Ainu folk tales. We love feedback, so please visit us again and again and again! I will include a link to your post in my next Project Uepeker blog update. : )

  4. Joyce Ray Says:

    Sally, You have offered a rich feast today and I am thankful! I volunteered in Japan part of last year and am interested in the Ainu culture. I have bookmarked the links and know I will return. I could not help thinking of last year’s earthquake and tsunami as I read about Pitatakamuy and Okikurumi. Ainu Spirits Singing looks like a book I want to see. Thank you for your post.

  5. Sally Says:

    Hi everyone, thanks for leaving your comments. And Debbie, I look forward to checking in with Project Uepeker now and again to learn more about the Ainu. Let me know when you link to my post! Joyce, do check out Project Uepeker for more information on the Ainu. It’s a rich and wonderful resource.

  6. Myra from GatheringBooks Says:

    Hi Sally, I always enjoy dropping by and learning so many things from your posts. As fascinated as I am about oral storytelling, I haven’t heard of this one yet – I am particularly interested in the Asian tradition of oral storytelling (an art which, we all lament, is lost and dying) – I shall check out these books from our libraries here. :)

  7. Annie Donwerth Chikamatsu Says:

    Wow! Great post. So much to look into. Thanks for all the links!

  8. Mary Lee Says:

    Fascinating! I had never considered that there would be indiginous people in Japan. I don’t know why that never occurred to me, but thanks for the education!

  9. Deborah Davidson (dosankodebbie) Says:

    I’ve updated the Project Uepeker blog with an introduction and link to this post. http://projectuepeker.blogspot.com/2011/12/more-blogs-of-interest-paper-tigers.html