Smithsonian - National Museum of Natural Historyheader spaceAinu

Ainu: Spirit of a Northern People

Rising From Adversity
Room 6 Overview

slideshow narration

During the first half of the twentieth century, severe economic straits forced Ainu carvers to carve bear and other figurative art for the tourist trade. This was deeply disturbing to a culture whose spiritual beliefs with few exceptions did not allow the depiction of life forms. Today, despite more than a century of social discrimination, economic hardship, and pressure for assimilation, a remarkable resurgence of Ainu culture is taking place. Building on the experience of producing tourist art, Ainu artists are developing important new forms of fine art that are characteristically Ainu.

Opening credits:

Bear Carving
Umetaro Matsui
Asahikawa City Museum

Ainu Dance and Ceremony
Ainu Museum at Shiraoi

Shiraoi Ainu
American Museum of Natural History 338769

Inaw: Messengers to the Gods
Courtesy of Edmund Carpenter
Museum der Kulteren, Basel

Giichi Nomura, Former Executive Director of Utari Kyokai (Ainu Association of Hokkaido), addressing the United Nations General Assembly, 10 December 1992 UN 182264

Figurines
Suzuki from Asahikawa
Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, 150722

(1) Object QTVR

1. Carved Bear
The carving of bears underwent a remarkable evolution during the first half of the twentieth century. Traditionally, bear carvings were produced exclusively for such religious objects as prayer sticks (ikupasuy) and men's headdresses; only the Sakhalin Ainu made full-figured bear carvings (inoka), which they used as fetishes to promote fertility among bears. In the early 1920's economics forced the Ainu to carve bears for tourists even though making this type of image went against their traditional beliefs. During the twenties and thirties bear carving advanced rapidly, and Umetaro Matsui emerged as the premier artist in a highly naturalistic manner. His work won many awards and in 1938 he was chosen to carve a bear for Emperor Hirohito. Following this official recognition, many Japanese began to acquire Ainu bear carvings as souvenirs.

Umetaro Matsui, 1920s
Asahikawa City Museum 12.3.1.1

(3) Objects w/captions STILLS

1. Dolls
As Ainu artists began to produce items for new markets they adapted old forms to the tastes of a new clientele. Kurile and Hokkaido Ainu appealed to Japanese taste by making spoon handles and bowls that simulate bamboo and seashells. Sakhalin Ainu refugees, who had been resettled in Hokkaido, transformed their traditional nipopo ("wooden baby") figurines, previously used as children's amulets, into a new type that became a popular early twentieth-century tourist item. This pair of figures was made by an Ainu artist named Suzuki from Asahikawa in the 1960s.

By Suzuki from Asahikawa, 1960s

2. Miniature Totem Pole
The Ainu have always been interested in the wood carvings of other native peoples, especially those of the Northwest Coast Indians whose symbolism they did not understand but which they admired as works of art. This pole, by an unknown artist, features an Ainu man and woman and a bear, rendered in bright, decorative colors.

Small totem poles with Ainu motifs were probably first carved to sell to American soldiers who occupied Hokkaido after World War II. Model totem poles continue to be a small but important part of contemporary Ainu tourist art production. Today such tourist areas as Akan and Shiraoi have full-scale Ainu-style totem poles in their museum compounds.

Dubreuil Collection

3. Small Carved Bear

When tourists began to travel to Ainu homelands in the early 1920s, Ainu began carving bears for sale to visitors, but their stiff, ungainly results soon earned the nickname of "pig-bears."

Sakhalin Asahikawa City Museum 4436

(2) Videos

1. Commentary on Bear Carvings by Curator William Fitzhugh

"When Japanese came to Hokkaido they really hit the Ainu homelands very hard and took away their fishing stations, many of their resources and Ainu were left with very few ways to make a living. One of the things that started working for them in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century was art. So the Ainu became museum people. They began to open small museums and they began to do art and craft for the tourists, both Japanese and others. And one of the first objects that became kind of a key symbol for the Ainu because of their religious life and their belief in the bear was to make bear carvings. And we have here some of the earliest bear carvings that were made, the small bear, rather stylized, from when the Ainu first began to experiment with this kind of tourist art. And later on artists developed much more skill in portraying naturalistic bears. The problem for the Ainu was that the bear was the most important ritual animal in their culture and to change it into a monetary item for them was extremely difficult and many Ainu refused to have anything to do with this economy. But gradually they separated some of their economic and some of their religious interests and today the Ainu are known mostly in the craft world as bear carvers."

2. Commentary on Bear Carvings by Curator Chisato Dubreuil

"This is a wooden bear and this kind of wooden bear was made for tourists. And this was very difficult. Our art didn't have representations of specific animals or specific natural things. We believe the bear is the most important god in our religion."

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