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Sunday, May 27, 2012

The Ancient Roots of Japan

I was led to Harukor by Honda Katsuichi after I read his book The Nanjing Massacre, and searched for others by him available in English.

Harukor is from the perspective of an Ainu woman.  The book is categorized as fiction, but there is a great deal of introductory background  material.   I considered this fortunate since I knew little about the Ainu before picking up Harukor .  Honda decided to write a novel about the Ainu because nothing is definitely known about the way they lived in pre-history. The Ainu are the original inhabitants of Japan.  It didn't surprise me that their history is very similar to that of  Native Americans.  I wondered if they are related to any North American peoples.

The religion of the Ainu is animistic.  Everything has a spirit.  This includes objects.  I enjoyed a story that is told in the novel dealing with the dancing spirit of a cooking pot.  Yet another story in which six men are beheaded simultaneously by one sword was very much over the top for me.

The ending of Harukor segues into their recorded history.  It begins the tale of the conflict-ridden relationship between the Ainu and the Japanese.  Honda says that he meant to finish it, but I didn't find any other books by him about the Ainu in English.  Perhaps there is another that is still untranslated.

At one point Honda compares an Ainu woman with shamanistic gifts to an Itako spirit medium.  Since spirit mediums are an area of interest for me, I did some research on Itako mediums.

According to a Brandeis University website, Itako are blind female shamans who become possessed with the spirits of the dead.  Wooden figurines and traditional chants are often used by them to achieve trance.  The women begin their training as teens.  See Itako Spirit Mediums .  A page on a website called Jezebel, The Dying Arts of the Itako , quotes a New York Times article saying that Itako mediumship is disappearing.  The article appeared in 2009.  At that point there were only four Itako spirit mediums left in Japan.  There used to be hundreds of them.  Becoming an Itako was once the best future open to blind women in Japan.  Now there are other opportunities available to the blind.  Yet Itako mediumship is supposed to be older than Shinto.  Perhaps Itako practices are derived from Ainu shamanism.

There is a book about Japanese shamanism that has some discussion about Itako mediums. So readers who want to learn more should turn to  The Catalpa Bow  by Carmen Blacker.

I did learn something about the Ainu from Harukor ,but I suspect that this is just the beginning for me.  I will be astonished if I don't blog about a book dealing with the Ainu within the next month or so.


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