Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Among the Ainu

In his preface to Ainu: Creed and Cult, B. Z. Seligman has this to say about the author:
Neil Gordon Munro was born in Edinburgh in 1863, where he was educated and eventually studied medicine. Soon after qualifying he began to travel in the Far East, first in India and later in Japan. In 1893 he became director of the General Hospital in Yokohama, and, although he returned to Europe occasionally, from that time until his death he made Japan his home. He became interested in Japanese prehistory, and it was during his many visits to Hokkaido towards the end of last century and in the first two decades of this century that he met the Ainu.
The eventual posthumous publication of Munro's work on the Ainu is a bit of a tale in itself. The notes, specimens and photographs he had compiled during his researches were destroyed in the earthquake of 1923. Nine years later, after Munro had resettled more or less permanently to Nibutani in Hokkaido, has house burned down, again destroying all his materials except, this time, his notes on the Ainu, which he was able to rescue. His health and financial situation declined, though he was able to obtain grants from the Rockefeller Foundation, the Royal Society, and other institutions to continue his work.

Munro compiled a brief documentary film about the Ainu Bear Ceremony, which survives though I have not seen it; much other footage is said to be lost. In 1938 he mailed to Seligman the partial manuscript of a work he planned to eventually publish under the title of Ainu Past and Present. When World War II began Munro remained in Japan, where he died in 1942. Subsequent contact with his Japanese widow after the war led to a few more papers, but not enough to encompass the work as Munro had envisioned it. The surviving manuscript material was published with the assistance of Seligman and of the anthropologist Hitoshi Watanabe, in 1963 by Columbia University Press in the US and Routledge and Kegan Paul in the UK. Its revised title indicates its narrower scope.

Most of the book as published is devoted to the rich religious and ceremonial life of the Ainu. The Ainu were animists in the fullest sense; everything, every plant, animal, every pebble, was possessed by some kind of power or spirit. One class of these were the kamui, a word that apparently is similar in meaning to the kami of Japanese Shinto though whether the words are cognate I don't know. These were deities both great and small; Munro classifies them as follows:
1. Remote and traditional kamui.
2. Familiar or accessible and trustworthy kamui.
3. Subsidiary kamui.
4. Theriomorphic kamui.
5. Spirit helpers and personal kamui.
6. Mischievous and malicious kamui.
7. Kamui of pestilence.
8. Things of unutterable horror.
Notable among this last, ominous sounding class, according to Munro, was a certain caterpillar, known in the Ainu language as ashtoma ikombap. Though evidently harmless, this insect was regarded by the Ainu, young and old, with pathological dread; Munro surmises, for reasons that I don't quite follow, that they associated it with their traditional enemies and conquerors the Japanese.

Ainu: Creed and Cult is illustrated with numerous photographs as well as several drawings. Many of the photos present what was one of the more interesting aspects of Ainu religion, the effigies or offerings know as inau. These were carved sticks, figurative only in a very schematic way but fashioned according to a rigorous symbolism depending on the particular deity they were supposed to represent or to propitiate. Their classification is highly complex. Their meaning might depend on the kind and number of curled shavings that were left dangling by the carver; the shavings themselves, detached, bore their own significance.

The Ainu had no written language of their own, though they apparently had a rich oral literature, some of which has been preserved. Their language, which is an isolate not related to Japanese, now hovers on the verge of extinction, and much of their traditional culture has been lost. To Munro, and a handful of other early anthropologists, we owe an enormous debt for documenting something of the fullness of that unique and ancient culture before it gave way to the modern world.

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