Hours before her sudden death at the age of nineteen, Chiri Yukie completed her only book, Ainu Shinyoushuu, a collection of traditional chants in the Ainu language.
Her book, written in parallel Ainu and Japanese text, was the first book in or about the Ainu language to be written from the point of view of an actual Ainu speaker. It was also arguably the first ever printed literary work from a shamanistic culture.
The Ainu, the original inhabitants of Sakhalin and Hokkaido, have a language and culture very different from the Siberian cultures of the mainland and from their Japanese neighbors. This language and culture did not suffer the almost total annihilation that befell many of the original cultures of north-east Asia. Protected by their island location and long (though very unequal) relationship with Japan, at the beginning of the twentieth century the Ainu population of Hokkaido still retained their architecture, religion, and oral literature.
Chiri Yukie (Chiri is the family name) was born in 1903, at a time when Hokkaido was being rapidly developed and modernized, transitioning from Japanese domination to Japanese assimilation. Traditional Ainu customs such as bear sacrifice and tattooing were ending, urbanization was proceeding rapidly, and Ainu populations were ill-equipped to assert themselves against a vigorous Japanese culture which was itself rapidly taking on Western characteristics and which regarded the ‘primitive’ natives of Hokkaido as something of a detail.
Chiri was born to an aristocratic but impoverished Ainu family; though her father had been a chief, for financial reasons she was adopted and brought up by her aunt and her grandmother. Both these women were well versed in the oral tradition, which at that time had already begun to break down for lack of storytellers. One day, the Japanese linguist Kindaichi Kyousuke visited the three and explained his work; Chiri then decided to devote herself to recording her aunt’s stories, transcribing them into Roman characters with her own method and translating them into Japanese.
At the age of nineteen, she travelled to Tokyo, having prepared a set of thirteen of her aunt’s yukar, a type of chanted fable. Briefly, she worked with Kindaichi to prepare what should have been the first of many anthologies. On the day it was finished, she died suddenly from heart failure.
Soon after her death, her book was published unaltered by Kindaichi. With its clear and elegant colloquial Japanese rendition, it achieved great success, generating great interest in what had previously been seen as a minor footnote to the colonization of Hokkaido. Later scholars, including members of Chiri’s family, went on to extensively record and popularize the Ainu oral literature, and today the Ainu text she wrote can still be understood by those who learn Ainu as a second language.
The result is a unique window into an Asian shamanistic poetic tradition – one of many that once existed, but one of very few to be studied and recorded while still largely alive.