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The Case of Frederick Starr’s “Missing” Ainu Book Collection

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(The following is a post by Eiichi Ito, Japanese Reference Specialist, Asian Division.)

Against a backdrop of increasing international awareness and recognition of indigenous groups through such milestones as the “United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples” in 2007, scholars in Japan and around the world have shown a growing interest in the study and preservation of Ainu language, history, and culture over the past three decades. The Ainu are an indigenous people whose historical homeland is centered on Hokkaido, known to Japanese speakers as Ezochi (or “Ezo land”) prior to 1869, the northernmost and second largest of the four main islands in the Japanese archipelago. In the past, the Ainu lived across a much larger area that extended south to northern portions of the main Japanese island of Honshu and north to the Kurile Islands and Sakhalin in Russia, where smaller numbers of Ainu still reside. Following Japanese colonization of Hokkaido in the late 19th century, the central government instituted a set of policies that forced the Ainu to assimilate into the majority ethnic Japanese population. As a result, few native speakers of the Ainu language remain today, and Ainu activists and scholars work to preserve other aspects of Ainu cultural heritage in danger of being lost.

“Prof. Frederick Starr,” still image, 1900. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

During the 1990s, an international group of researchers conducted a survey of Ainu artifacts in North America under the auspices of the North American Ainu Documentation Project (1990-1996). Their findings were presented in a chapter by principal investigator Yoshinobu Kotani, titled ‘Ainu Collections in North America: Documentation Projects and the Frederick Starr Collections’ and included in the edited volume “Ainu: Spirit of a Northern People,” (Washington, DC: Arctic Studies Center, National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution, 1999, pp. 136–147). This volume was a collaborative work that brought together historical, cultural, and archaeological research on the Ainu from around the world. The team’s survey identified about 3,200 Ainu items and associated archival holdings in natural history and art museums across the United States and Canada and documented the provenance of many of these collections. They also discovered that a significant number of these artifacts and archival resources on Ainu had been collected by the American ethnologist and anthropologist Frederick Starr (1853-1933).

Frederick Starr served as professor of anthropology at the University of Chicago from 1892 to 1923 and, throughout his career, traveled widely for research, including to Mexico, the Philippines, Korea, China, and the Congo Free State. He also visited Japan frequently, making 15 trips to the country between 1904 and 1933. Starr’s connection to and interests in Ainu research started when he traveled to Japan for the first time to arrange for the participation of an Ainu group in the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis, Missouri, an event also known as the Saint Louis World’s Fair. The Ainu group lived onsite as part of an “exhibition” alongside other indigenous people from the United States and around the world. The group Starr recruited had nine people, including two children with their parents. It was during this and two subsequent trips to Japan that Starr acquired a large number of Ainu artifacts, print materials, and photographs.

Ainu people in Tokyo before leaving for St. Louis. “The Ainu Group at the Saint Louis Exposition” (1904) by Frederick Starr (1858-1933). Library of Congress. ]

The Ainu Documentation Project’s 1999 report describes the sale of Starr’s collection of Ainu artifacts to the Brooklyn Museum in 1912 and mentions that Starr’s personal archival materials, including field notes, correspondence, and other manuscripts are stored at the University of Chicago’s Regenstein Library. But it also notes a curious omission: there seemed to be no trace of the Ainu-related books recorded in Starr’s field notes at any of the related museum or library collections in North America (Kotani, 143-46). Given the size and scope of Starr’s collection of Ainu artifacts, not to mention his personal papers, it seemed odd that his books wouldn’t have been preserved as well. What had become of Starr’s collection of Ainu-related books?

In the late 1990s, a different research team—comprised primarily of Japanese literature specialists—made successive trips from Japan to survey roughly 4,700 titles in the Japanese rare book collection at the Library of Congress over the course of three summers. While many of the items they encountered were familiar literary classics and historical texts, other titles stood out to the team as more distinctive and unusual. One part of the collection that particularly caught their attention was a grouping of 91 illustrated manuscript and woodblock-print books from the 18th and 19th centuries about the Ainu people and Ezochi (Ezo land). The term Ezo, which was long used by Japanese speakers to refer to “uncivilized” people groups on the northern peripheries of Japan, came to be synonymous with the Ainu by the 17th century. In the “Catalog of Japanese Rare Books in the Library of Congress,” which the team published in 2003 as a culmination of their multi-year survey, the researchers commented that this collection of “northern materials” (hoppō shiryō) merited further in-depth study. They noted that it was considerably rich for a collection of Ainu and Ezochi materials outside of Japan and remarked that it did not seem to be well known among researchers.

A map of Ezo land. “Ezo kōkyō yochi zenzu” (1854). Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress.

Among the more than 90 books on Ainu and Ezochi that the research team surveyed in this collection is “Ezoshi” (“Records of Ezo land,” a colorfully illustrated manuscript book originally authored by Arai Hakuseki (1657-1725). This work is one of the oldest descriptions of the Ainu people and Ezo land. This particular copy consists of illustrations originally drawn by an anonymous artist who produced them based on actual observations of the Ainu and their daily life.

Illustration of an Ainu wife, or mat in the Ainu language. “Ezoshi” (“Records of Ezo land”) by Arai Hakuseki (not before 1720). Japanese rare book collection, Asian Division, Library of Congress.
Illustration of an Ainu husband, or hoku in the Ainu language. “Ezoshi” (“Records of Ezo land”) by Arai Hakuseki (not before 1720). Japanese rare book collection, Asian Division, Library of Congress.
A sword in decorated sheath with woven fabrics. “Ezoshi” (“Records of Ezo land”) by Arai Hakuseki, copier unknown (not before 1740). Japanese rare book collection, Asian Division, Library of Congress.
Ainu children playing together, from “Ezo kikō ” (“Ezo travels”) by Tani Bunkei (1778-1840), copier unknown (1799). Japanese rare book collection, Asian Division, Library of Congress.
Ainu women weaving fibers from the inner layers of elm tree bark, from “Ezo kikō ” (“Ezo travels”) by Tani Bunkei (1778-1840), copier unknown (1799). Japanese rare book collection, Asian Division, Library of Congress.
A tufted puffin from Iturup Island, identified here by its Ainu name etupirka (literally, “beautiful beak”) in “Ezo no shimabumi,” an Ezo travelogue by Yoshimaro Fukui (active 1790-1830), copier unknown (not before 1815). Japanese rare book collection, Asian Division, Library of Congress.

How did this relatively small collection of illustrated books on the Ainu and Ezochi come to be housed in the Library of Congress? Tracing the sources of this collection’s acquisition became an interesting project in itself.One source was easily identified by markings from the previous owner: the library of the Imperial Japanese Army Academy. The academy was established in Tokyo in 1874 to train cadets and officers and to provide instruction in military science. Five books in this collection come with a label indicating previous ownership by the academy’s library. During the Allied Occupation of Japan (1945–1952) after World War II, official documents, books, and other archival materials including those in the Japanese Foreign Ministry, the Home Ministry, and the Imperial Army and Navy were captured and sent to the United States. Some were later transferred to the Library of Congress, while others, mainly official documents, went to the National Archives. The books on the Ainu and Ezochi were among the materials that came to the Library.But what of the remaining titles? The provenance of these books is less clear, for they lack the distinctive labels found on the volumes drawn from the library of the Imperial Japanese Army Academy. Upon closer examination, however, we discovered an identifying characteristic common to 75 of the other Ainu and Ezochi works in the Japanese rare book collection: an accession date of “July 23 1934” that is stamped on the back of their covers. This date comes nearly one year after Frederick Starr passed away in Tokyo on August 14, 1933. Is it possible that the “missing” books from Starr’s collection are held at the Library of Congress?A search for English-language publications from the Library’s general collections that relate to Starr’s life, research interests, and fieldwork revealed the same accession date on a number of books. Some carry further information indicating that they were gifts of Lucy H. Starr, in addition to the date of July 23, 1934. Lucy H. Starr was Frederick’s sister and lived in Seattle at the time of her brother’s death in Tokyo in 1933. These matching accession dates on different books suggest that the 75 beautifully illustrated Ainu and Ezo manuscript books indeed once belonged to Frederick Starr and indicate that his sister donated them to the Library after her brother’s death. These books may well be the “missing” items described by the North American Ainu Documentation Project. Now that they have been “found,” we hope they can be put to further use in service of studying and preserving Ainu history and culture.

A label from the Japanese Imperial Military Academy Library is pasted on the bottom right corner of the cover for “Bogo Kōhō Yōtei Nisshi” (c.1861), an Ezo travelogue written by explorer and cartographer Matsuura Takeshiro (1818-1888). Japanese rare book collection, Asian Division, Library of Congress.
The accession date “July 23 1934” stamped on the back of the front cover of “Ezo fudoki” (1856), a work on the history and geography of Ezo, written by Shindokusai and copied by Ariyoshi. Japanese rare book collection, Asian Division, Library of Congress.
“Gift Miss Lucy H. Starr July 23, 1934” penciled on the printer’s imprint page of “The Ainu Group at the Saint Louis Exposition” by Frederick Starr (1904). Library of Congress .
The Japanese rare book collection’s holdings of Ainu and Ezochi titles are accessible to researchers in the Asian Reading Room by prior appointment in accordance with the Asian Division’s Rare Book Policy. To make an appointment or to ask a question about materials in the Japanese collection, please contact reference staff through the Asian Division’s Ask-a-Librarian online inquiry form.

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Comments (7)

  1. In 2018 a lovely anime (Japanese cartoon) was release based on the book by Satoru Noda called “The Golden Kamuy.” If you would like to enjoy a wonderful story about the Ainu people that has been well researched I strongly suggest you take a few minutes and give it a watch. A Google search on The Golden Kamuy anime will provide many websites that host the series.

    Thanks for the story and the great work everyone at the LOC does,


  2. That’s really interesting! As you may or may not know, we here at the University of Oregon are working on Starr’s collection of senjafuda/nosatsu. It would be cool to track down his collection of Japanese folk toys too!

    All the best,


  3. Years ago, City Lights Books in San Francisco published a collection of Ainu myths and ballads, ritual songs of the Ainu people. I’ve only seen one copy, a single volume owned by a friend in Boulder Colorado. Wonderful Ainu songs. I wish I could find the volume. Keep up the good work,
    Best wishes, Peter Rowan

  4. Very interesting! Thank you for providing the missing link.

  5. Having following the trail of this blog post, I am pleased to discover that it is not just Starr’s Ainu materials which came to the LOC, but all of the rare books and materials which he obtained in Japan. They are not easy to find in the catalog but I have found all the ones that I need.

    • From the blog post’s author, Eiichi Ito: “Thank you for reading the blog post and sending your comment! We are happy to hear that it led you to discover materials of interest.”

      The Asian Reading Room’s Japanese reference librarians welcome any additional questions about searching for or accessing Frederick Starr’s books and other materials in the collections at the Library of Congress. Inquiries can be submitted via Ask a Librarian at

  6. Ref.
    The Case of Frederick Starr’s “Missing” Ainu Book Collection
    April 25, 2019
    Posted by: Anchi Hoh Thank you for
    Dear library Irankarapte !
    I am researching here in Sen dai city Ainu language beg phrase book for linguists in the Ainu language. I came across this page and share the ideas and that many books on Ainu language were destroyed in Earthquakes and war and paper rots in Japanese humidity.

    The Photos Em-ush-i sword sheath are upside down when clicking on the Ainu in Katakana only, names are difficult to spell .

    Hopefully the Ainu will be able to build a society and all artifac returned. In Hokkaido university bones of relatives are still not returned it is the same extermination as First nations there are trillions and trillions of books in Japanese book shops where did they get the wood !,and many Ainu books are locked and missing yet there area few to work on but no linguistic words the Chinese traded with Ainu in Sakhalin 500 years ago and made word books in a han ji zi mu a phonetic script from kanji for other nearby languages ,but they got destroyed by war at that time writing Ainu was secret because speaking was death it was ethnic cleansing 19001930many Ainu writers fled Japan to Americas and Russia 30to Trans nistra Ukraine many were in camps and did in US they pleaded saying they are Ainu so they lost the way to record Ainu Japanese is Ainu covered by Chinese hanji so the Ainu language lives after living in Japan 30 years I have been isolated because I study Ainu
    Ainu are still hated we did not drop on Naga saki Hiroshima but I can see poor Ainu face features they know they look different Abe primeMinister was of the Abe =fire clan ate-rui North Japan they are call Emushi sword people sam o ray Ainu of tohoku but they worked for and did war on ate rui Fuji is Ainu grandmother of fire hushi

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