Poetry Friday: The Oral Tradition of the Ainu

Friday, November 25th, 2011

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.

Poetry Friday: Postcard from Japan

Friday, May 27th, 2011

 It’s been awhile since I’ve done a Poetry Friday post, but then I’ve been away for awhile from my home digs in Canada.  Right now I’m in Japan for a couple of months — however, being here hasn’t kept me away from good books for children in English as there are plenty of such books to be had here.  One great short little book I was introduced to by mothers in a reading group for my daughter’s elementary school (see my Postcard for Japan post on this group) was this book A Friend by Japanese poet, Tanikawa Shuntaro (Trans. by Arthur Binard, illus. by Wada Makoto, published by  Tamagawa University Press, 2004.)    The original edition (Tomodachi) in Japanese contains pithy sayings by Tanikawa about the nature of friendship like “A friend is someone you think about even when you’re not together” or “Even if you speak different languages, a friend is a friend.”  The simple and  plain illustrations of Wada Makoto supplement the statements nicely.  At the end of the book, the statements philosophically expand their horizons.  For example, by showing a photograph of a disabled child in a wheelchair, the book asks “A friend might be someone you  haven’t yet met.  How can you lend a hand to this friend?”  or showing a child in a tent-city squatting in the sand, the book asks “Is there anything you can do to help a friend faraway?”  The book ends with a poem by Tanikawa on the nature of friendship and on how it essentially removes one’s notion of self-centeredness to create an awareness of the other in a way that is truly compassionate.  I enjoyed reading this book aloud to both my children — teenager and child alike — and found them nodding in agreement to many of the statements.  The woman who lent the book to me  told me she read the Japanese version to her daughter when she was in elementary school, and then bought the English version for her when she was in junior high school and just beginning to learn English.   Both books provide thoughtful meditations on the nature of friendship that are not always so obvious but true nontheless — it was certainly not surprising to me that it was penned by one of Japan’s more well known contemporary poets, Tanikawa Shuntaro.

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