Popular Science Monthly/Volume 34/November 1888/Ainu Family-Life and Religion



UP to the age of three or four years an Ainu child is called ai-ai (baby), without regard to sex. From that age until about seven, a boy is called sontak and a girl opere. From seven until about sixteen or eighteen a lad is called heikachi, and a maid matkachi. After that age a maid is called shiwentep, or woman. From eighteen to thirty a young man is called okkaibo or okkaiyo; after the age of thirty a man is an Ainu—that is, "a man."

The boy is trained in fishing and hunting by his father and the other men of the village, and at the age of about twelve accompanies the men in their manly vocations. The girl assists her mother and the older females of the family in gardening and cooking; in cleaning, salting, and curing fish; in spinning, weaving cloth, and making clothes; and generally in all the drudgery of the household, for the Ainu man is as lofty in his notions that labor is beneath his dignity as is the North American Indian.

While not as demonstrative in their affection for their children, I think the Ainu parents love their little ones quite as tenderly as any other people; and if Miss Bird's observation is correct, they have one pleasant way of displaying their affection which one does not see through the length and breadth of the empire of Japan, and that is the kiss of affection.

There is no ceremony of any kind, nor isolation of the mother, before the birth of a child. As the women are not allowed to offer prayers or take any active part in religious observances, the prospective mother can not ask the gods for their assistance at the time of delivery in order to make parturition easy; indeed, it would probably never enter the head of an Ainu woman to thus interfere with the course of Nature. The father, always preferring sons, and being extremely anxious for a male heir, if he has none already, will pray to the gods to give him a son, and offer libations of saké to the goddess of fire, if his means admit of the expense, or his desire is sufficiently keen to justify the extravagance.

Parturition is very easy, due to the active habits of the women, and is greatly assisted by their physical conformation, as they have broad hips and great strength in the pelvic region. The woman continues her daily tasks until the labor-pains actually come on. She then retires to her hut, where she is attended by a few of her most intimate relations, and, if it be her first baby, her mother will doubtless officiate as midwife. As the kneeling position which a woman assumes at the time of delivery greatly facilitates the passage of the child through the pelvis, and tends to expedite the after-birth, the woman in a surprisingly short time resumes her household duties quite as if nothing unusual had occurred. There is no ceremony of purification for the mother, nor does she receive congratulations. On the contrary, it is the

PSM V34 D092 Ainu of yezo.jpg

Fig. 1.—Ainu of Yezo.[1]

father who is congratulated; and when the poor mother has taken up her drudgery once more, it is he who remains by the fireside, wrapped up in his good clothes, to receive the felicitations of his relatives and friends, smoking constantly and drinking many a cup of saké, particularly if the baby be a boy and the heir. I was greatly surprised to find this near approach to the couvade in this part of the world, and this one little thing seems to separate the Ainu further than ever from the Japanese.

The children are trained to render strictest obedience to both parents; and if there be several sons, the eldest, as heir, exacts and receives implicit obedience from his younger brothers; from his sisters obedience comes without saying, so low is the social position of women. Adoption obtains to quite the same extent as among the Japanese, and the legal standing of the adopted child seems to be as absolute as if his right were that of birth. Adoption is, however, almost restricted to male children, though I was much surprised to find that one childless couple had adopted a little Japanese girl who was so young that she had never learned to speak the language of her own people.

If a man have only female children he will sometimes adopt an heir, but this is not altogether necessary, since the husband of the eldest girl will usually succeed his father-in-law; and, in order to thoroughly fit himself for his prospective heirship, he moves into his wife's home and becomes a member of her family. But if a couple be childless they will surely adopt a son, for, inasmuch as inheritance is strictly in the male line, there must be some one to take possession of the house and the personal property, and to become the head of the household. Not that it is necessary to continue the family name, for there is nothing of the kind among the Ainu. Each person has but one name, without any prefix or suffix to determine whose child he may be, and the name is often given from a mere whim; as, for example, if a baby-girl pitches upon a dirty old pot as her favorite plaything (and this is a very possible case, for toys are not common), the chances are that she will very soon be designated as "The Pot" or "The Kettle" by the family, and eventually the name will become affixed to her. Hence we may say that names are given to Ainu children very much the same way that nicknames attach themselves to children in America and Europe.

Not only are there no family names, but each person's name dies with its owner; the repetition of a name in different generations having nothing to do with the preservation of the memory of an older person. Children are not named for a rich uncle or a maiden aunt, to secure "prospects" for them. There are no posthumous names as with the Japanese, and a dead person is not spoken of by name if it can be avoided by any circumlocution; indeed, every effort is made to avoid all reference to the dead.

The adoption of an heir is not often necessary, for barren wives are sometimes sent back to their fathers; this misfortune constituting one of the best reasons for absolute divorce among the Ainu, as among savage and barbarous nations the world over.

Children are sometimes betrothed by their fathers when quite young, and this is done without the intervention of a middle-man. This is not usually a matter of commerce, but often occurs when two men, during a drinking-bout, conceive a great friendship for each other. It frequently happens, however, that two rich men, desirous of combining the wealth of their respective families, will betroth their children. But betrothal is not absolutely binding upon the young people, for the veto power remains with the children; and if, upon reaching marriageable age, either of the principal parties to the marriage feels any inclination to do so, he or she will annul the betrothal contract, in which event any presents that may have been given must be returned, or their value fully recompensed to the donors. It is sometimes a difficult matter for the girl to have her own way, for there are conventionalities even in Ainu society; but the boy simply takes the law into his own hands and consummates wedlock with the object of his affection, and, when her condition betrays the fact, opposition often ceases!

At the time of betrothal, if the choice be an independent one on the part of either the groom or bride, it is customary for the fathers to exchange presents, of no great value, to be sure, but sufficient to show their approval of the match. Long engagements are not popular, and when once a betrothal has been effected the pair are soon married, if they are of suitable age—that is, about eighteen or twenty for the man, and sixteen or eighteen for the woman. It will be noticed that there is a certain doubt expressed in all matters pertaining to age, time, etc. This is because the people have no record of time, except to mark the recurring seasons, and do not themselves know how old they are.

When two young people are married, the wedding-feast is usually held at the house of the groom's father. The village chief (or his representative if he can not attend in person) and all the members of the two families attend, with the immediate relatives and the nearest neighbors. Like all their social and religious meetings, the occasion is made an excuse for saké-drinking—the men drinking themselves into a state of intoxication. As they are hard-headed fellows, and take their liquor cold (instead of heated, as the Japanese do), the quantity of saké consumed is sometimes enormous. To give some idea of the Ainu excessive fondness for saké, I may mention the fact that many of the northern Ainu often refuse to work for money-wages, and stipulate that they shall receive saké in full payment before they will commence.

The mistress of the house superintends the preparation of the wedding-feast, and is assisted by all the assembled women in pounding the millet and making wedding-cakes, which are boiled, like dumplings. The groom is expected to provide most of the saké, if not all of it, as he is supposed to have engaged in manly vocations, to have received his share of the products of hunting and fishing, and to have accumulated enough money to buy the ceremonial wine, or beer rather, as saké is a brewed beverage, not a fermented or distilled liquor.

The newly married couple at once take possession of a new, small hut, which has been erected for them. These huts are made with a light frame of poles, the sides and roof being heavily thatched with reeds. They are by no means warm or impervious to the weather; indeed, many breaks in the thatching admit of ventilation to a degree that must lower the temperature in winter to a point well-nigh unbearable. The first hut is usually built upon ground belonging to the bride's father, and near his own house; but the location of the new hut seems to depend in a measure upon the manner of asking in marriage. If the groom or his father asks for the bride, then, to compensate the bride's father for the loss of his daughter, the groom goes to live on his father-in-law's land and becomes a member of his household; but if, on the contrary, the application has come from the other side, and the bride (as may sometimes be the case) or her father has asked for the groom in marriage, then compensation is considered to be due to his family, and the bride goes to her husband's land, becomes a member of her father-in-law's family, and assists in the domestic duties of her new home. An exception to this rule may occur when the bride's father has no sons, and asks for a husband for his oldest daughter in order to secure an heir.

When first married an Ainu couple is considered well set up in housekeeping if a small hut is provided with barely sufficient room for them to sleep on the left-hand or northern side of the central fireplace, a tiny little platform at the eastern end, opposite the entrance and under the sacred window, and a space on the right of the fireplace for guests, of about the same dimensions as the sleeping-place. For furniture there will probably be some mats to sit and sleep on, some rugs or skins for covering, a kettle, and a few dishes in which to serve food. As the family increases—and this is almost sure to be the case, for a childless family is unknown unless the fault is the man's—the house is either added to, or (as is more frequently the case) taken down and entirely rebuilt in more and more pretentious proportions, until it has its entrance porch opening to the south, its anteroom in a western extension, and its main apartment, sometimes thirty or forty feet square. Near it will be a small storehouse raised on stilts, and at one side a little patch of garden for beans, millet, etc.

When the newly married couple take possession, a house-warming is held. This, like every Ainu ceremony, is merely an excuse for saké-drinking, and, instead of bringing assistance to the young people in their early struggles, rather tends to deplete the none-too-plethoric purse; for the beverage is provided by the groom, whose resources will have been severely taxed when he has furnished saké for the marriage-feast and the house-warming as well. At the latter feast a prayer is offered to the goddess of fire, by the village chief or one of the elders, invoking her protection for the house and its inmates, and asking that male children may be numerous and strong. This is called chiisei nomi.

Marriages are seldom contracted between residents of different villages, and if the Ainu kept anything like a record of blood-relationship, marriage between first cousins would probably be found the rule rather than the exception. But that inhabitants of different villages do intermarry is proved by the fact that they have words in their language to indicate the fact. Thus, iriwak means blood-relations, those who are received into the family circle and are close together (a village is virtually a large family), while iritak means distant relations, those who are taken away. Again, the names of those who go from their own village to wed with those of a distant village are changed, but whether or not this is done according to any rule is not quite clear; certainly there is nothing in the new name to indicate the birthplace of the person. With increasing facilities for traveling and temptations to wander in search of employment, these marriages out of the family circle are becoming more frequent.

Polygamy is permitted indefinitely, the number of wives being determined by the wishes of the man himself and his ability to secure a plurality—one can hardly say his ability to support them, since the support of the man himself and of his family is mainly provided by the women.

Widows are isolated for a period of three years, during which time each lives in her own little hut, supporting herself as best she can by doing a little gardening and by catching a few fish at night in a semi-surreptitious way. They must wear a distinctive cap during this period, and are not allowed to participate in any of the ceremonies of the village. At the expiration of the three years they doff their caps, resume their places in society, and are once more "eligible," and, if known to be good wives and mothers, are sought after. Old women (widows) with grown-up children are exempted from this enforced seclusion, and are supported by their offspring.

Adultery is strongly opposed by the Ainu, and is severely punished; the guilty parties (unless they are young people who can atone for their crime by marriage) being sometimes strung up by the heels until nearly dead. "The other crimes, recognized by general consent, were theft, incest, murder, suicide, infanticide, disobedience to parents, and idolatry, as well as exposure of person. In ancient times every village was governed by three chiefs subservient to Sara. These chiefs never had absolute authority; all crimes were submitted to the judgment of as many members of the community as cared to be present" (Batchelor).

Inasmuch as there are no family names, no village, tribal, or national rights to be respected, there is nothing approximating to father-right or mother-right. Or perhaps it would be more exact to say that, inasmuch as women are only recognized as servants throughout their whole lives, and as mothers as soon as they have reached the proper age, the personality of the whole family is sunk in that of the husband and father while he lives. When he dies he is at once and absolutely forgotten (except so far as is mentioned hereafter), and each surviving member of his family pursues an entirely separate course, in no way concerning himself about the others. If a man dies and leaves a family of infant children, the care of them devolves upon the mother until the oldest son reaches the age of about eighteen; then he becomes the head of the family. Female inheritance is utterly unknown, as would be expected in a society wherein women have no rights at all. If a man is so unfortunate as to leave no true heir, or so careless as not to have adopted one, his property goes to his next younger brother, or his nearest male relative, if he have no brothers either by birth or adoption.

When very sick, an Ainu man (the women may not pray at all) will call upon the fire-goddess, who is reckoned a great purifier, thus: "Abe kamui, yekoingara wa en-kore" ("O fire-goddess, condescend to look upon me"). Upon the approach of death, the master will lie close to the fire on his own side of the hearth, partly for the sake of the warmth, but probably in a measure for any possible benefit to be gained from propinquity to the realm of the fire-goddess. Then the village chief and elders, and the sick man's friends, all come to see him; the men to pray and "drink to the gods," while the women weep and wail in rather a noisy fashion, since they are denied the comforts of religion! There are times when the patience of the praying men becomes exhausted, if no favorable answer is given to their petitions. Mr. Batchelor tells of one death-scene which he witnessed when two men were praying to the goddess of fire and another toward the sun-rising through the eastern window; while a fourth was looking toward the northeast corner of the hut (which corresponds in a measure to the latrine of Japanese houses) and swearing most vehemently at all the gods, something after this fashion: "You fools! why don't you pay some attention to us? Can't you see that this man is in great danger? Here we've been praying and praying for him, and yet he doesn't get well. What's the matter? Are you deaf? Can't you hear us?"

When death actually takes place, and the friends are convinced by the coldness of the body that there is absolutely no hope of recovery, preparations for burial are immediately begun. The corpse is not washed or anointed in any way, embalming being quite unknown to this people: it is dressed in its newest clothes; the outer garment, which reaches nearly to the feet, is folded over the body and neatly laced up in front like a boot, and further secured by the girdle. The feet and ankles are carefully wrapped, when possible, in white rags, and the hands and arms are similarly covered. The man's bow and quiver and his gun are laid by his side, and his pipe and tobacco-pouch are stuck in his belt. With the possible exception of the smoking implements, these articles are not interred with the corpse, but are simply placed as insignia of its manhood during the funeral feast which immediately takes place. For this feast, cakes made of millet-flour, and boiled somewhat in the same manner as dumplings, are prepared by the widow and female relatives of the deceased. They are similar to those used at the wedding-feast. The cakes are eaten by the men who assemble for the occasion, by whom a great deal of saké is drunk. A small libation is offered to the man's memory and to the gods. In doing this the men dip one end of carved flat sticks, which they use as mustache-lifters, into the saké and sprinkle a few drops toward the corpse, the fireplace, the east window, the northeast corner of the house, and round in front of them generally. The act of drinking the saké is in itself a religious one, as they say that in "drinking to the gods" they show their reverence; therefore the more they drink the better, and an occasion when all become intoxicated to absolute stupefaction is by some thought to give pleasure to the gods and to be blessed by them. As the village chief is its priest and performs all religious ceremonies, his presence at the death-feast is essential. He conducts the ritual—if the orgies may be dignified by that term—the men all participating, and the women acting as servants. If for any reason the chief himself is unable to be present, he sends a substitute.

When the cakes are eaten and the saké all drunk (and the men sufficiently recovered from its effects to be able to move), the body is slung upon a pole, borne to the grave by the nearest male relatives and immediately buried. No particular time is chosen, nor is any attention paid to the situation of the grave. This seems very strange when it is remembered that the east is considered the sacred direction, and one would naturally suppose that some care would be taken to place the corpse in an east and west line, perhaps with the head slightly raised and looking toward the rising sun. But such is not the case: a shallow grave is dug, the body—rolled in a good mat—is tumbled in, a few stones perhaps thrown in to prevent animals from disturbing the remains, the dirt hastily replaced, and the corpse is left to its fate. Sometimes the pipe and tobacco-pouch, or a small package of tobacco, will be buried with the man, if he has been specially fond of smoking. This fact, and the additional one that a stout stick or club is provided to furnish the man with means of defense, point to a belief in a transition state, but the Ainu has only a hazy idea of the hereafter, and particularly as to purgatory, or the passage of the soul, which is thought to be naturally immortal, to the reward or punishment it is to receive in Pokna moshiri. "The wicked are supposed to be harassed by the evil spirits—nitne kamui—in this place, but what the rewards of the righteous are the Ainu have no idea."

It is customary to put up a short stick at the head of a grave, the carved top of which indicates the sex of the person therein buried. If it is a man, the top of the stick will be cut in the shape of a spear-head; if a woman, it will be a rudely shaped ball. There is nothing to correspond to a tombstone PSM V34 D099 Inao of the ainu.jpgFig. 2.—Inao of the Ainu. either at the grave or in the village, where there is no temple, as in every Japanese village, with memorial tablets and altars to keep alive the memory of the deceased. Indeed, it appears to be the desire of the Ainu to forget the dead as soon as possible; their reluctance to speak of them is an evidence of this. In the case of women this is absolutely so, a possible exception is mentioned below. In the case of a man, his son may offer a small libation of saké at his grave, and at the inao raised to his memory at his former home, on the anniversary of his death; and, in the case of a prominent chief, the men will perhaps do this for two or three years—never for a longer time. These anniversaries are really made excuses for saké-drinking rather than true testimonials of respect.

The inao spoken of above are whittled willow sticks with pendent, curl-like shavings, offerings given to the gods (with the libations of saké) at the time of worship. Miss Bird (volume ii, p. 86) gives an illustration of them and calls them "Aino gods." I think this is a mistake, just as it would be a mistake to call the images, relics, etc., in a Romish church "gods" in the sense of being possessed of absolute power in themselves. One large inao is always placed at the eastern end of the hut for the sun-god, and many of them are hung all round the inside of the hut; generally one or more are stuck into the fireplace; and there is always at least one at every spring of water. At least one will be placed at the head of a man's grave; and several will be stuck into the ground at the rude wicket on which are impaled the skulls of bears—these animals occupying a somewhat anomalous place in Ainu philosophy; at one time feared and worshiped, at another killed and eaten.

Although the Ainu ideas of a future existence are very hazy, yet they consider that the spirits of men are well-disposed toward the living, and may be relied upon to bring good fortune to the village and the inhabitants thereof; hence they have no fear of the spirits of men; but it is very different with those of old women. They are considered to be very malignant—witches, in fact—who are seeking some means of working mischief. Formerly this prejudice was more deeply rooted than at present, and, in order to prevent the spirits of old women bewitching the place and the people, their houses were burned down as soon as ever the corpse was taken away for burial. This was done in order that the spirit might have no abiding-place, and, while engaged in hunting for its home, would be diverted from its malicious plans. This notion corresponds with the superstitions of barbarous nations in other parts of the world.

There does not seem to have ever been any superstition connected with the fireplace, as to the manner of procuring the flame when first kindling a fire in a new house, nor as to the necessity of always keeping the fire alight to ward off misfortune. Charcoal is not used, and as the wood is generally in small pieces, the fire is easily extinguished, but this does not bring any bad luck. The use of the Japanese hibachi (brazier) and small fire-pots is becoming popular, but this is such a purely exotic custom as not to deserve mention. Formerly the Ainu used the fire-drill, in all essentials similar to that of the Esquimaux of North America; but for many years matches (at first imported from America and Europe, but now manufactured in enormous quantities in Japan) have been so cheap that even the Ainu can use them.

The Ainu bear-feast has been so often described, and the prominent features thereof so well portrayed by others, that I will not attempt to do more than mention one or two points which have not, I think, been given already, only repeating that the festival of killing and eating the bear, which has been kept in a cage since its capture when a cub, is a sort of religious affair, and is made the occasion for much saké-drinking, and that a curious dance is performed, in which men alone take part. The feast is held in February or March (I do not make this statement in absolute contradiction of what Miss Bird says, but admit that custom may vary the time in different villages). Among the northeastern Ainu, Kusuri, and Nemuro, the women, who are officiating as cooks and attendants, provide large vessels of wild strawberries (which must be kept over from the preceding summer), mix the juice with water, and smear the faces of all the people who are present, even to the alien guests. All must submit, as a token of friendliness. This is a strange custom, and is possibly done to indicate that the bear-feast resembles something of a bloody sacrifice, for the Ainu say that the strawberry is used because the color of its juice approaches that of blood.

I will close my rambling notes on these people by an account of what I saw in one or two of their villages on the day of the eclipse of the sun (August 19, 1887). First let me say that they think an eclipse is the effect of great sickness, which causes the sun's face to become black, as does a human being's (sometimes) when in a fit or on fainting away. I left the village of Horobetsu, on the south coast of Yezo, at about two o'clock. It was evident that the Ainu had been told of the impending disaster, for many of them were standing outside of their huts, glancing anxiously at the sun from time to time, and talking together in low, earnest tones which betrayed their apprehension. When we reached the next village, Washibetsu, the shadow of the moon had covered a good-sized segment of the sun, and the people were greatly excited. Many men were looking at the sun and moving their lips as if praying, while some had brought dishes of water, and were throwing the water toward the sun with their mustache-lifters and inao, just as we would dash it in the face of a person who had fainted away, to revive him. By the time we arrived at Mororan, the next village, the eclipse was all over; the excitement had pretty nearly subsided, although a few persons were watching the sun rather closely, as if afraid that he might have a relapse and require to be revived again.

As I have tried not to go over ground which has been well worked by previous observers, I have omitted many details of the Ainu manners and customs, and it seems proper for me to give a list of books and publications, which may be referred to by those whose interest will have been sufficiently aroused to make them anxious to know more of the "Hairy People of Japan":

"Transactions of the Asiatic Society of Japan." In many numbers there are articles of more or less interest. Special attention is called to "Notes on the Ainu." By J. Batchelor. Vol. x, part ii.

"The Japan Weekly Mail." Yokohama. This newspaper contains many valuable articles on the ethnology of Japan in general, and the Ainu in particular.

"The Language, Mythology, and Geographical Nomenclature of Japan. Viewed in the Light of Aino Studies, including a Grammar of the Aino Language, by J. Batchelor." By Basil Hall Chamberlain. Memoirs of the Literature College, Imperial University of Japan. No. 1. Tokyo, 1887.

"Unbeaten Tracks in Japan." By Isabella L. Bird. London, 1882. Two vols. The second volume contains a graphic and picturesque account of the author's sojourn among the Ainu.

"The Stone Age in Japan." By John Milne. Paper published in the "Journal of the Anthropological Society," May, 1881.

"Der Baerencultus und die Baerenfeste der Ainos, mit einigen Bemerkungen ueber die Taenze derselben." By Dr. B. Scheube. Paper published in the "Mittheilungen der deutschen Gesellschaft für Natur-und Völkerkunde Ostasiens." December, 1880. Treats of Ainu bear-wishop and dancing.

"Die Ainos." By Dr. B. Scheube. Paper published in the "Mittheilungen der deutschen Gesellschaft für Natur-und Völkerkunde Ostasiens." February, 1882.

"Ethnologische Studien über die Aino auf der Insel Yesso." By Heinrich von Siebold. Berlin, 1881. Illustrated.

"Japan in Yezo." By T. W. Blakiston. Yokohama, 1883.

"Reisen und Forschungen im Amurlande." By L. von Schrenck. Vol. iii contains much valuable information about the Ainu, gathered from many sources.

  1. For the illustrations in this article we are indebted to "Unbeaten Tracks in Japan," by Isabella L. Bird.—Editor.