Hokkaido’s second postcard features a carved bear with a fish in its mouth. This is a traditional carving made by the Ainu people of Hokkaido; however until the modern age, it was rare for the Ainu to carve figures like these. Usual Ainu designs were made of shapes and geometric designs, because to carve a recognizable figure was to invite a spirit into the carving, and these were used only in religious or cultural ceremonies. During the 20th century, however, the Ainu were being forced to assimilate to Japanese culture or face discrimination and oppression. Many Ainu faced extreme poverty, so the figures began to be sold to tourists, and became more and more popular as tourism increased. At that time, to sell figures that had spirits in them was surely difficult for many of the woodcarvers, yet their economic situation made it necessary.
I had the privilege to visit Nibutani on the Japan Guide We Love Japan Tour and learn about the Ainu directly from the people themselves. You can read more about my experience here. Nibutani is home of the Nibutani Ainu Cultural Museum, and has the highest percentage of Ainu living there in Hokkaido. I visited a master woodcarver’s shop to try my hand at making a coaster, and caught sight of a few bears he had made.
Postcard and carved bears in a master woodcarver’s shop
Close up of the bears
These bears are in a small museum dedicated to Kayane Shigeru, an Ainu scholar who wrote the first Japanese-Ainu Dictionary
I was also able to meet in Nibutani an expert of the Ainu language and culture who worked at the museum. I asked him specifically about the bears, and how people nowadays feel about carving and selling them. He said that now, modern Ainu no longer believe in the old religion, and that young Ainu don’t think anything negative about carving the figures. Although there has been a resurgence in Ainu culture recently, and young people are beginning to take pride in being Ainu, a lot was lost during the past century, and people no longer follow the old ways or have the old beliefs.
On the one hand, I felt that in order to write about the bears on this blog I wanted to make sure they are not a source of pain for the Ainu people to produce, and was a bit relieved to hear that. Yet I was also saddened, as despite the best efforts of cultural experts and the Ainu elders, so much has been lost to time and assimilation. I still didn’t feel comfortable buying a bear, but was instead drawn to the beautifully carved and intricate serving boards at the museum. I got one of these as a souvenir instead.
Mine isn’t near as nice as these… there’s no way I could afford one!
Despite my reticence about the bears, it doesn’t seem like most people feel the same. I caught site of these ridiculous “gacha gacha” machines in Shin-Chitose Airport:
Bear vs. Fish! Who will win?!
I found them funny, but I hope that even through lighthearted things such as this, the Ainu connection and culture is not forgotten. Postacollect makes no mention of the Ainu in their official Japanese description of this card, which is unsurprising and very typical… as if to ignore the origins makes all the problems go away. I hope that anyone who collects these cards or follows my blog can enjoy the card but still understand its background and why its a bit problematic.
Anyway, sorry about the long post! I’m a bit of an anthropology buff, so discussing culture is kinda my thing. I hope you found it interesting!