Indigenous peoples throughout the globe are custodians of a unique, priceless, and increasingly imperiled legacy of oral lore. Among them the Ainu, a people native to northeastern Asia, stand out for the exceptional scope and richness of their oral performance traditions. Yet despite this cultural wealth, nothing has appeared in English on the subject in over thirty years. Sarah Strong’s Ainu Spirits Singing
breaks this decades-long silence with a nuanced study and English translation of Chiri Yukie’s Ainu Shin’yoshu,
the first written transcription of Ainu oral narratives by an ethnic Ainu.
The thirteen narratives in Chiri’s collection belong to the genre known as kamui yukar, said to be the most ancient performance form in the vast Ainu repertoire. In it, animals (and sometimes plants or other natural phenomena)—all regarded as spiritual beings (kamui) within the animate Ainu world—assume the role of narrator and tell stories about themselves. The first-person speakers include imposing animals such as the revered orca, the Hokkaido wolf, and Blakiston’s fish owl, as well as the more “humble” Hokkaido brown frog, snowshoe hare, and pearl mussel. Each has its own story and own signature refrain.
Strong provides readers with an intimate and perceptive view of this extraordinary text. Along with critical contextual information about traditional Ainu society and its cultural assumptions, she brings forward pertinent information on the geography and natural history of the coastal southwestern Hokkaido region where the stories were originally performed. The result is a rich fusion of knowledge that allows the reader to feel at home within the animistic frame of reference of the narratives.
Strong’s study also offers the first extended biography of Chiri Yukie (1903-1922) in English. The story of her life, and her untimely death at age nineteen, makes clear the harsh consequences for Chiri and her fellow Ainu of the Japanese colonization of Hokkaido and the Meiji and Taisho governments’ policies of assimilation. Chiri’s receipt of the narratives in the Horobetsu dialect from her grandmother and aunt (both traditional performers) and the fact that no native speakers of that dialect survive today make her work all the more significant. The book concludes with a full, integral translation of the text.
“The book vividly captures and merges natural and cultural landscapes of coastal Ainu while accurately illustrating the socio-political climate in which Chiri Yukie lived and the Ainu Shin'yoshu was published. . . . I highly recommend this important work as a very accessible and comprehensive guide in English to the living world of kamui yukar and Ainu cosmology.” —Journal of Folklore Research (April 2012)
“Strong participates in the effort to recuperate a glimmer of [Ainu] culture by offering a richly nuanced elegiac translation and study of Chiri Yukie’s Ainu Shin’yoshu. . . . Highly recommended.” —Choice (49:8, April 2012)
“Brings a small and little-known body of oral literature to a larger audience. . . . While Strong is not actually an anthropologist but rather a professor of Japanese, perhaps only someone with as firm a grasp of the language, culture, and landscape of northern Japan could produce such an anthropologically valuable work.” —Anthropology Review Database (March 2012)
“Ainu Spirits Singing
is a unique fusion of geography and literature that offers a contextual grounding and engaging translation of Ainu oral stories passed down from ancient times. The author devotes several chapters to a detailed description and evocation of the physical and spiritual geography and cultural landscape that form the horizon of the tales themselves. The book, particularly helpful for readers unfamiliar with Ainu lore, offers a rich and nuanced reading of the tales.” —J. Scott Miller, Brigham Young University
“This is an impressive book that deserves to take its place alongside Donald Philippi’s highly regarded work. Much more than just another collection of translations, it provides fascinating insight into the complex ways in which the Ainu related to the natural world of Hokkaido in their daily lives and spiritual practices. It should appeal not only to those interested in the history, way of life, and literature of the Ainu, but to scholars working on folklore and the oral cultures of native peoples elsewhere as well as to students of Japan in general.” —Richard Siddle, Hokkaido University
Author: Strong, Sarah M.;Sarah M. Strong
is professor of Japanese at Bates College in Lewiston, Maine.