An Ainu-e Scroll: Japanese Paintings of Ainu Lifeways

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An Ainu-e Scroll: Japanese Paintings of Ainu Lifeways

This online exhibit presents scenes from a Japanese Ainu-e scroll. Ainu-e (literally "Ainu illustrations") are Japanese paintings that depict various activities of the Ainu, the indigenous people of northern Japan. Japanese artists, primarily of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, captured numerous details of Ainu daily life and seasonal ceremonies, and their illustrations serve as a major source of information about Ainu culture during those time periods.

The Ainu originally inhabited territory that extended from Sakhalin and the Kurile Islands to the northern portion of the Japanese main island of Honshu. By the nineteenth century, Ainu territory had been absorbed by Japan and Russia, and the island of Hokkaido is the only remaining homeland where Ainu people still live today. The Ainu traditionally practiced a maritime culture, with subsistence based on hunting, fishing, and gathering. They established villages along the coasts and rivers, and lived in small, rectangular houses of pole-and-thatch construction. Garments were made from bark, animal skins, and cotton trade-cloth. Their religion was a complex form of animism wherein gods or their incarnations are in every animate or inanimate thing, including natural phenomena, animals, plants, and implements related to human life. All these things are considered gifts from the gods that are treated with respect and, after being used, are returned to the spirit world through prayer or through ritual spirit-sending ceremonies.

In addition to illustrating aspects of traditional Ainu life, Ainu-e also provide information about Japanese attitudes towards the Ainu. The Japanese, who came into contact with the Ainu first through trade and later as conquerors, generally regarded them as quaint natives, or even savages, who were physically and culturally inferior. These prejudices are conveyed by Japanese artists who often depicted the Ainu with bulging eyes, hairy bodies, or with somewhat simian or sinister features. Many of these painters never actually saw their subjects; they often based their works on reports from explorers and traders, or made copies of other Ainu-e. Despite these biases and limitations, Ainu-e remain vivid records of traditional Ainu life.

This scroll is part of the Grayson Archery Collection.

References and Related Links

Ainu no Shiki to Seikatsu (Seasons and Life of the Ainu). 1999. Sapporo: Foundation for Research and Promotion of Ainu Culture.

Batchelor, J. 1901. The Ainu and Their Folklore. London: The Religious Tract Society.

Dubreuil, C.O. 2004. Ainu-e: Instructional Resources for the Study of Japan’s Other People. Education About Asia 9(1):9–17.

Fitzhugh, W.W. and C.O. Dubreuil (eds). 1999. Ainu: Spirit of a Northern People. Washington, D.C.: Arctic Studies Center, National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution.

The Ainu Museum

Foundation for Research and Promotion of Ainu Culture

Text prepared by Mary French
Photos by Chelsea Bilyeu winter 2006

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