Transmitting the Ainu wisdom

“Now that I have learned the culture of the Ainu, I understand the meaning of beating salmon with an inaw. I'm proud of that.” Ikuo Yamamaru, Director of the Lore Divion at the Ainu Museum in Shiraoi

"When I was young, my father often took me salmon fishing on a boat. I remember him hitting the salmon on the head with a wooden stick. He did not explain why, nor did I ask the meaning of it. I just figured that's how things were done.

Thinking back on it now, it was part of a traditional ceremony performed to send the soul of a salmon to the gods, and the stick he used was an inaw (sacred shaved stick) that was used in ceremonies," recalled Ikuo Yamamaru, chief of the museum's personnel to transmit and preserve the Ainu culture at the Ainu Folk Museum in Shiraoi. "Now that I have learned the culture of the Ainu, I understand the meaning of beating salmon with an inaw. I'm proud of that."

Yamamaru was born in 1955 in a little Ainu fishing village called Shiraoi in southern Hokkaido. Since most of the children around were Ainu, he did not experience discrimination. As the youngest of eight siblings, he was a humble and self-effacing person. He does not remember being particularly discriminated. His father had never told him "Do this and that because you are an Ainu". He went to university in Sapporo and then found a job at a major fishing company in the same city through his father's network. However, he found his introversive character unsuitable for a company worker. In 1986 he returned to Shiraoi, taking up his friend's offer, who was in a construction company, and eventually became a professional ferro-concrete handler.

In winter of 1996, there was an incident by which a poro-chise (big thatched-roof house) in the museum was burned down by a fire. As he had no job contract then, he decided to help reconstruct the poro-chise as a part-time carpenter.

The construction of a poro-chise starts and ends with a ceremony. It was a totally new experience for him who was not particularly interested in the Ainu tradition and culture. At first they held a ceremony to decide where the new poro-chise should be built. It was be unthinkable to use the same spot where the detestable fire happened. While humans were to be blamed for the fire incident, the ceremony began with complaints to kamuy (gods), saying "Oh gods and deities, why didn't you tell us it was not a good place?" while stamping their feet on the ground. The fire occurred by human misconduct; man is to be blamed. They prayed by saying "We will offer a lot of inaw. Please tell us a good place to build a poro-chise." Yamamaru was amazed that humans grumbled at gods and deities. Gods are not absolute beings.

Following the decision on the construction site, they discussed the direction of the poro-chise. A window faced east, the exit was towards the west, and a hearth was located in the middle because kamuy live in the east. Yamamaru understood this. It allowed kamuy to easily enter and leave. The stories ekashi (elders) told him during the ceremonies held as many as twenty times were all rational. Yamamaru became to feel that the culture of devoting one's life to kamuy is "significant and wonderful." He found himself attracted most strongly to the traditional ceremonies, various dances to the gods and the songs.

Though he'd earn less, Yamamaru decided to work for the museum in 1997, thinking "I wouldn't need to leave Shiraoi and go to Honshu for work during winter, and my life would be more settled." He was 42 years old then.
In 2002, the Ainu Folk Museum decided for the first time to revive the traditional ceremony called kotan-nomi (prayer of a hamlet) in Shiraoi town, and Yamamaru was to lead the ceremony.

“The Ainu people are very good at adapting. They can be priests, bonzes, or even carpenters and build their own houses. You have the necessary and apporopriate abilities in yourself.”

Although Kotan-nomi was just as important a ceremony for the Ainu as the iyomante (sending back the spirit of bears) or chise-nomi (celebration for a new house), it had not been held since 1922. Little data existed on how it was carried out. Fortunately, there were still ekashi living in the Shizunai area who knew about the ceremony. There was also a picture of the ceremony being performed. The museum staff revived the ceremony based on the available material and accounts of the ekashi. They made the tools by themselves including the inaw. For a while Yamamaru's prayer did not sound real as he tended to only read what he had prepared, but now people describe the ceremony in Shiraoi as solemn. "It doesn't matter as long as you give your whole heart in the prayer", he thought.

"The Ainu people are very good at adapting. They can be priests, bonzes, or even carpenters and build their own houses. You have the necessary and appropriate abilities in yourself. The important thing is to have all the buttons. The Ainu people may continue to be discriminated as minorities, but we should never pay attention to such discriminations and be proud of who we are. We need the cooperation of others to make things move better. I would like to pass on the Ainu culture and history to the young Ainu people. I think it would help them someday", says Yamamaru.

image Ikuo Yamamaru, Director of the Lore Division
at the Ainu Folk Museum in Shiraoi, with traditional ainu ceremonial attire.

image Traditional Ainu clothings are very foreign to
ordinary Japanese.

image A meeting with the town and the museum
staff. Yamamaru works at the museum, receives a salary.

image Yamamaru lives with his family in a house
10 minutes' drive away from the museum.

image Yamamaru lives with his wife Kazuko and two