Documentary Ainu-e: Curious Sites of Ezo

During the Edo period, as Japan became increasingly involved in Hokkaido’s trade, lumber, and fishing industries, stories of the Ainu and their “exotic” customs fascinated many residents in Japan’s growing cities. These three handscrolls are part of a set illustrating the work Curious Sites of Ezo (Ezoshima kikan, also known as Ezotō kikan) by Murakami Shimanojō (born Hata Awagimaru, 1764-1808). Murakami was an adventurer who traveled to Hokkaido and the Kuril Islands and published his observations of Ainu culture in 1799. The book was a great success and was subsequently reproduced by many artists throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The copy featured here is likely attributed to Hayasaka Bunrei (1797-1867), who moved to Hokkaido in the 1840s and became a painter for the Matsumae family was well as a prominent Ainu-e artist.1

These three scrolls are a mid-nineteenth century reproduction of  Murakami’s original account. The first scroll begins on the far right with an (attributed) Ainu origin story known as “The Tale of the Dog Ancestor.” Though there are many different origin tales within the Ainu’s rich storytelling traditions, according to Murakami’s account (the prevailing version among his Wajin Japanese readers) there once was a beautiful goddess who came to earth and, drifting ashore near the town of Hidaka on Hokkaido, took shelter in a cave. A passing dog took pity on her and brought her food from the sea and the mountains. The two eventually wed, and their children became the first Ainu.2 While Murakami credits this tale as being the origin story of the Ainu people, there is a great deal of speculation and controversy around this particular tale, as early Wajin Japanese colonizers used the word “dog” (inu in Japanese) as a derogatory slur in reference to the Ainu, and relied on stories like these to justify their racist treatment of Hokkaido’s indigenous peoples.3

Murakami then continues on in the first scroll by describing some of the traditional garments and adornments he observed while on his travels, such as men’s sapaunpe head ornaments, and women’s hooped earrings, sitoki (shitoki) medallions, tamasay necklaces, and the all-important custom of tattooing. Tattoos, known as sinuye (shinuye), were a sign of womanhood and beauty in the Ainu community, and were traditionally made by making small incisions with a makiri knife and pressing soot into the wound. The most prominent tattoo was made on the face around the lips, however Ainu women also sported intricate tattoo designs on their hands and arms.4

                Detail of tattooing

                                  “The Tale of the Dog Ancestor”                                                                                                                                      Detail of tattooing                                  

In the second and third scrolls, Murakami notes a number of other cultural practices that would have been of great interest to his Edo audience, such as seal hunting, inaw prayer sticks, the uimam trade, game-hunting techniques, and finally, the iyomante “bear festival.” Because these customs were quite new to many Japanese readers, works like Curious Sites of Ezo attempted to relay Ainu traditions  as much attention to detail as possible. A clear example of this is the way in which the artist uses a figure’s hand, fingers, and forearm to express traditional Ainu measurement systems and represent the dimensions of hunting arrows.5 Of all the “documentary” Ainu-e works, Curious Sites of Ezo was the most popular and was subsequently reproduced numerous times throughout the nineteenth century.