Northern Song

DSC_0481My students often tell me that they want to study in America because it is a diverse nation, while Japan, as everyone knows, is homogenous: all Japanese are Japanese. That idea of Japan as a single race is generally accepted here, with a few asterisks, one of which is the Ainu people from the northern island of Hokkaido. The Ainu have lived here for millennia, before the ancestors of modern Japanese ever arrived on these islands. Their ethnic heritage is distinct from other East Asians, and their religion, language, and music are completely their own. Here is a brief recording I made last week of some Ainu music in eastern Hokkaido.

Before you picture this music being performed around a fire in a mountaintop village, I should probably describe the actual scene. We are in a long, slate-gray performance hall in a lakeside resort town. The hall is at one end of the “Ainu Village,” basically a hill-side parking lot lined with souvenir shops: carved wooden facades hung on squat concrete buildings. A PA system broadcasts Ainu jaw-harp music, and a mini-van with a rooftop speaker entreats tourists to view the next performance.

The guidebook had told me I was “leaving Japan without leaving Japan,” but the shopkeepers bowed and spoke polite Japanese like everywhere else. It told me that the Ainu look different: heavy, hairy, and fair-skinned, but most of the people around the “village” could walk through Tokyo without standing out. It still felt like Japan; there were even droning broadcast speakers and designated photo-op areas. It was easy to reach the conclusion that the Ainu are assimilated, that their culture is only preserved for commercial purposes, that my students are right, and the gravitational pull of sameness reaches all the way out to these northern Islands.

Just before showtime, I saw a heavy-set young woman in a hooded sweatshirt come around the side of the hall and pass backstage. A moment later she emerged on stage in traditional Ainu garb: a knee-length blue coat embroidered with antler-shaped patterns and a similarly styled headband. As she began to sing the first song, the one you are listening to, I had to wonder: is it just a chore that she does a few times a day for extra cash? Does she even understand the words she is saying? Her face gave me no clues. Then, later in the performance, she joined with another woman to do a play song that was like a game of keep-away. One singer held a wooden tray over her head, dropping it to her side as soon as the other woman lunged for it. After a few tries they both started laughing on stage. It was nice to see. For that moment at least it wasn’t just a show or museum piece. It was two women playing a silly game, and it looked like fun.


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