Ainu Shamanism:A Forbidden Path to Universal Knowledge
The Ainu are the largest indigenous population of Japan. They descended from the first peoples on the Japanese archipelago, commonly referred to as the Jômon, who migrated there more than 10,000 years ago. Some Ainu populations developed large-scale sedentary communities in the northern part of the archipelago that thrived until the migrations and influence from the Asian mainland began to dominate about 1,200 years ago. In Ainu shamanism, classical shaman-type and latter-day mediums once coexisted.
According to oral traditions, ancient Ainu male shamans had characteristics similar to those discussed by Michael Winkelman (see page 12 this issue) in that they were social leaders who provided divination and healing. Ainu shamans, particularly those in Sakhalin1, had primary roles in ceremonies that often lasted all night and involved the entire local community, during which participants danced, played musical instruments, and chanted to produce an altered state of consciousness (ASC). ASC allowed the shamans to perform various types of "miracles," including diagnosis and prophecy. In ancient times, Ainu shamans would fly, transform into animals, have animal kin, control spirits, and assist in hunting, fishing, and wars. In many Ainu epic poems, heaven-sent culture heroes such as okikurumi, considered half-human and half-god, achieve full adulthood and leadership through death-and-rebirth experiences. Sisters or female allies, who also foresee things and perform miracles, often assist these heroes.
Ainu shamanism has deep historical roots and pluralistic origins, and had undergone several transformations.2 Shamans of ancient Ainu culture were male and female, and their work consisted of numerous ceremonies and festivals throughout the year. Before traditional Ainu shamanism went into a decline after the 17th century, Ainu society developed a theocracy that functioned through elaborate rituals and a complex belief system. In those days, some male practitioners had political power as chiefs, and led military forces in times of war. Over time a gender-specific division of labor developed: male ceremonial masters conducted ceremonies and sacrifices, and female mediums managed practical dealings with the spirits. They cured the sick through seances and traditional medicine, performed the roles of various deities in dramatic rituals, and gave prophecies while "possessed." Various rituals of Ainu justice, such as ordeal by hot water or rocks, may have originated in shamanistic practice. Ainu shamans were known to perform magic tricks such as rope and net escapes.
Later Ainu shamanism became characterized by the predominance of female shamanistic healers and mediums. While some female healers retain characteristics closer to shaman—such as having animal kin; manipulating animal spirits; and leading communal ceremonies, rites, and even political confrontation with outside authorities—the majority of Ainu female shamanistic practitioners are more like mediums. They use ASC and spirit-world interactions and perform community healing, but instead of controlling spirits, they are believed to be possessed by them, and in most cases they do not remember what they utter or do during their possession. Today, the Ainu word tus designates the passive act of entering ASC through possession, and this ability alone suffices to mark the individual as a medium, tuskur.3
In recent times female tuskur have become the norm. A tuskur diagnoses and heals through possession ASC, during which kamuy (spirits) and ancestral souls can reside in her and provide knowledge of the spirit world, taboos, and medicinal herbs.
Among the Ainu, persons with shamanistic abilities are named according to the abilities they display. Modern Ainu from Nibutani village on the island of Hokkaidô recognize several varieties of abilities in addition to tus: u-e-inkar (clairvoyance), u-e-potar (incantation and curse), tek-e-inu (the healing hand), and imu (a kind of spontaneous trance) (Nagai 1983). U-e-inkar is a key attribute of a shamanistic healer, and persons with this ability are called ueinkarkur.
The Ainu concepts regarding shamanistic practices show a rich specialized vocabulary. The persons most vital to the shamanic heritage are not necessarily found with the overt label of tuskur. Midwives (i-ko-inkar-kur, meaning "it-that-which-see-person") have played a crucial role in transmitting the spiritual and medico-physiological wisdom and skills of the Ainu people. While ikoinkarkur does not designate an overall shamanistic category, in practice midwives have come to be the most important and loyal keepers of the sacred heritage of the Ainu. (Nagai 1983)
Conditions and Treatments
Ainu shamanistic healers treated a variety of illnesses, physiological and mental, through highly complex methods and procedures that appear to be based on a combination of surgical, physiological, and spiritual understandings of the human body in its relationship to the natural and social world. Ainu shamanistic healers in the village of Nibutani, for example, treated female illnesses and disorders including menstrual problems, hormone deficiency, and inability to produce breast milk; intestinal disorders; skin disorders; rheumatism and neuralgia; cerebral disorders including brain tumors and mental retardation; and autism and behavioural disorders; as well as common cold, fever, and various childhood illnesses. They also provided reflexology treatment for all kinds of disorders. They regularly used herbal and medicinal food (including live and dried earth worms, animal hearts, and blood) as well as tiger eye stones. The preparation and application of these medicines often followed a ritual consisting of kamuy-nomi (prayer to spirits) and offerings.
The Ainu took special care when utilizing natural resources, for they believed that not only a material substance but also its life force cured an illness: When a mother could not produce breast milk, male elders or female shamanic healer/midwives performed a ceremony in the mountains to receive the soul of a white birch tree. They began the ritual with a prayer in which they gave the tree a wooden prayer stick and hung a sash around its trunk. The elders danced and prayed to the tree, then shaved off the inner and outer bark, and brought it to the patient's home, where it was boiled in water and administered. The whole tree would die in a few days, giving its entire life force to the patient.
An Ainu Midwife
The late Aoki Aiko of Nibutani was an expert tuskur, ueinkarkur, and a fluent Ainu storyteller, but what made her truly "professional" was her training as a midwife. Under this blanket category, Aiko subsumed the highly esoteric aspects of Ainu traditional medicine, permeated with both spiritual learning and biological and medical knowledge. Aoki Aiko was also a clairvoyant and healer with tekeinu. She had knowledge and skills of moxa treatment and acupuncture. She attended approximately 550 deliveries, including a number that were high-risk, without a single failure. Aiko was illiterate, lacking formal education. She was trained by her mother, also a gifted ikoinkarkur, who had Aiko perform her first midwifery at age 19. At 31, Aiko acquired tekeinu from her mother, who passed away five months later. Her tus began at age 32, and her ueinkar nine years later, after a bout with a cancer. (Nagai 1983)
People visited Aiko seeking advice from the ancestral spirits, which used Aiko's body during possession. When she acquired the clairvoyance abilities the knowledge came to her directly in a seemingly ordinary state and she no longer needed possession ASC. She also conducted ceremonies such as prayer to kamuy and used charms. She provided chiropractic treatments, prescribed and produced more than 100 types of traditional Ainu medications, and gave dietary supplements. She also manifested an often ill-defined emergent spiritual condition known as imu, a so-called "culture-specific syndrome" manifested in spontaneous ASC.
Initiation and training involve a process of learning tasks and responsibilities one by one. For the initiation, a male elder or relative may offer prayers; they may offer prayers on other occasions as well because the healer must master more than one skill. In the past male elders were customarily involved in the initiation of a novice shaman. Today, however, the suppression of shamanic heritage has caused a shortage of male elders capable of fulfilling this function, requiring female shamans to initiate novices on their own in the presence of witnesses.
Oral history reveals that the shamanic heritage culminating in Aiko's midwifery was formed not by race, blood, gender, or status but by knowledge from the spirit world—kamuy ekupe kamuy orowano, or "that which comes from the spirit, the divine." Indeed, Aiko firmly believed that every newborn is endowed with divine, universal love, and even shamanic healers are only a passive existence guided by such universal force.
In spring 1995 when I visited Aiko, she was almost blind and could not walk without assistance. As I introduced myself as a novice researcher, she turned her face toward me and said, "What business do you have with this poor old Ainu?" She took my left hand to examine lines on it, and the tone of her voice changed. "Your hand is just like mine," she said. "Oh poor woman, you have come a long way, tamashii no tomodachi [my soul's friend]." She advised her daughters to help her with kamuynomi, to pray to my guiding spirit. "After this, you can truly see if you put efforts. Poor woman, all kinds of sick people will come to you. You are going to have sicknesses and pain, all kinds of problems, and yet cannot even die, like me. Poor woman do you still want to take this path?" She proceeded regardless of her own utterances, or mine. She offered sake in a bowl to the fire spirit, apefuchi kamuy, with prayer sticks. The fire spirit dwelt in a gas stove instead of traditional hearth. She offered me her smoke, a Japanese cigarette, and I took a puff.
Aoki Aiko passed away five months later. Before I was notified of her death she visited me in a dream. She stood on my left as I watched massive amounts of dark blood flowing from my lower abdomen onto the earthen floor. Aiko said, "If it's all gone, that's good." To this day she remains as close to me as she was at our first encounter. It did not matter to Aiko whether I had Ainu ancestry, or shamanic "blood." She left it to me to find these roots, stumbling through the silence of a forbidden path of discovery that continues to be taboo for Ainu and Japanese academics. I have since learned that my paternal grandmother was Ainu, and my paternal grandfather's aunt was a shamanic healer.4
Cultural Change and Revival
Problems in the present-day Ainu culture derive from internal conflicts, fragmentation of traditional knowledge, stereotyping, and gender inequity. It is widely believed today among the Hokkaidô Ainu that it is inappropriate for Ainu women to pray to kamuy; if they wish to do so they must ask permission from men. A historical study (Tanaka 2000) indicates that the present male-dominated ceremonial and ritual practices of the Hokkaidô Ainu likely resulted from contact with the feudal Japanese, who came under the influence of Confucianism and its patrilineal system during the Edo period (1603-1867). Moreover, the Ainu, as a result of long suppression of their spiritual practices and beliefs, tend to deny the value of shamanistic heritage and the existence of living shamanic practitioners.
The traditional status of midwives and shamanistic healers was communally endorsed for much of modern Ainu history. Their services were considered voluntary and they had to combine the duties with subsistence-related labor. But with cultural disruption, the destruction of communal unity, and increased dependency on cash income, midwives lost their economic stability. Deprived of communal compensation, Aiko was permanently short of money because she committed herself to helping others in the light of the spirit. She demanded little or nothing in return for her services, and consequently had to go on welfare to continue her profession. The people of the community feared, revered, called on, and depended on her, but avoided her when she was not needed. Aiko preserved an essence of Ainu heritage that could be neither commercially promoted nor permanently exhibited.
Ainu culture and language are in the process of revival, especially since 1997 when the Japanese government recognized them as an Indigenous People of Japan and established a new law and fund to promote Ainu culture. But the revival of shamanic practices remains the most problematic task for those who have access to funds and material resources that would help, because much of the "magical" or "spiritual" essence of Ainu life has gone underground, forbidden by the Ainu themselves. As the Ainu and Japanese government concentrate on reviving Ainu culture by authenticating cultural details that are perceived to be unique (such as those portrayed in museum exhibits aimed at tourists), rather than focusing on Ainu culture's deeper structure, they tend to justify today's shamanic practices by associating them with public ceremonies such as iomante (bear-sending ceremony). But at the same time, females adhering to shamanic beliefs and practices tend to be ostracized within the Ainu community.
1. Bronislav Pilsudki described in 1905 how the Sakhalin male Ainu shamans heal diseases, protect against epidemics, restore good fortune in hunting, identify thieves, and predict the fortune of a journey. Some shamans are said to be able to quiet storms and transform rough waves into wind, while others can control rain, thunder, and storms. In general, Sakhalin Ainu shamans seem to retain a more individualistic and impressive display of shamanistic ability in a much less constrained way than has ever been ethnologically recorded of the Hokkaidô Ainu tuskur.
2. Chiri 1973a,b; see also Tanaka 2000 for Chiri's contribution to the study of Ainu shamanism
3. Tus means shamanistic practice of possession, and kur is an honorific meaning "person." Tuskur has been interpreted as "honourable person who conducts shamanic practices." (Irimoto)
4. My paternal grandmother's village was one of the last Ainu communities in northern Honshu (the island just south of Hokkaidô). Her village was called "forbidden-to-come place" before it came under Japanese jurisdiction in the 16th century. According to Hokkaidô Ainu tales, this region is no longer Ainu land, and so I and my immediate Ainu ancestors there are not supposed to exist.
Sakurako Tanaka is an instructor at the Canadian International College. She is currently working on a non-fiction book about Ainu history and shamanism, exploring the literary, lyrical, and creative possibility of ethnographic narrative.
References and further reading
Chiri, M. 1973a (1954). Yukara no hitobito to sono seikatsu (The people of yukar and their lives). In Chiri Mashiho chosaku shû Vol.3, Tokyo: Heibon-sha. Pp 5-64.
Chiri, M. (1973b). Juso to kawauso (Shaman and otter). In Chiri Mashiho chosaku shû Vol. 2, Tokyo: Heibon-sha. Pp 193-223.
Takashi, I. (1997). Ainu shamanism. In Circumpolar Animism and Shamanism. Takashi, I. & Takako, Y., Eds. Sapporo: Hokkaidô University Press. Pp 21-46.
Nagai H. (1983). Ainu Osan-bachan no upashikuma (An old Ainu midwife's words of wisdom). Tokyo: Jushin-sha.
Ohnuki-Tierney, M. (1974). The Ainu of The Northwest Coast of Southern Sakhalin. Prospect Heights, Illinois: Waveland Press, Inc.
Pilsudki, B. (1909). "Der Shamanism bei den Ainu-Stammen von Sakhalin" ("Sakhalin Ainu Shamanism"), Globus 95, pp 72-78.
Takakura, S. (1960). The Ainu of Northern Japan: Study in Conquest and Acculturation. Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, New Series, Vol.50. Part 4.
Tanaka, S. (2000). The Ainu of Tsugaru: The Indigenous History and shamanism of Northern Japan. Doctoral dissertation. Vancouver: University of British Columbia.
Tanaka, S. (2001). Sannnai Maruyama, the origin of the Ainu and the problem of the historical interpretation of 'Japan.' In Japan in the Global Age: Cultural, Historical, and Political Issues on Asia, Environment, Households and International Communication. Nakamura, M., Ed. Vancouver: Centre for Japanese Research, University of British Columbia.
Our website houses close to five decades of content and publishing. Any content older than 10 years is archival and Cultural Survival does not necessarily agree with the content and word choice today.