Ainu-e Tropes

While many Ainu-e paintings did pay close attention to detail when portraying certain aspects of Ainu material culture, others were created simply to illustrate exciting, exotic scenes for popular consumption. In these works, artists frequently utilized ancient, harmful stereotypes to depict Ainu individuals, portraying Ainu peoples and their culture as “exotic” and alien. This Meiji era scroll, entitled Ainu Fisherman with Woman Suckling a Bear Cub, illustrates just some of the typical tropes used to depict Ainu subjects. The man, for example, is painted with low-set eyes and a furrowed brow in addition to his thick beard and uncut nails, and particular emphasis is placed on his abundant body hair. The woman, meanwhile, prominently displays her distinctive tattoos and openly nurses a bear cub. While Ainu men often wore long beards and Ainu women did sport tattoos and occasionally nurse bear cubs, without contextualizing these customs (ie: tattooing was an important rite-of-passage for Ainu women, while bear cubs being prepared for the iyomante were raised and treated like a human child), images like this present the Ainu as an “exotic other.”

Many of the stereotypical and derogatory tropes utilized by Ainu-e artists date back to eighth century tomes like the Kojiki and Nihon Shōki. As the Yamato (Japanese) state began to centralize in the seventh and eighth centuries, Wajin Japanese officials of preset-day western Japan characterized the diverse peoples living in the north and east (such as the Ainu and Emishi) as “hairy barbarians.” These descriptions ultimately enabled the Yamato state to construct ethnic, cultural, and territorial boundaries, and imagine itself the “civilized center” in contrast to the perceived savagery of their peripheral “barbarian” neighbors.1 While the reality of life was far more complex—with a great deal of exchange and intermingling between ancient Japan’s diverse peoples—these descriptions nevertheless lived on in the collective imagination of early Japan, transitioning into the visual arts as well. Some of the earliest works depicting the peoples of northern Japan are from the late-Heian (794-1185) and early Kamakura (1185-1333) periods: such as the Illustrated Biography of Shōtoku Taishi (Shōtoku taishi denryaku, earliest copy dated 1069) and the Illustrated Record of Suwa Daimyōjin (Suwa Daimyōjin ekotoba, 1356). These works portray the peoples of northern Japan as almost “demon-like” barbarians, and utilize many of the same visual conceits found hundreds of years later in Edo and Meiji period Ainu-e.2 These tropes continued to stereotype the Ainu as a “wild” and “primitive,” and ultimately served to justify Japan’s assimilationist policies in later centuries.

1.) Isao Kikuchi, “Early Ainu Contacts with the Japanese” in Ainu: Spirit of a Northern People, 74-75.

2.) Toshikazu Sasaki, “Ainu-e: A Historical Review” in Ainu: Spirit of a Northern People,79-81.

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