Ainu Mosir: My First Ainu Movie

[This article turned out really long, so if you are interested in what the picture above is all about, please scroll straight down to the bottom.]

I recently watched a beautiful movie called “Ainu Mosir”, which is on Netflix and I thoroughly recommend to learn how the Ainu people live in modern day Japan.

For those who are not familiar with this subject, the Ainu are one of the indigenous people of Japan who mainly lived/ live in the Tohoku region (the northern part of Honshu, the main island of Japan), Hokkaido, and Russian territories (Sakhalin, Kamchatka Peninsula, etc).

Wajin (和人: Ethnic Japanese) and the Ainu began having conflicts over land, natural resources, etc. a long time ago, and many Ainu were already under the Japanese rule during the Muromachi period (1336-1573).

We don’t know exactly how many Ainu people live in Japan now, but the government estimates there are around 25,000 in the entire Japan. The unofficial estimates reach over 200,000.

Most of them live in Hokkaido. According to the Ainu Association of Hokkaido, there were 16,786 Ainu people in Hokkaido in 2013.

As I grew up in the greater Tokyo area, I met only one person with an Ainu ancestry in my entire life.

He said he had an Ainu ancestry but identified himself as Japanese, not Ainu.

Many Ainu people have intermarried to ethnic Japanese, and from what I know many live as ethnic Japanese like him.

There have been discrimination towards the Ainu for centuries, so his choice was understandable to avoid unnecessary disadvantages.

I guess I am going quite sidetracked (I should be talking about the movie really…), but, dear readers, Japan has never been “mono-racial” as some of us insist.

Along with the Ainu, there are Ryukuans (Okinawans), and there had been Emishi, Kumaso, Hayato to name a few before the Wajin/ Yamato finally united Japan.

There have been intermarriages.

We have an expression “Akita Bijin” (Akita Beauty) to describe women from Akita prefecture. It’s generally said that women from Akita are beautiful (I don’t know about the men from there… 😅)

I don’t necessarily agree with this, but I wonder if this is due to the intermarriages between Yamato and Ainu/ Emishi.

Iomante

Now…

Getting back to the movie, it is the first time for me to watch an Ainu movie in my life.

I am really happy to see that the Ainu culture has been gaining a lot of attention from the mainstream Japanese media due to the successful manga/ anime series “Golden Kamuy” (though I am also aware that some people have pointed out that there are cultural appropriations in the series).

Ainu Mosir really shows what it is like to be Ainu today.

Their identity, every day life, cultural survival and struggle.

The story revolves around an Ainu ceremony called Iomante, which has NOT been performed since 1975 in the Akan Lake community.

In this traditional custom, a brown bear is raised with love and care, but given as a sacrifice at the end of the ceremony.

This concept would probably put off a lot of animal lovers (like myself), but we probably need to see beyond the surface of this ceremony.

It is a reminder of the sacredness of life and thanksgiving to the nature.

In fact, the Ainu have always protected the nature and would’ve never considered profiting from exploiting the nature, say, by mass dairy farming like we do in “developed” countries.

You can watch the movie and decide what it is about.

Now…

The reason why I posted the picture from the film at the beginning was because I was really surprised that the actor was wearing a jacket from Te Wānanga o Aotearoa, a Māori-run university here in New Zealand.

I had known that the Ainu people visit New Zealand to learn from the successful cultural preservation/ language revitalization strategies of the Māori people, and I guess he acquired it through one of their exchange programmes.

I was really moved to see the connection between the Ainu and the Māori in such an unexpected place!

References

Ainu Association of Hokkaido

Ainu People

Image Attribution

Iomante: Murase Yoshinori, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The True Name of the “Thunder Gate”

Kaminarimon (Thunder Gate)

One of the most famous landmarks in Japan is Kaminarimon (雷門; かみなりもん) or the “Thunder Gate” in Asakusa, Tokyo.

Along with Mt. Fuji, Tokyo Skytree, and Tokyo Tower, it is no exaggeration to say that it is recognised by virtually all Japanese people.

But did you know that “Kaminarimon” (Thunder Gate) is just a nickname for this gate?

Many Japanese do not even know this, but its real name is “Furaijinmon” (風雷神門; ふうらいじんもん) or “The Gate of the Gods of Wind and Thunder”.

If you look closely at the picture above, you’d probably notice that there are two deities displayed on the sides of the gate.

The one on the left with the drums is Raijin (雷神 らいじん) or the god of thunder. He makes thunder with those drums.

I remember as a child I was told to hide my belly button as Raijin likes to eat it for whatever reason…

The one on the right is Fujin (風神 ふうじん) or the god of wind.

Therefore, the official name of Kaminarimon is Furaijinmon.

In fact, if you look at the giant red lantern from the other side, its official name is actually written on it.

Furaijinmon (風雷神門; ふうらいじんもん)

Asakusa is one of the destinations that I definitely recommend you to visit once the Corona crisis is over.

The remnants of the Edo period (1603-1867) can be still felt in this area, and it is widely considered the heart of the Edo culture. For rakugo lovers, it is also known as the home of Asakusa Engei Hall (浅草演芸ホール), one of the four full-time rakugo venues in Tokyo.

I am so looking forward to visiting Asakusa again myself!

Asakusa Engei Hall

Photo Credits

Asakusa Engei Hall: Kakidai, CC BY-SA 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Furaijinmon: Moyan Brenn from Italy, CC BY 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Kaminarimon at night: Steve Collis from Melbourne, Australia, CC BY 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Short Film “Half-Life”

This year I’ve had an honour of working closely with a multi-talented artist, Fiona Amundsen.

About two months ago, our short film, which incorporates rakugo, the Aikido concept of “zanshin” (残心), and remembrance of WWII, was released on Asia New Zealand Foundation’s digital platforms.

This work was a part of “IN TOUCH arts commissions” by the foundation, and I feel very privileged to be a part of this project.

You can still view this film/ artwork, but before you watch it, I’d like you to know a few things:

  1. My family’s experience in Nagasaki is only a personalised way of remembering our mistakes as humanity as a whole. I am deeply ashamed of what my Japanese ancestors did to many Asian nations and others, and this is no way our attempt to victimise Japanese.
  2. It is our way of finding the universal message of peace in the ordinary, everyday things.
  3. Part 1 is very dark and many may give up watching the rest, but Part 2 has some humour in it based on my own experience with my grandfather. But Part 2 only makes sense if you watch Part 1…

I decided to write this first because someone who probably hadn’t watched the work nor read the interview commented as below on the foundation’s SNS:

“Great idea! Let’s remember Nanking, Rangoon, Singapore, Jakaraka [sic], Port Moresby, and many many others too shall we?”

This work was created to do exactly that!

Here is the link to our work. You can also find our interviews on the page. Some of the super intellectual comments are by Fiona 😁

You can find other commissioned work here.

May peace prevail upon us all!

Kia tau te rangimārie ki a tatou katoa!

我々と共に平和がありますように。

Four Defenders of Japanese Festivals

At Japanese festivals, four banners with the pictures of the four divine beings are sometimes displayed.

You might have also seen them at a ceremony at the imperial palace.

They are the defenders of Shin’iki (神域 しんいき) or the sanctuary of the shrine.

These four defenders are: Blue Dragon (青龍 せいりゅう Seiryu; the defender of the east), White Tiger (白虎 びゃっこ Byakko; the defender of the west), Vermilion Bird (朱雀 すざく Suzaku; the defender of the south), and Black Tortoise (玄武 げんぶ Genbu; the defender of the north; usually entwined together with a snake).

Together these four flags are called “Four Godly Flags/ Banners” (四神旗 しじんき Shijinki).

But in the Edo period (1603-1868), they were also called “Four Godly Swords” (四神剣 しじんけん Shijinken) in the Tokyo area as they put swords at the tips of the flags.

There is a hilarious rakugo story that involves a set of “Four Godly Swords”, which is based on a true story that happened at a restaurant called Momokawa (百川 ももかわ).

Unfortunately, it is one of those stories that would get lost in translation, but I will attempt explaining it another time!

See you next time!

“Mummy” Medicine of Edo!

If you are a speaker of British English, you might be slightly confused if I’m talking about an adult female human with a child/ children or a preserved human body that could’ve been a mummy… or a daddy.

If you are a speaker of American English, you are right I meant a mummy by “mummy”.

The Egyptian kind of mummy, who could’ve been an Egyptian mummy before her passing (OK, I’ll stop annoying you!).

I recently learned a shocking fact about a Japanese medicine during the Edo period (1603-1868), and I couldn’t resist sharing this particular one!

Kaibara Ekiken* (貝原益軒 1630-1714) was a very well-known Neo-Confucianist philosopher (じゅがくしゃ 儒学者) and botanist who studied the medicinal herbs used in traditional Chinese medicine.

Ekiken is especially known for his books called Yojokun (ようじょうくん 養生訓), which was a collection of his health advice, and Yamato Honzo (やまとほんぞう 大和本草) that introduced medicinal plants from China and Japan.

Yamato Honzo (やまとほんぞう 大和本草)

Kaibara Ekiken* (貝原益軒 1630-1714)

In Yamato Honzo, mummies… or mummified human bodies probably from Egypt… are introduced as a medicine!!!

Mind you, Ekiken himself opposed to the use of mummies as a medicine for ethical reasons, but researches suggest that they were widely used as all-purpose cure though they cost a fortune.

We don’t know exactly where they were imported from (and how they were sourced), but it was likely to have been via China or Netherlands as Japan only traded with these two countries then. It could’ve also been from Korea (via Tsushima), Ainu (via Matsumae/ Hokkaido), or Ryukyu/ Okinawa. **

According to Yamato Honzo, mummies were good for toothache, headache, chest pain, high fever, antidote for poisonous insects, and others.

* Some people also call him “Ekken”.

** If you know the answer to this question, please comment below!!!

Reference

貝原益軒著「大和本草」記載のミイラの薬効について 江頭啓介・原敬二郎

Photo Credit

Yamato Honzo: Momotarou2012, CC BY-SA 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The Origin of Waribashi (Disposable Chopsticks)

If you have been to a Japanese restaurant, I’m sure you have seen those waribashi (割り箸, わりばし) or disposable wooden chopsticks that you pull apart before digging in your yummy Japanese dishes.

Personally, I have a love-and-hate relationship with them- I love them because they are sanitary; I hate them because they are an absolute waste of trees.

Anyway… I came across the origin of those chopsticks the other day, so I’m sharing it with you 😃

It is said that waribashi was first created by an eel restaurant in Edo (1603-1868), which is the old name for Tokyo.

They were originally made of bamboo and called “Hikisakibashi” (引裂箸 ひきさきばし), which roughly means “chopsticks to split apart”.

However, the wooden disposable chopsticks that we use today were actually invented in Nara Prefecture (奈良県 ならけん).

It is said that a monk called Sugihara Souan (杉原宗庵, すぎはらそうあん) invented them from Japanese cedar from the Yoshino region (so called “Yoshino Cedar”; 吉野杉, よしのすぎ) in 1827.

They used the scrap wood from making sake barrels, and even today they only use wood from forest thinning in the Yoshino region, therefore making them more ecological than the imported ones from overseas.

I personally think it’s best to use reusable metal chopsticks like Korean people do for the environment, but if you are into waribashi, I recommend you get ones from Yoshino!

References

わが国における食事用の二本箸の起源と割箸について 向井由紀子, 橋本慶子, 長谷川千鶴

You can access this document, but it takes ages to load somehow: https://www.jstage.jst.go.jp/article/cookeryscience1968/10/1/10_41/_pdf

箸の本 本田総一郎