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The Ainu are Japans' largest ethnic minority. They are known for Shamanistic beliefs and practises which are considered part of the Siberian tradition. Shamanism is probably one of the sources of Shinto, the indigenous religion of the ethnic Japanese. This book contains the Yukara. The "yukara" in the Ainu language means the singing voice, and the book has several stories told in prose.
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MY DEAR UNCLE "T" had so enthusiastically recommended me to read the Ainu epics and given one of the books as a special present. The title of the book as translated into English might read: "The Appreciation of the Yukara". When I had just opened it to take a quick look through, I had never imagined that the book would have captivated my mind so much as to as to make myself go right ahead to pick some of the most beautiful expressions and gradually to drag myself into the dreadful work of translation of all the poems in the book. But, this came only shortly after I had begun to read closely. Thus, this presentation of translation is simply to show my friends and readers the multitudinous and peculiar beauty of the Ainu sentiments as expressed in this book of "yukara" as much in its original manner as possible. Although I didn’t go deep to dig the cultural and traditional customs of the Ainu people, something must yet be said about the people and their "yukara" in order for the readers to comprehend more easily.
It is now known that the Ainu is the oldest tribe having once occupied the land of Japan before some strong tribes came from the Southern Asia and landed and pushed the Ainus gradually up northward. They finally had to be settled in the northern-most island of Japan called Hokkaido and the southern part of the Saghalien Island. Although they had their own religious faith, tradition and culture quite different from those of Japanese, they have been gradually disappearing; and the true descendants of the Ainu today are scarce. For many generations they have been thoroughly Japanized and their legends and traditions have become more commercialized, to be the means of living, rather than their life itself.
The Ainu people had always been very spiritual and religious creating and worshipping many gods and goddesses; and their spiritualism has remained through centuries in a very ancient and primitive form which might be similar to the totemism or animism of the American Indians and other ancient tribes.
Very well known among the scholars of the Ainu culture, Rev. John Bachelor who had come from England on mission and lived for long among the Ainu people early in this century tells in one of his books, "Ainu and their Legends": what they worship for is not an object itself, or for instance a tree, but the spirit that dwells in an object, or the tree. And, spirits are entirely separately thought in their nature from visible objects. Perhaps that is why they could have done two contradicting things simultaneously, i.e., to kill animals and to worship them as gods. To them the world beyond the cemetery is a mere extension of this world where spirits of one kind of beings remain as a unit, possessing its character permanently. That is, the spirit of an owl, for example, transmigrates after the death of its body and may reborn still as an owl. This does not conform with the Budhistic concept of transmigration.
As for their own origin, or the origin of mankind, they believed in the long-handed legends that say: "God created man with soil for bodice, chickweed for hair, and willow branch for back-bones; and that causing man to hunch as he grows old." From this, willow tree is considered sacred and symbolistic, out of which the people make sacred symbol, called "inaw", in the Ainu language meaning sacred wooden stick. The collective name for the "inaw" is "nusa". Every family keeps "inaw" that is used at every and all occasions of ritual performance. Wherever there is Ainu living, there must be this "inaw" with which they decorate the house and the object they are to worship, together with other offerings. Therefore, it is very important that such "inaw" must be kept in the best condition, as they believe certain spirit dwells in the "inaw". Further, they believe that when the "inaw" withers its divine power is also terminated, or, for even worse, that the possessor of the "inaw" may be ceased to live. There are various ways to prepare the "inaw". A tree or a branch of tree may be shaven upwards or downwards and at the either end the shavings are left as decorations; or, it may be shaven in both directions. Various trees are used, but principally willow tree is considered most important for the reason as above mentioned. Thus, it is essential for us to understand the religious faith and traditions derived thereof, which are thoroughly woven into the stories of the "yukara".
As above said, the religious faith and the wooden symbols, "inaw", are the central subjects in their legends and folklore. Their "yukara" is lately more widely introduced and more seriously searched by a small number of the "yukara" collector-translators working together with the few existing Ainu story-tellers. The Ainu people have never invented letters of their own; and at every rite a story-teller or a medium used to sing and dance with the stories that had been handed down from mouth to mouth and from generation to generation. Therefore, there is no way to trace up the origin or to know how old a particular legend could be. Some are quite ancient in source; and still some are but a few centuries back as estimated from the social structures and cultural background as suggested in stories. But, for many the exact date cannot be located.
The "yukara" in the Ainu language means the singing voice. Basically it is a cry or singing of animals, insects, birds and so forth; and as they are gods themselves, it means the singing voice of gods. On the other hand, the word, "yukar" as verb, means "to imitate". It might be quite sensible to say that the word had been derived of another Ainu word, "yuk-kar", that meaning "to make doings of the animal captured" or "to imitate the animal captured". In the ancient Ainu society like any primitive tribes, a "dance dmma" imitating animals is the central activity in which the shaman or medium disguised as the animal caught and to be worshipped, that is, a God of whatever it is; and acted with the cry of the animal. Songs had never existed by themselves. However, as time advanced, they took independent forms and were established singularly as a form of litereture. So, the "yukara" in original sense involves the whole performance of acting and singing after animals and other objects.