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  • Possibilities of Reality, Variety of Versions:The Historical Consciousness of Ainu Folktales
  • Minako Sakata (bio)


The Ainu, the indigenous people in Japan, have historically had their own language, the Ainu language, and a rich repertoire of oral literature. However, as a result of assimilation policy since the late nineteenth century, most of the Ainu in contemporary Japan are Japanese speakers and do not use their ancestral language.1 Thus Ainu oral literature now exists in the form of written texts or audio recordings. Most of these texts have been recorded by Japanese scholars or Ainu practitioners since the early twentieth century.2 They are fixed as texts but still show us many different versions of the same tales, told by many different informants until recently in real oral tradition.

In this article, I illustrate how a variety of versions of Ainu oral literature can be read, and what the relationships are between one version and the others. To consider these topics, the idea of traditional referentiality that John Miles Foley (1991) has proposed is quite helpful: each story or performance has an immanent context, which storytellers and audiences share. Traditional phraseology, motifs, or narrative patterns ubiquitous in a tradition summon other stories or performances, and in doing so these cues help the audience to access the implicit whole, "ever-immanent tradition." On the other hand, the strategies of reference are diverse, depending on the culture. In Ainu oral tradition, for instance, genre-dependency remains an open question, as will be discussed later.

To read the Ainu oral tradition in the context of its traditional referentiality, and among many themes appearing in Ainu oral literature, I focus on uymam, the trade between the Ainu and the Wajin, ethnic Japanese. Although Ainu oral tradition does not indicate the exact era of what happens in tales, according to historical discourse it is said that trade between the Ainu and the Wajin continued from the fourteenth century to the mid-nineteenth century. Most of the stories mentioned in this article were recorded in the twentieth century, when the public language of the Ainu had converted to Japanese and trade was not conducted in everyday life. Therefore, in the time of textualizing, Ainu oral literature was a sort of medium through which the modern Ainu got to know what the past was like. In short, it was their history (Sakata 2005). So at the end of this article I will mention their historical consciousness, which can be seen in their oral literature. This consciousness is different from history as modern scholarship, however. It amounts to their mode of configuring and transmitting the past.

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Traditional territories of the Ainu. Redrawn from the map in Ainu Minzoku Hakubutsukan (1999:3).

The Ainu oral literature discussed in this article consists of the traditions of the Hokkaido Ainu. While they used to live in the region consisting of present-day southern Sakhalin, the Kuril Islands, Hokkaido, and Aomori prefecture (northern Honshu) (see the map above), they now live mostly in Hokkaido as a result of an intricate historical process.3 These Ainu in the four areas above had different dialects, cultures, customs, and histories. However, records of traditions we can access today are chiefly attributed to the Hokkaido Ainu and the Sakhalin Ainu.

Genres of Ainu Oral Literature

Although Ainu oral tradition includes all aspects of verbal art and activity in Ainu life and culture in the days before they were annexed to Japan in the late nineteenth century, prominent genres include the epic (yukar or sakorpe), the myth (kamuy yukar), and the folktale (uwepeker or tuytak). These categories are distinguished mainly by their form. Both the epic and the myth consist of verse sung to melodies, distinguished by the latter having refrains constantly repeated before every verse. On the other hand, the folktale is prose. It is thought that these modes of performance correlate more or less in terms of their contents. The epic consists of stories of heroes who are human beings but also have supernatural power, and the focus is war against enemies. The myth consists of tales of gods (kamuy). In Ainu cosmology, kamuy are non-human...

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