(The following is a post by Cameron Penwell, Japanese Reference Librarian, Asian Division.)
Among the rich and diverse holdings of the Asian Division’s Japanese Rare Book Collection are some 100 titles related to the Ainu, an indigenous people who have traditionally resided in the far north of the Japanese archipelago in an area centered on the island known today as Hokkaido. With the recent launch of the Ainu and Ezochi Rare Collection, 63 of these titles have been made freely available online, together with two existing digitized rare maps from the Geography & Map Division.
Many of the items in this collection can be traced back to the private collection of American anthropologist Frederick Starr (1853-1933). An earlier blog post explores the curious provenance of books from Starr’s personal library in detail: “The Case of Frederick Starr’s ‘Missing’ Ainu Book Collection.”
As more materials are digitized in the coming months, the Ainu and Ezochi Rare Collection will expand to contain more than 100 woodblock-printed and manuscript books as well as printed and hand-drawn maps produced during the 18th and 19th centuries. These materials document Japanese exploration and observation of the island and contemporary prefecture of Hokkaido in Japan, as well as Sakhalin and the Kuril Islands, now part of Russia.
For several centuries, these areas were inhabited primarily by Ainu peoples, who shared closely related languages, traditions, and modes of existence that were distinct from their ethnic Japanese neighbors to the south. Prior to and during much of the Edo period (1600-1868), the range of Ainu communities also extended south across parts of northern Honshu, the largest of the four major islands that comprise modern Japan, in addition to the eastern Amur River region and southern Kamchatka in present-day Russia.
From the viewpoint of ethnic Japanese, or Wajin 和人 as the Ainu called them, these northern lands were collectively known as Ezo 蝦夷, or Ezochi 蝦夷地 (“Ezo land”), a name suggestive of a less civilized or culturally inferior people. In the Ainu’s own language the word “ainu” simply means “human,” and they traditionally referred to the areas they inhabited as “ainu mosir” (“land of humans”). Beginning in the 17th century, the Wajin began pushing further into historically Ainu lands, establishing a foothold on the southern tip of Hokkaido. In contrast to Ezochi, where the Ainu predominated, territory controlled by ethnic Japanese became known as Wajinchi 和人地 (“Wajin land”). During the 18th and 19th centuries, growing numbers of Wajin set out to explore, survey, and map Ezochi for political, economic, and military reasons.
Because the Ainu did not possess a written language, works in Japanese represent the earliest textual accounts of Ainu culture. One notable example is “Ezo shi” 蝦夷志 (“Record of Ezo”), which was originally published in 1720 by the noted scholar and high-ranking bureaucrat Arai Hakuseki 新井白石 (1657-1725). While earlier Japanese references to the Ainu predate this work by decades or even centuries, it is nevertheless significant for being the first known systematic study of Ezochi and the Ainu and also for featuring scenes of Ainu daily life illustrated by first-hand observers.
The Asian Division holds two different manuscript editions of this title: one is “Ezo shi” (not yet digitized), created no earlier than 1720; the other is “Ezo shi: tsuketari, kokuzu ippo” (“Record of Ezo, with maps”), an edition which dates to around 1740 and added hand-drawn maps (regrettably, the maps seem to have been separated from this particular copy). In premodern manuscript books like “Ezo shi,” both the textual content and the style and quality of illustrations can vary among different editions, as seen in the examples above. Digitizing materials such as these allows scholars to study and compare such variations among copies housed in collections around the world.
Many of the materials also feature color illustrations that document the Ainu people’s unique clothing, housing, dance, rituals, and other customs, albeit from the perspective of the Japanese rather than the Ainu themselves. In addition to detailing the Ainu people’s way of life, many of these works also highlight the flora and fauna unique to Ezochi. Two fine examples include the three-volume “Ezo no shimabumi” 蝦夷の島踏 (“Traversing of Ezo Island”) and “Bogo Shiretoko nisshi” 戊午・知床日誌 (“Diary of Shiretoko Peninsula”). The latter work was by Matsuura Takeshirō 松浦武四郎 (1818-1888), an explorer, author, and artist who wrote extensively about his travels in Ezochi. Several other works by Matsuura have also been digitized.
While much of the collection consists of items from the Japanese Rare Book Collection in the Asian Division, it also includes two Japanese maps from the rare collection in the Geography & Map Division. One of them is the famous “Sangoku tsūran yochi rotei zenzu” 三国通覧輿地路程全圖 (“A complete map survey of three countries”) by Hayashi Shihei 林子平 (1738-1793), which features maps of Chosŏn Korea, the Ryukyu Kingdom, and Ezochi. In a companion text titled “Sangoku tsūran zusetsu” 三國通覧圖說 (“An illustrated survey of three countries”) Hayashi outlined an argument that Japan should develop its northern frontier to prevent future encroachment from Russia, among other topics. As more rare and significant maps related to the Ainu and Ezochi are digitized, they will be added to further enrich this collection.
In the second half of the 19th century, as part of a broader effort to modernize and strengthen the country as a bulwark against the Western imperial powers, the newly centralized Japanese government set out on a colonizing mission of its own—to settle Ezochi with Japanese citizens, bring it firmly under Japanese sovereignty, and reap the benefits of its bountiful natural resources. To administer this process, the government set up the Hokkaido Development Agency in July 1869. As the number of incoming Japanese grew, the Ainu, who were primarily fishers, hunters, and gatherers, were displaced from their lands and forced into adopting the settled agricultural lifestyle of the Japanese. Ainu language and customs were rejected as “uncivilized,” and from 1898 Ainu children were compelled to attend newly created public schools to hasten their assimilation as imperial Japanese subjects. This unfortunate period in Ainu history closely mirrors the experience of indigenous peoples in many countries around the world during the 19th and 20th centuries, which was marked by the disappropriation of traditional lands and policies of forced cultural assimilation.
Today, the number of individuals in Japan who identify as Ainu or as having Ainu ancestry remains difficult to calculate, but estimates range from 20,000 up to 200,000. Given these numbers, many Ainu traditions and cultural practices are at risk of disappearing, especially those transmitted orally or informally. Against a backdrop of increasing international recognition of indigenous groups through such milestones as the 2007 “United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples,” in recent decades, scholars and activists in Japan and around the world have expanded efforts to study and preserve Ainu language, history and culture.
These endeavors complement existing efforts within the Ainu community itself and have been buttressed by a new 2019 law that officially recognizes the Ainu as an indigenous people group and obligates the Japanese government to preserve and promote understanding of the Ainu people and their culture. A major initiative in this regard is the creation of the Upopoy National Ainu Museum and Park, scheduled to open later in 2020 in Shiraoi, Hokkaido. (For more details on the recent legislation, and similar laws that preceded it, see “Japan: New Ainu Law Becomes Effective” from the Law Library’s Global Legal Monitor.)
As more people inside and outside of Japan take a greater interest in preserving and learning about the history, culture, and folklife of the Ainu people, we hope that an international audience of readers and scholars will find ways to make use of materials in the Ainu and Ezochi Rare Collection to contribute to these goals.
For questions or additional information about the Ainu and Ezochi Rare Collection or any other Ainu-related materials in the Japanese collection, please use the Asian Division’s Ask-a-Librarian.