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Ainu music

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Ainu music

Oki Ainu Dub Band live in Rudolstadt, July 6, 2007. The two musicians are playing zithers called tonkori.

Ainu music is the musical tradition of the Ainu people of northern Japan.

Genres include the oldest, yukar (mimicry), which is a form of epic poetry, and upopo, in which "the second contrapuntal voice had to imitate the musical formula in the first contrapuntal voice (not heard until the last moment), at an interval much shorter than that in our western canons, since the second voice attacks the preceding musical formula before the first voice has finished it." (Nattiez 1990, p. 71)

The most famous contemporary performer of Ainu music appears to be the revivalist Oki.

The most useful English-language overview of Ainu music (with recordings and transcriptions) is by CHIBA Nobuhiko.[1]

Traditional Ainu music

Ainu music carries spiritual resonance in almost all of its forms, and it has played an important role in both the cultural history and the cultural renaissance of the Ainu people. Almost every type of Ainu song is sacred, and even the musical instruments are said to be imbued with souls (Ohnuki-Tierney 53). Traditional Ainu music can be divided into two major groups — everyday songs and epic songs. Everyday songs in Ainu tradition were sung in many situations and on an impromptu basis. They were often accompanied by the two most prevalent Ainu musical instruments: the tonkori, a plucked zither, and the mukkuri, a jaw harp played by women.

Woman playing traditional Ainu tonkori zither

These everyday songs are short, fairly simple, and center on an activity like a game or work. The act of singing is itself used as a game in some instances, such as Rekuhkara (Ainu throat-singing) competitions between women. Work songs are rhythmic, with lyrics and melodies based on the work with which they are sung. However, even such everyday songs have sacred rather than mundane meanings. "Chants like the kar upopo (sake-making song) and the iyuta upopo (the pounding song)…are not labor songs; rather, they are magic-oriented, for they are sung to ward off evil spirits," (Kazuyuki 283). Short, everyday songs are also a way of praying. These prayer songs are (or were) performed regularly before meals, after a fishing trip, to ask for luck in hunting, and in many other contexts. Unfortunately, material about everyday songs is very difficult to obtain. Many have never been recorded.

Ainu epic songs, yukar, are performed as long monologues. The singer performs the song entirely from memory, and, traditionally, in a non-formal setting such as a friend’s house or before the hearth at a gathering. While somewhat casual, these epics are still more formal than the short prayer songs mentioned earlier. Both men and women recite Ainu epics, though the vocal qualities of women are considered preferable to those of men. The epic songs are fairly rhythmic melodic chants. The voice of the singer usually fluctuates within words, and phrases and sentences are distinguished by the melody. Singers strive for their audience to understand every word. The epic is unaccompanied by musical instruments, though at times both the singer and the listener might tap repni, or simple blocks of wood, against the hearth or the floor to help keep time and punctuate the epic. Certain paintings also show these epics being performed lying down, with the singer beating time on his or her abdomen with the hands, but this practice has faded into obscurity (Philippi 26).

Epics themselves take several different forms. Following Philippi’s model and dividing them in two different ways, they can be distinguished by both subject and style. Philippi divides epic subjects into two groups: mythic narratives and heroic narratives (23). Mythic narratives are those epics featuring origin stories and stories of deities, while heroic narratives are those narratives featuring the cultural heroes of the Ainu. Mythic narratives can be told either from the point of view of a human observer or from the point of view of the divine participant. One of the most distinctive aspects of Ainu epics is this first person god point of view. Heroic narratives feature one of several major culture heroes, or recurring protagonists of mythical origins, such as Kotan-Kor-Kamui, or the Owl God. Though these culture heroes are often presented as gods, they are more human than they seem. They are analogous to the Navajo and Apache Coyote; while he is a god, he is representative of human interests and foibles. Stylistically, epics can be divided into two more categories. Some epics are novelistic and feature a set chain of events involving gods and humans, while others, which Philippi refers to as parodies, feature abnormal situations — unexplained phenomena and dreams, presented without a clear chronological narrative (24). These "parody" epics are very rare.

Epics, as well as a few of the more everyday songs, are regularly featured in Ainu ceremonies. For example, the most famous of Ainu cultural events, the "bear-sending ceremony," is accompanied by a whole host of songs, not the least of which is the "Song of a Bear," a mythic epic. This epic relates the story of the bear god, who, in saving his young son, is killed by human hunters. The song both presents the situation from the god’s point of view — he is confused when he is killed, and doesn’t recognize his own dead body for what it is — and prescribes the methods for the bear-sending ceremony. The premise for the bear-sending is that the bear god is trapped in his mortal body, and by killing the bear in a ritualized, respectful manner, humans are doing the god a favor and sending him home. The song describes the inau, or carved sticks that are used as holy objects by the Ainu, as well as the prayers and ceremonies that are used to send the bear home. In this way, the ceremony and the epic are somewhat inseparable. The activities of the ceremony are outlined by the epic, and the epic accompanies the ceremony to reinforce it. Though the epic can be performed outside of the ceremony, it cannot exist without the ceremony as context, and the ceremony cannot be performed without the epic. These epics, as well as the everyday songs, represent the cultural heritage of the Ainu and allow us to understand customs and their mythic significance, but they also act as indicators of the relative well-being of the Ainu culture.

Identity and marginalization

Ainu music has been important throughout the years in both reflecting and establishing the Ainu cultural identity. Ainu music, historically, has represented the state of Ainu society. The folkloric epics of the Ainu often refer directly to the state of the Ainu as a group. For example, when the Ainu were first conquered, in the period of decline after the 16th century, the culture heroes featured in the heroic types of epics were said to have "departed in indignation," (Philippi 14). In addition to this kind of direct representation of Ainu cultural identity, the variable increase and decline of Ainu music is also indicative of Ainu culture. In the peak Ainu period, the most complex and fantastic epics were created, stretching out to tens of thousands of verses and building on new and complex ideas. In the most desperate period for the Ainu, however, in late 19th and early 20th centuries, when the population declined to only 15,000 or so, Ainu music was very scarce; even the famous bear-sending ceremony was described as a "once-in-a-lifetime" experience in 1948.[2]

The pressure on Ainu music throughout their history as a people under the rule of a dominant majority has come largely from the [3] While these excerpts are indicative of the attitude of the government that the Ainu should conform to the rest of Japanese society, the pamphlet’s very existence counters the idea that they fit in. The pamphlet goes on to detail the very differences that make the Ainu worth writing a tourism pamphlet on, describing their customs and ceremonies and even pointing out their racial differences.

This kind of contradiction is actually characteristic of the way the Japanese government has treated the Ainu, especially in the early 20th century. Besides publications such as the aforementioned pamphlet, the government also created cultural shows featuring Ainu song and dance that acted as tourist attractions (this occurred, of course, after the ban on Ainu music had been lifted). Ainu singers and dancers could often only find an avenue for their talents, and in some cases, find any job at all, in these cultural shows. The shows featured sacred, ceremonial songs, especially those of the famous bear-sending. The songs would be repeated three or four times a day, for dozens of tourists. Kayano Shigeru, who some have called "Ainu personified" (Sjoberg 154), a prominent Ainu public figure, recalls the shows he participated in with shame. "It is beyond words for me to explain to others how miserable it made us feel to sing and dance — albeit for money — in front of curious tourists from throughout Japan when we weren’t even happy or excited," (Kayano 119). The government was, in effect, encouraging certain aspects of Ainu culture while concurrently suppressing it as a whole. Ceremonial songs and dances became both a viable means of making a living and a shameful badge of dishonor.

In recent years, however, Ainu music has begun to take part in an intense Ainu cultural revival. The Ainu began reclaiming their identity as a cultural group in the 1960s and 70s, meeting with one another, creating organized groups, and even developing an Ainu flag. While most of this reclamation occurred by way of peaceful meetings and beneficial organizations such as Kayano Shigeru’s work for a national Ainu museum, some groups, like Ainu Liberation, used terrorist tactics such as the bombing of October 23, 1972 to attract attention to their cause. As a whole, however, the movement for Ainu cultural identity has been exacted through cultural media such as art, storytelling, and music, and political tactics like voting blocs and nonviolent protests. In the 70s and 80s, festival and ceremonial revivals began to occur, acting as a catalyst for cultural unity (Siddle 36). When Ainu ceremonies were performed regularly for the first time in years, it allowed Ainu to come together, to identify and get to know one another through the avenue of culture, and to bond through that avenue as well. In addition to the creation of community in this way, and because Ainu song is so firmly rooted in history, Ainu were able to reclaim their folkloric history through these ceremonies (Siddle 37).

The revival of Ainu culture, and especially music, has meant more than just the development of a cohesive group of Ainu people, however. It has, not surprisingly, also resulted in the rise of an Ainu-music pop star on the Japanese stage. Oki Kano, the most prominent player of Ainu-inspired pop music in Japan, plays songs that are based on Ainu ceremonial songs. They use indigenous Ainu instruments, Ainu language, and Ainu subject matter, but also include Western influences such as guitar and bass, and sound similar to American blues music. Oki Kano is fairly well known in Japan, and represents the idea of Ainu music to many Japanese people, even though his music is very Westernized.

Famous Ainu composers


  1. ^ Chiba, Nobuhiko (2008). "14: The music of the Ainu". In A. Tokita & D. Hughes. The Ashgate Research Companion to Japanese Music. Farnham, UK: Ashgate. p. 446.  
  2. ^ *Kayano, Shigeru. Our Land Was a Forest: An Ainu Memoir. Boulder: Westview Press, 1980.
  3. ^ *Kyosuke, Kindaiti. Ainu Life and Legends. Tokyo: Board of Tourist Industry, Japanese Government Railways, 1941.


  • Tanimoto, Kazuyuki. "To Live is to Sing." Ainu: Spirit of a Northern People. Ed. William Fitzhugh and C.O. Dubrueil. Washington, D.C.: University of Washington Press in assoc. Arctic Studies Center, National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution, 1999.
  • Tanimoto, Kazuyuki."Music of the Ainu, Nivkhi, and Uilta." The Garland Encyclopedia of World Music. Eds. R.C. Provine, Y. Tokumaru, and J.L. Witzleben. New York: Routledge, 2002.
  • Nattiez, Jean-Jacques (1990). Music and Discourse: Toward a Semiology of Music (Musicologie générale et sémiologue, 1987). Translated by Carolyn Abbate (1990). ISBN 0-691-02714-5.
  • Ohnuki-Tierney, Emiko. The Ainu of the Northwest Coast of Southern Sakhalin. Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland Press, 1974.
  • Phillipi, Donald. Songs of Gods, Songs of Humans: The Epic Tradition of the Ainu. Tokyo: University of Tokyo Press, 1979.
  • Takakura, Shinichiro. "The Ainu of Northern Japan: A Study in Conquest and Acculturation." Transactions of the American Philosophical Society. 4th part. 50 (1960).
  • Siddle, Richard. "Ainu: Japan’s Indigenous People." Japan’s Minorities: The Illusion of Homogeneity. Ed. Michael Weiner. London: Routledge, 1997.
  • Sjoberg, Katarina. The Return of the Ainu: Cultural Mobilization and the Practice of Ethnicity in Japan. Switzerland: Harwood Academic Publishers, 1993.

See also

List of Ainu instruments

External links

  • Vanishing Ainu of North Japan excerpt by Takakura, Shin'ichiro (Oct 1966)
  • Japan Times: Ainu group brings to U.S. musical message of peace By Carolyn Nardiello - Requires login
  • THE TRADITIONAL MUSIC OF THE AINU – NEW APPROACHES AND FINDINGS Journal of Comparative Cultures - NO. 16. Sapporo University 2005, by Carlo Forlivesi
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