Friday, October 15, 2010

From a Green World (Kayano Shigeru)

About all I knew about this book when I bought it was what was implied in the title: Our Land Was a Forest: An Ainu Memoir. The author, Kayano Shigeru, turns out to have been an extraordinary individual, and his modest autobiography, written in Japanese and translated by Kyoko and Lili Selden, is well worth reading.

Born in 1926 in the tiny village of Nibutani on the northern Japanese island of Hokkaidō, Kayano grew up amid dire poverty and severe social discrimination, left school at 15, and supported himself for many years by felling trees in the island's forests, yet somehow, inspired by a tireless passion to preserve the artifacts and culture of his people, before his death in 2006 he wrote or compiled scores of books, founded a number of schools and at least one museum, and became the first member of his nation to serve in the Japanese Diet. Throughout his life, as both an amateur scholar and an activist, he struggled to defend the rights and and record the traditions of the people who once held sway over the whole extent of the island they call Ainu Mosir as well as in the Kurile Islands and Sakhalin to the north.

Kayano's memoir beautifully evokes the pride, the sadness, and the occasional bitterness of an ancient people struggling to survive.
The Ainu have not intentionally forgotten their culture and their language. It is the modern Japanese state that, from the Meiji era on, usurped our land, destroyed our culture, and deprived us of our language under the euphemism of assimilation. In the space of a mere 100 years, they nearly decimated the Ainu culture and language that had taken tens of thousands of years to come into being on this earth.
Though the count of the remaining Ainu population is disputed, the number of speakers of the language has dwindled to the point that its continued existence as a living tongue is unlikely. Kayano's efforts, and those of his fellow Ainu and a handful of scholars from outside, came not a moment too soon.

1 comment:

dosankodebbie said...

I was glad to read your review of this book, and glad to see that Kayano's memoir continues to touch hearts and minds beyond the narrow world of Ainu scholars. I, along with my colleagues at Project Uepeker, were involved in translating two of his Ainu storybooks targeted to children. The Ainu, a story of Japan's original people (Tuttle Publishing, 2003)and The Ainu and the Fox (RIC Publications, 2006). They are both great for younger readers, though just as engaging for us old rusty types. :D