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.