National Geographic : 1967 Feb
Japan's "Sky People, the Vanishing Ainu By SISTER MARY INEZ HILGER Photographsby EIJI MIYAZAWA, Black Star COOLNESS AND QUIET enfolded me as I walked into the room. Shadows half hid house hold objects alien to a Minnesota nun. Others were familiar indeed. A wire basket full of smoked fish hung beside a television set. Prayer sticks with their curled white shavings were thrust into the floor of the stove pit. An electric light bulb dangled overhead. Prints of black haired Oriental beauties flanked a sink where a glass tumbler held the family toothbrushes. To the elderly couple who received me, Tsurukichi Seki and his wife Riyo, I surely looked as strange as they did to me. Fresh from the rice fields, he wore loose diaperlike pants and a shapeless brown shirt. Her slight figure was hidden in a Japanese blouse, embroi dered apron, baggy bloomers, and bright rolled scarf. My attire was that of a Benedictine nun-the white of pleated coif and band, the black of veil, the gray of woolen scapular and belted habit. I had come here because my hosts were Ainu (pronounced eye-noo). A research grant from the Na tional Geographic Society had made a long-time dream come true. For eight months I would study these "white" aborigines of northern Japan, a people for whom-as a distinctive culture-the fires were going out. "Please! Sit here by the stove. It gives a good warmth -just as you, American sister, are doing as you come among our Ainu people. Our house is honored by your being here." With these hospitable words the Sekis welcomed me to their home near Mukawa, a village on the south coast of Hokkaido, northernmost island of the Japanese Archipelago (map, page 273). I made myself comfortable on a pile of pillows with my stockinged feet pulled up under my habit. I could see my shoes where I had left them at the door. Simmer ing kettles whispered that soon there would be tea. My host had briefly excused himself to change into neat white pants and T-shirt. He took the place proper 268 Time's long shadow creeps over an Ainu grandmother who sees the distinctive life of her people-aboriginal inhabitants of Japan's Hokkaido island drawing to a close. Lip tattooing in her youth, a custom now obsolete, helped her attract a husband. These mysterious people have long been an enigma. Whence came the Ainu-and when? Scholars have viewed their round eyes and wavy, abundant hair as evidence of Caucasoid ancestry. Strangely, others argued for a link with Australia's aborigines. Today, many anthropologists believe the Ainu may actually be a separate race; recent archeo logical discoveries suggest that they are the last survivors of a population that has lived on Hokkaido for at least 7,000 years. Now the Ainu, who stood apart for millenniums, face complete absorption by the Japanese. EKTACHROME© N.G .S .