Ainu girl

2 mothers standing with their children

Site Map > Photos > Portfolio 9 > The North: Hokkaido and the Ainu


The principal research activity developed by the PO&SR Division in 1948 and early 1949 consisted of preparations for a major attitude survey to be done on a national sample, of conceptions of what at the time was called the "population problem." This "problem" was based on discussions by Japanese and also SCAP people of precisely how Japan was to manage her growing population--added to by repatriates from the former conquered territories--now that territorial expansion was barred as a consequence of defeat. Clearly contraception and abortion were part of the issue, and questions pertaining to these methods of controlling growth were prominent in the staff thinking and in the draft questionnaires.

Fieldwork was called for, and the first of these ventures was made in Hokkaido, the northern island province, and the most recent part of the archipelago to have been settled and developed for agriculture and urbanism. Agricultural technical assistance had been given by Americans in the late 19th century, and portions of the Hokkaido landscape still resembled U.S. rural areas, what with barns, silos, small wooden farmhouses, and the like. The purpose of the trip was to survey economic conditions in Hokkaido and the spatial capacity of the island, looking toward the event that further migration from the more southerly islands was to take place. And in general, we were concerned with public attitudes toward the "population problem" and measures to combat it--assuming, of course that there really was a "problem." Actually population pressure is a relative thing, and at the time of the study, the Japanese evinced no significant fear or apprehension of a demographic problem--although the scholars and pundits dwelt on it.

Our trip to Hokkaido was also exploratory with respect to the Ainu population. These people--the aboriginal inhabitants of part of the Japanese islands, preceding the later Asian migrations--had a socioeconomic status approximating that of the more impoverished American Indian populations in North America. I was interested in the Ainu, since they were one of the standard tribal peoples studied in ethnology courses in universities the world over. Their fascination rested in part on the fact that they apparently represented an early population with mingled "racial" characteristics, but with no clear-cut affiliations to the standard classical anthropological racial stock classifications.

On the way back from Hokkaido, we took a side trip to northwestern Honshu to visit a number of villages in what the Japanese call yuki no kuni (snow country). The travels are illustrated by five photographs of the village of Egari, including a picture the main street showing how the heavy snow requires a kind of separate house structure on top of the lower story. That is, the snow fills the street and goes all the way up to the second story.

The Hokkaido trip is represented in this portfolio primarily by photos of the Ainu. Other topics are represented in the Journal Extracts, and the "Resorts" portfolio Number 10, which resound with the echoes of tourism. Hokkaido in the 1940s was a frontier landscape and society; it was a privilege to have seen it before its subsequent development. I have also included my report on the "population problem" aspect of the field trip.

Journal Extract: From Tomakomai, Hokkaido

22 May 1948

I'm writing this from a room in a large private club, run by a large paper mill here (Oji Paper Co.). We got in from Sapporo about 10am, after a ghastly ride in a local train--which means filth and hard wooden benches. Left about eight.

The trip began uneventfully, with a long ride in the train beginning in Tokyo Wednesday night, lasting all day Thursday, Thursday night and finally in Sapporo early Friday morning. The scenery of northern Honshu is nothing special, except for a couple of large volcanoes shaped like Fuji but not as big. When you ride on a train any distance the endless monotony of tiny fields and thatched-roof houses begins to get you. Actually the farther north you go in Japan the more "middle western" the country gets. By this I mean both natural and social ecology--the environment gets less tropical and more northern-temperate, and at the same time the habitation gets more recent, which means more Western. In Hokkaido one finds a completely middle-west landscape, with the farms laid out in rectangles, with roads in a grid, and with almost completely Western type houses. It was a shock to see a typical "open-country neighborhood" rural vista. Hokkaido was settled last, and most of it was actually laid out by American agricultural scientists and economists.

Sunday night

In the meantime I have been to Piratori, a village about two hours by train from here, and a center of Ainu life--about 1500 Ainu and 10,000 Japanese. We stayed at a Western style house built years ago by old man Munro, an English doctor and anthropologist to the Ainu and a famous man in his day. House now owned by a well-off Japanese. Right next to the house was one of the Ainu hamlets, and spent most of the day there--along with camp followers. The trouble with trips like this in Japan is that you are the royal guests of the government, and as you travel you collect hangers-on. We already have a representative of the Hokkaido prefectural governor and a nice old Episcopal minister (Japanese) with us, and at Piratori we also had the mayor, three other village government officials, our host and a collection of other people whose role I didn't catch clearly. Tomorrow thank god we lose the prefectural government man, but the old minister sticks with us to the bitter end! (As you may know, the Episcopal (English) church was extremely active here a generation ago, Christianizing the Ainu.) The biggest name was that of John Batchelor, who wrote a lot of Ainu ethnology. The old man with us was one of the early Japanese converts and received his Ph.D. in the U.S. many years ago. Christianity is about dead here now, though there is some attempt to revive it.

22-23 May 1948

My god, we move fast. Today we left Tomakomai, went south along the coast to Shiraoi, where we spent three hours on a quick tour through an Ainu fishing village, talking to school teacher, a doctor, and the professional "chief" of the village, who has an enormous old thatched house full of Ainu relics, and who insists on going through the various empty old rituals--exactly like Indians in the Western reservations. The similarities are very detailed, even to the resentment shown this sort of thing by the younger people.

Anyway, from there we beat it down to Noboribetsu, a famous spa up in the mountains about a half hour ride from the seacoast village. Unfortunately there is an Allied Rest Hotel here, which means I have to stay there or I get picked up by MPs (they know I am in town because of the fact you get checked at the railroad station). Anyway at 6 pm (a half hour from now) I am going over to the hotel with Matsumiya and have dinner and a bath with the group.

For the moment I'm alone and liking it. Our camp followers dropped off the regular two (the old Episcopal minister Reverend Nagasa--and the government official) until we hit Shiratori, where we picked up two more. I am more than annoyed at the whole business, and I told Matsumiya in the train that tomorrow he must tell these people we wish to work alone and to please let us do so.

Today the damn village officials accompanied us, and the people would not say a thing worth recording.

Am getting a good view of the poverty of northern Japan. Filth, squalor and a complete lack of care about repairs or upkeep, wherever we go. Undesirable stuff--you should see the hospitals! I swear the dirtiest and noisiest and coldest buildings in Hokkaido are the hospitals. Right out of the early 19th century--reminds you of a Hogarth caricature or Dickens' descriptions of madhouses. Dirty bandages on the floors, spider-webbed ceilings, doctors in ancient suits. I am learning that Japanese "cleanliness" is largely a myth. They insist on such details on removing shoes, wash themselves constantly, but pollute their water, use human shit to fertilize vegetables, and have no conception of antiseptics or of the whole germ theory of disease. E.G. After going BM over one of the open Japanese toilets (a hole in the floor with a pit underneath) they insist on washing off their hands in a little basin of water. The catch is that this basin has water in it all day, and everybody uses it. A simply wonderful way to spread intestinal diseases. Then they bathe like hell, only to wear underwear weeks without washing. The upper and middle classes of course are westernized out of many of these habits, but at least 90% of the Japanese follow them.

On the whole the inadequacy of medical care in Japan is the most outstanding gap in the country's Westernization of science and learning. There are probably only about five or six first class hospitals for 80 million people--the rest being mostly private affairs run by "second class doctors" (called "graduated" in the vernacular with about two years of medical training) and they are death traps. The one I saw today--run by the prefectural government for the Ainu community--was a real nightmare. A fat, drooling old man at the head, who handled fifty patients a day, giving them an assortment of weird looking medicines out of ancient bottles, with dirt, cotton, and god knows what on the floor, curtains hanging in shreds, assorted women cooking in various rooms, no glass in half the windows, an examination table with a filthy blanket full of holes--etc, etc.

Hokkaido is, I guess, a lovely island, but it is a mighty gloomy place so far as the houses and the people are concerned. Everything looks desperately poor, gray and worn. The Japanese habit of building something and then just letting it fall to pieces is more in evidence here than anywhere else. It reminds one of the worst parts of the coal mining areas of the Middle West and Pennsylvania. No money, no incentive to "keep things up." Of course the long wartime situation accentuated all this by impoverishing the whole country.

While I am in a physical mood, I might as well discuss the matter of smells. Japan has many characteristic odors which gradually come to mean Japan to you, because all of them are unknown in America. E.G. (1) urine and shit, combined in a pungent, haunting refrain that follows you through the streets, into the houses, and in all the smaller shops in poorer villages and neighborhoods. I have been in a number of middle class Japanese homes, owned by Westernized people, but the smell is always there, lurking in the halls. I have walked down village streets and been aware of the odor every time. Toilets are confined only to the large cities and then only to the hotels and wealthiest homes.

After the last page stopped, things began happening fast. First, a Japanese dinner party in the great Daiichi Hotel in Noboribetsu (off limits--I had special permission) a fantastic place--three to four thousand people can stay there--huge rabbit warren consisting of six to eight large buildings on different levels, all connected with galleries. In the bottom, an enormous hot springs bath--at least twenty separate pools of various temperatures and mineral mixtures--sex-mixed bathing of course. A fantastic steaming grotto with nude figures of both sexes and children moving through the fog, and a strange odor combined of sulphur fumes and the perfumed soap all Japanese use. We all spent an hour or so of bathing, then up to the dinner. This was the real thing--all laid out in an open rectangle, with a pillow and a separate tray for each person, and with lovely geisha doing the serving. (We had a kind of phony version of the same at the Governor's house in Sapporo for the whole party of fourteen people--the one day I spent with the group I am supposed to be traveling with.)

The dinner had a practical purpose--we had as our guests (and traveling companions the next two days) the outstanding Ainu--the ones who have been educated and are successful in business (lumber and mines). The minority inferiority emerged clearly--we had to persuade them diligently to come to the head of the rectangle and share pillows with us. Leaving out the business until the report--I got gloriously drunk and spent a couple of hours with a geisha in the baths--she doing a fine job of scrubbing me clean in every pore. What a life! Thank god it happens only once. The Japanese really know how to enjoy themselves. The geisha are strange and wonderful creatures. They sing, dance, and play, and if they take a liking to you they really give you the most marvelous and sympathetic attention, including a special technique for keeping your glass of beer full, alternately with your cup of sake, the end product being a wonderful light binge--happy but not blind. In Sapporo after the governor's party we took in a newspaper party for a half hour or so, and a geisha insisted I teach her Western dance steps, which I did to the tune of 1930s Benny Goodman records. They are without a doubt the most accomplished and poised women in the world. It is something that could never come with marriage, and I begin to understand the curious life of the Japanese male--his wife and his geisha or girlfriends. The Japanese have simply preserved a courtesan system, which Christianity in the Western world finally got rid of.

Our schedule was as follows:

1. From Noboribetsu yesterday AM, a train along the coast to Usu, a little town which has the only stone Christian church in Hokkaido--built by Batchelor. An old Ainu woman who Mr. and Mrs. Batchelor adopted as a girl still lives here, in an old house with a Western parlor loaded with Batchelor's personal possessions--library, etc. Even his newspapers! (We will return for a dinner with her and her brother in a day or so).

2. From there to Ogishi, where we stayed overnight at the home of a leading Ainu--one of the group that met us in Noboribetsu. This was quite an experience--a real provincial Japanese family-- household establishment, with about twenty people of all ages living in an ancient, spacious wealthy, ramshackle old country house, dark, with boards and mats polished by years of stocking feet. Not a chair or a bed--we lived totally Japanese style for a night and day. I felt like a character in a Kabuki play. Met all of the village notables, and was presented with a magnificent wood carving--a giant fighting cock! Wait 'til you see it. It will have to be crated all by itself for the trip home. I may have that done soon. Our conferences here were the best yet--we really dug deeply into the "Ainu Problem".

3. Then back to Usu, to have the promised dinner with Batchelor's adopted daughter and her brother, the Reverend Mukai, pastor of the stone church and another of Batchelor's prot

Category: Ainu

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