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Ainu Spirits Singing: The Living World of Chiri Yukie’s by Ainu Shin’yōshū (review)

From: The Journal of Japanese Studies
Volume 39, Number 1, Winter 2013
pp. 216-221 | 10.1353/jjs.2013.0009

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While its title may lead potential readers to think it is merely a collection of spirit songs, Sarah Strong’s book is much more than a translation of Chiri Yukie’s songs of spirits in the Ainu language. It places both Yukie and her collection of Kamuyukar chants in the context of her family, surroundings, natural world, beliefs, traditions, and worldviews which nurtured this very special young Ainu woman who died at the age of 19.

Growing up in Horobetsu in Hokkaido, Yukie was baptized as a baby because most of her family had converted to Christianity a generation or two earlier. Her mother, Nami, and her aunt, Kannari Matsu, served as “Bible women” for the British Church Missionary Society. At an early age, Yukie was sent to live with her grandmother, who was also a Christian and a monolingual Ainu speaker famous for her skills as a narrator of Ainu oral literature. From her grandmother, Yukie picked up her knowledge of stories, songs, and epics, and later when she and her grandmother moved to live with her Aunt Matsu near Asahikawa, she went to school and learned to read and write in Japanese. In Sunday school she also learned to read the roman letters used by the missionary John Batchelor in his Ainu translations of the Bible, the Prayer Book, and psalms. Despite discrimination and isolation, Yukie managed to finish secondary school and to become an exceptionally well-educated and cultured young woman at a time when girls—especially Ainu girls—did not often get beyond basic education.

Yukie’s encounter with a Japanese literary scholar from Tokyo Imperial University, Kindaichi Kyōsuke, in the summer of 1918 was a decisive event in her life. Kindaichi was impressed with her skills and education, and he persuaded Yukie that she had a mission in life, namely, to write down and translate the oral literature of her people. Yukie’s Aunt Matsu was Kindai chi’s main informant for his nine volumes of Ainu epics with Japanese translations, Ainu jojishi yūkara shū.1 In Yukie, Kindaichi may have seen an even more valuable informant, since she was much better educated than her aunt. Unfortunately, Yukie’s early death prevented Kindaichi from recording what she had learned.

Kindaichi dedicated much of his life to the written preservation of Ainu oral literature, and while his motives for preserving the records of the Ainu culture were essentially rooted in a colonial outlook and a belief that the study of Ainu might lead to finding the origin of the Japanese language, his work means that a wealth of Ainu oral literature is still available to us today. Kindaichi was convinced that the Ainu culture was about to disappear. He seems to have been able to appeal to Yukie’s pride not only in possessing a unique treasure of knowledge but also in having the skills to make it available to the non-Ainu world, despite her initial difficulties in transcribing the Ainu language into the roman alphabet. He felt her skills would be useful in figuring out how best to transcribe the Ainu language. Kindaichi was also instrumental in getting Yukie’s brother, Mashiho, into the English program at Tokyo Imperial University, and Mashiho later became an eminent linguist of the Ainu language.

At the age of 18, Yukie moved to Tokyo to stay at Kindaichi’s home. She was a nanny for his children and helped with sewing, but most of all she was there to aid him in his Ainu studies and she received English lessons in return. However, within the year, her weak heart caused her to fall ill, and she died in September 1922, around the time her first collection of Ainu chants was published.

Sarah Strong presents a thorough and detailed introduction of both the author and the world in which she lived, before offering the chants themselves. When one finally reaches the chants, the enjoyment is truly enriched by what one has learned through the preceding 200 pages.

Chapters 2–5 provide the necessary setting for the chants by describing the landscape of southern Hokkaido and its fauna and flora in relation to their importance for the sustainability...



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