The Ainu (“eye-new”) people’s roots are sunk deep in the history of the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido. They may be distantly related to the Japanese people, but their customs and culture more closely resemble those of other northern Pacific Rim groups. Bear ceremonialism is common among subarctic people, and is the defining ritual of traditional Ainu culture. This bear skull and attached ceremonial objects are among the Logan Museum’s collection of 68 Ainu pieces. These were among objects from Hokkaido that anthropologist Frederick Starr acquired in 1911.
The Ainu world-view is based on their relationship with nature. Because they depended on hunting, gathering, and gardening to survive, the Ainu saw a need to balance their own needs with those of the gods that provided for them. The spirits they saw in every person, plant, animal, and thing had their own unique powers, and the Ainus’ role was to help maintain harmony through proper and sincere actions and ceremonies. The Ainu believe that gods and humans have responsibilities to one another, and the order and prosperity of the world depend on fulfilling these responsibilities. The mountain god takes the form of the bear and gives the Ainu the gifts of fur, meat, claws, and teeth. The Ainu repay the debt with a ceremonial feast and gifts of sake, dried salmon, and sacred shaved sticks called inaw. These gifts, and tales of how much respect was given, return with the bear’s spirit to be shared with the other gods who are then convinced to visit the human world with gifts of their own.
This ceremony in which the spirit of a bear is returned to the god world is called iyomante. For many non-Ainu people this ceremony is troubling because it involves the killing of a captive bear. But the Ainus’ intent is to honor the bear and fulfill their part of a cycle of rebirth required and desired by the gods themselves. It is not cruelty but kindness and respect that the Ainu desire to show with the iyomante. At the conclusion of the ceremony, the bear’s head is then mounted on a forked stick and placed on a special altar that each family keeps. Mounted skulls like this one are important features of a family’s altar.
In 1868 the Japanese government instituted policies of Japanization that stripped the Ainu of access to the land and resources, forced relocations, and suppressed language and other cultural traditions. To be Ainu in Japan became a shameful liability. In 1997 a law was passed to protect and promote Ainu culture; however, it was only in 2008 that the Ainu were legally recognized as an indigenous people with a distinct language, religion, and culture. Today an estimated 25,000 to 50,000 Ainu live on Hokkaido. They still face discrimination by the Japanese majority, but understanding of their unique life and spirit is rising both in Japan and around the world.
You can learn more about the interesting relationships people around the world have with animals at the Logan’s exhibit, Good to Think With: Animals in Culture which runs through the end of the semester in the Shaw Gallery on the second floor of the Logan Museum of Anthropology.