Smithsonian - National Museum of Natural Historyheader spaceAinu

Ainu: Spirit of a Northern People

A People's Past
Room 2 Overview

Slideshow narration:

During their early history, the Ainu mastered seafaring, both as hunters and traders. From the 14th through 17th centuries, they were important intermediaries between Japanese, Korean, Russian, Chinese, Manchurian, and Dutch markets. But as some of these states expanded, the Ainu could not maintain their advantage. During the 18th and 19th centuries Japanese merchants essentially indentured the coastal Ainu during the fishing season. The final blow came in 1868, when the Japanese government encouraged Japanese settlement on Hokkaido and prohibited the Ainu from observing their daily customs.

Opening Credits:

Ship Model
Constructed by Masahiro Nomoto

Early Maritime Vessel
ca. 1798 by unknown artist
Courtesy of K. Ohtsuka

Uimam Ceremony
From "Scenes from Ezo" by Teiryo Kodama, mid 18th century
Historical Museum of Hokkaido

(1) Room QTVR change title to Viewing the 360 (degree) Image

(1) Object QTVR

1. Twined Basket - 360
Basketry traditions around the globe have ancient roots and are often indicators of cultural contact and change. Ainu basketry has interested anthropologists because of its similarity with that of other North Pacific cultures. Twined-grass baskets like this saranip with a braided rim are nearly identical to baskets made by Yup'ik Eskimos in southwestern Alaska, but whether this is due to ancient connections, recent contact. , or chance remains a mystery.

Harvard University, Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology 64026

Add QTVR instructions:
Viewing the 360 (degree) image

(3) Objects Stills w/captions

1. Sealskin Boots
Like other North Pacific peoples, the Ainu of Sakhalin Island utilized sea mammals for food, oil, and many types of clothing. Sealskin boots were more durable and waterproof than any other type of footgear until the invention of rubber and were usually worn with grass insulation. This pair, collected from Sakhalin before 1893, seems never to have been used.

Field Museum of Natural History 32104

2. Ikotoi, Chieftain of Atsukeshi
From the mid-1700s until the early 1900s, Japanese artists produced a vivid record of Ainu life. Many of these painters never actually saw their subjects. They often based their works, called Ainu-e, on reports of explorers or merchants.

1843 copy by Teiki Kojima after Hakyo Kakizaki's work, "Portraits of Ezo Chieftains."
Y. and M. Kitao Collection

Although the Ainu-e (which means "Ainu illustrations") capture many details of everyday Ainu activities and seasonal ceremonies, it is important to remember that these paintings also express the prejudices of artists who regarded the Ainu as quaint natives, inferiors, or even savages.

3. Early Maritime Vessel
This work by an unknown artist is the oldest known painting (ca. 1798) of an oceangoing canoe (itaomachip). Seven Ainu in yellow, elm bark robes power the boat with oars and a woven-mat sail; two men in kimono are Japanese. The inscription in Japanese reads, "passage to Kunashiri and Iturup Island," two of the southern Kurile Islands. The painting documents the use of Ainu boats to transport Japanese officials and trading partners, but as competition increased, the Ainu lost their competitive edge in trade between Japan, Korea, and the Amur River region, and their maritime tradition faded away. Boat-building traditions have been resurrected as community and museum projects, aided by Ainu-e illustrating boats.

ca. 1798 by unknown artist
Courtesy of K. Ohtsuka

Although the Ainu-e (which means "Ainu illustrations") capture many details of everyday Ainu activities and seasonal ceremonies, it is important to remember that these paintings also express the prejudices of artists who regarded the Ainu as quaint natives, inferiors, or even savages.

4. Sea-going Canoe
The Ainu made sea-going canoes from hollowed-out logs, building up the sides with two or more planks overlapped and sewn in place. The largest vessels, which were more than 50 feet long and 10 feet wide, were equipped with sails and oars and could sail on the open sea. The skills to build these vessels survive among the Ainu today. This model was built by Masahiro Nomoto, an Ainu curator at the Ainu Museum in Shiraoi, Hokkaido. Using traditional Ainu tools and a yellow cedar log, Mr. Nomoto carved the model at the Smithsonian Institution during the summer of 1998.

(3) Videos

1. Commentary on Trade by Curator William Fitzhugh

"This room is dedicated to trade, Ainu trade and contacts with foreign and neighboring peoples, which extended all the way south into Japan on the one side, to Korea on the west and north to Sakhalin and the Amur basin and Siberia, as well as up the Kurile Islands to Kamchatka. So they were in a real wonderful sort of crossroads area of East Asia, maritime East Asia, and they were the people who traded and moved materials around that part of the world for probably the last thousand or maybe even two thousand years. In this room we see lots of trade materials that were brought into Ainu culture, enriched Ainu culture, and actually were transformed into what Ainu culture really stood for, much of it being foreign materials. They also were suppliers for the Japanese, bringing silks from China, down across the seaways into Japan, and moving other materials even across the Kurile Islands and up to Kamchatka. So they were great sailors and their boats were capable of open sea travel, and some may even wonder if they didn't get across the North Pacific to Northwest America."

2. Commentary on Canoe by Exhibit Producer Joe Madeira

"When we set out to do this exhibit we wanted to get a full size scale or a full size feeling of what an Ainu ocean-going canoe is like. Basically we wanted to do a type of diorama with just the bow of a ship coming out and then the rest of the ship would be portrayed in a painting or something in the background. So I went through several people to try to find a tree big enough. What I ended up doing was finding a tree on the internet and when Mr. Nomoto arrived here the first thing he said was "No we can't do just half a ship or half a canoe because in this log that you have there's already a canoe there", and to me that was amazing, was that this tree already contained a full canoe and if we were to make just part of a canoe we would definitely be disturbing the Kamuy, or the gods and it just wasn't even an option. So what we had to do was rearrange some things and we ended up having a scale model of a full sized canoe and the diorama in the back was a type of Ainu-e painting which showed almost in the same length a picture of an ocean-going canoe with people in it so you could get the scale. What happened was amazing. This canoe really became one of the focal points of the exhibition."

3. Commentary on Boots by Curator Chisato Dubreuil

"These are seal-skin boots and these were collected before1893. Looking at these delicate designs, beautiful, vivid red that was surrounding the top of the boots I think they are made by the Sakhalin Ainu. Looking at the garment and the boot designs we can see the cultural connection with other neighboring people in the Pacific Rim."

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