Ainu folklore gains international audience

A priceless record of Ainu culture finds an international audience nearly 100 years after it was first published. “Ainu Shinyoshu”, or “Collection of Ainu Divine Songs”, compiled by author Chiri Yukie, has recently been translated into dozens of languages.

‘Eternal Jewel’

The compilation, first published in 1923, contains 13 mythological stories called “yukar” which belong to the indigenous Ainu culture of Japan. They were transcribed by Chiri when she was a teenager. The stories were shared in song form by her grandmother, with whom she lived in Hokkaido.

Chiri died aged just 19, but not before leaving an indelible contribution to the understanding and appreciation of her people’s beliefs. Because the Ainu had no written language, she used the Roman alphabet to express the sounds with Japanese translations attached in parallel.

The book was written at a time when Ainu culture was rapidly disappearing due to the Japanese government‘s assimilation policy. It was the first book written by an Ainu and gave insight into their unique view of nature. Dr Kindaichi Kyosuke, a linguist who encouraged Chiri, described the work as an “eternal gem”.

Chiri Yukie

Chiri was born in the city of Noboribetsu, Hokkaido, in 1903. Separated from her parents at the age of six, Chiri lived with her grandmother and aunt in Asahikawa.

She was forced to learn the Japanese language at school but spoke an Ainu dialect at home. Linguist Kindaichi met her when he visited the house to talk to Chiri’s grandmother. He suggested that she collect her grandmother’s stories in book form.

Chiri took his advice and put the stories down on paper. But shortly before her work could be published, she died of heart disease.

A museum in memory of Chiri

A museum in Chiri’s hometown celebrates his achievements. It was built 12 years ago with donations from all over Japan.

His diaries and letters to his parents are on display. Local volunteers are in charge of daily operations.

Kanezaki Shigeya
Kanezaki Shigeya

The director of the museum is Kanezaki Shigeya. The 76-year-old took over from Chiri’s niece, Yokoyama Mutsumi, who died of illness six years ago.

Kanezaki’s initial interest was the Jomon period, which spanned 10,000 years in Japan around 13,000 years ago, but he began to study the Ainu people after learning that their feelings and view of nature had been transmitted by the people of that time. The retired primary school director has been involved in the management of the museum since its creation.

“I am truly moved by the life of Chiri Yukie, who embraced the government’s discriminatory assimilation policy as a proud Ainu,” Kanezaki said. “At a time when the Ainu were deprived of their voice, his transcription of their narrative into text must have been a huge encouragement to his people. Learning about his life is a great inspiration to many people.”

Kanezaki thinks the preface Chiri wrote in her book is key to understanding her thoughts: “In the past, this spacious Hokkaido was our ancestors’ world of freedom,” she writes.

Chiri expresses her anxiety and grief over the loss of her people’s life and language: “The many words that our beloved ancestors used to express their thoughts to each other in their daily lives, the many words magnificent and centuries-old which they passed over us, must these also disappear with all the weak who have lost their resolve and perish? Oh, that would be too pitiful, too painful a separation.

Feelings that resonate globally

Chiri’s lyrics transcend national borders and have recently been translated into many languages. The renewed interest began three years ago when a Chinese student studying in Hokkaido translated the preface into Chinese.

The Chiri Yukie Museum posted an online request for the passage to be translated into other languages.

Several students and researchers responded. The words have now been translated into 30 languages, including English, French, Swahili and Basque.

Gustavo Beade
Gustavo Beade

Gustavo Beade, who teaches Japanese literature at an Argentinian university, translated the preface into Spanish in 2019 and finished the entire book in April last year.

He first discovered “Ainu Shinyoshu” while traveling in Japan. He says he was immediately captivated by the beauty of the expressions and their relevance to the present.

“The preface expresses the grief and desolation felt by Chiri,” says the 56-year-old academic. “What is written here about the loss of culture, language and narratives in the changing world is a timely issue. It is relevant to the indigenous peoples of Argentina. Chiri’s wishes for recognition to more people the existence of his people can be shared across eras and national borders.”

A century since the death of Chiri

Beade notes with surprise that Chiri’s work is little known in Japan. When he was in the Tokyo area, he visited major bookstores looking for a copy of “Ainu Shinyoshu”. But no one he spoke to had heard of the title or its author.

“Ainu Shinyoshu” is a great cultural and literary asset,” he says. “I didn’t expect so few Japanese people to know such an important literary work.”

Gustavo Beade

Translations of Chiri’s preface are on display at the museum, along with versions of his book in English and German. Kanezaki hopes many people will visit him to mark the 100th anniversary of the author’s death.

“Chiri Yukie expresses in her own words her righteous wishes to live her life with dignity as an Ainu,” explains the museum director. “I think his words resonate with many people, regardless of nationality, because they are worth listening to.

“On the other hand, I have to point out that her wishes have yet to come true, even after 100 years. That’s why I wish a lot more people knew her and knew her thoughts.”