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Ainu Spirits Singing

The Living World of Chiri Yukie’s Ainu Shin’yōshū

Sarah M. Strong

Publication Year: 2011

Indigenous peoples throughout the globe are custodians of a unique, priceless, and increasingly imperiled legacy of oral lore. Among them the Ainu, a people native to northeastern Asia, stand out for the exceptional scope and richness of their oral performance traditions. Yet despite this cultural wealth, nothing has appeared in English on the subject in over thirty years. Sarah Strong’s Ainu Spirits Singing breaks this decades-long silence with a nuanced study and English translation of Chiri Yukie’s Ainu Shin’yoshu, the first written transcription of Ainu oral narratives by an ethnic Ainu.

The thirteen narratives in Chiri’s collection belong to the genre known as kamui yukar, said to be the most ancient performance form in the vast Ainu repertoire. In it, animals (and sometimes plants or other natural phenomena)—all regarded as spiritual beings (kamui) within the animate Ainu world—assume the role of narrator and tell stories about themselves. The first-person speakers include imposing animals such as the revered orca, the Hokkaido wolf, and Blakiston’s fish owl, as well as the more “humble” Hokkaido brown frog, snowshoe hare, and pearl mussel. Each has its own story and own signature refrain.

Strong provides readers with an intimate and perceptive view of this extraordinary text. Along with critical contextual information about traditional Ainu society and its cultural assumptions, she brings forward pertinent information on the geography and natural history of the coastal southwestern Hokkaido region where the stories were originally performed. The result is a rich fusion of knowledge that allows the reader to feel at home within the animistic frame of reference of the narratives.

Strong’s study also offers the first extended biography of Chiri Yukie (1903-1922) in English. The story of her life, and her untimely death at age nineteen, makes clear the harsh consequences for Chiri and her fellow Ainu of the Japanese colonization of Hokkaido and the Meiji and Taisho governments’ policies of assimilation. Chiri’s receipt of the narratives in the Horobetsu dialect from her grandmother and aunt (both traditional performers) and the fact that no native speakers of that dialect survive today make her work all the more significant. The book concludes with a full, integral translation of the text.

Published by: University of Hawai'i Press


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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix-xiv

I was introduced to the life of the Ainu writer Chiri Yukie (1903–1922) and to her collection of Ainu chants of spiritual beings, the Ainu shin’yōshū, rather abruptly on an occasion that I remember well and in a manner that made these topics deeply intriguing to me. Professor Andō Toshihiko, a specialist in environmental education, had kindly agreed to give a guest ...

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pp. xv-xvi

Over the ten years that I have worked on this project I have been generously helped by many people and institutions. In Noboribetsu special thanks are due to Chiri Yukie’s niece, Ms. Yokoyama Mutsumi, of the Chiri Shinsha, and her husband, the artist Mr. Yokoyama Takao, who have unfailingly greeted my visits with a smile and given invaluable assistance ...

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Chapter 1: Chiri Yukie and the Origins of the Ainu Shin’yōshū

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pp. 1-44

On a page of a small, paperbound notebook, now fragile with age and carefully preserved in the home of Yokoyama Mutsumi in Noboribetsu, Japan, there are a set of phrases—not sentences, but pieces of sentence— written in a quick, cursive Japanese hand. A glance at the text suggests that the phrases are fragments of the writer’s private thoughts, never intended ...

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Chapter 2: The Living World of the Ainu Shin’yōshū

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pp. 45-80

The thirteen kamui yukar chants recorded in written form in the Ainu shin’yōshū were each iterations of oral traditions that had been passed on in the Horobetsu dialect in what Yukie dreamed of as an unending river of song flowing to her generation from a long-distant past. In many ways these chants belong to the Noboribetsu area, its landscape, animals, and ...

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Chapter 3: The Ainu Social Landscape

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pp. 81-103

As a culture based primarily on hunting, fishing, and gathering, the traditional Ainu of Horobetsu, as we have seen, lived in intimate relationship with the natural world (including its spiritual dimensions). Not surprisingly, their social structures reflect this close engagement. In traditional society, norms for social interaction involved both human-human ...

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Chapter 4: Weighty Animal Spirits and Important Game Animals

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pp. 105-138

This and the following chapter look closely at each of the thirteen kamui yukar of the Ainu shin’yōshū and at the animal spirits whose story is told in them. As a matter of convenience, the kamui yukar are referred to by the English word “chant” and numbered in the order in which they appear in the volume edited and translated by Chiri Yukie. In eleven of ...

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Chapter 5: Symbolic and Ordinary Animal Spirits

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pp. 139-192

In this chapter I examine the remaining two categories of animal kamui in the Ainu shin’yōshū, those I have called symbolic and those that the Ainu call light or ordinary animal spirits. As in chapter 4, for each section I first discuss the pertinent animals in both their somatic and spiritual dimensions before moving on to an examination of key features of each ...

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Chapter 6: Chiri Yukie’s Ainu Shin’yōshū

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pp. 193-248

These translations are based on the facsimile edition of the 1926 version of the Ainu shin’yōshū (Collection of Ainu chants of spiritual beings) (Chiri Y. 1976). In that edition Chiri Yukie gives the Ainu text and her Japanese translation on facing pages. Each line of the Ainu text includes, on average, three phrases of the sung chant. In the transliterated Ainu ...


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pp. 249-288

Works Cited

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pp. 289-300


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pp. 301-314

E-ISBN-13: 9780824860127
Print-ISBN-13: 9780824835125

Publication Year: 2011