Ainu-e Paintings

As contact between Japanese and Ainu communities increased, stories of the Ainu and their seemingly “strange” customs reached deeper into Japan. Japanese-produced paintings showing scenes of Ainu life and culture—known collectively as Ainu-e1—soon became a popular genre of painting. Beginning in the Edo period (1615-1868) and lasting well into the Meiji era (1868-1912), many of these works straddled the line between encyclopedic documentation and exaggerated exoticization.1 On the one hand, Ainu-e were intended to help the audience visualize Ainu customs like the Santan trade, the iyomante “bear festival,” women’s tattoos, and traditional attire, which would have been unfamiliar to the vast majority of Edo-era Japanese. Therefore, some works do seem to pay great attention to detail when illustrating certain aspects of Ainu traditions and material culture. On the other hand, however, other traditions were seemingly illustrated simply to show how “strange” the customs of their northern neighbors were. Furthermore, ancient prejudices against the “northern barbarians” remained strong among many, and the Japanese artists who created Ainu-e often relied on stereotypical tropes to depict their subjects, making many of these works incredibly problematic.2 While the tradition of Ainu-e took root and flourished throughout the Edo and Meiji periods, as tourist industries developed in Hokkaido during the Taishō (1912-1923) and early Shōwa (1923-1989) eras, souvenir shops continued to sell reproductions of Ainu-e paintings, perpetuating problematic imagery of Ainu peoples well into the modern and even contemporary eras. Important Ainu-e artists whose works can be found in the JSMA collection include Murakami Shimanojō (1764-1808), Hayasaka Bunrei (1797-1867), Hirasawa Byōzan (1822-1876), and his pupil, Kimura Hakō.

1.) “Ainu pictures” in Japanese.

2.) Toshikazu Sasaki, “Ainu-e: A Historical Review” in Ainu: Spirit of a Northern People, 79.

2.) Ibid., 82.

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