Ainu oral tradition encompasses many forms and many regional variations. Stories are divided into categories, each associated with a type of subject matter and a mode of recital. The categorization varies greatly between regions but there are three overarching types.
Wepeker are folk tales told in prose and in ordinary language.
Yukar are epics about human heroes and their deeds, traditionally sung by men.
Kamui yukar are tales chanted in the first person by gods (kamui), spirits, animals, objects, and personifications of natural forces. These are the tales that Chiri yukie collected.
Kamui yukar is a form with many fixed characteristics. They are chanted to a short, repetitive tune. A refrain called a sakehe begins the tale and is repeated at intervals; sometimes this refrain forms part of the story but often it consists of syllables whose meaning is unknown. The sakehe is unique to a given tale, and serves as a title. It can be repeated frequently throughout the recitation, forming part of the metric structure; in these written versions, the sakehe is used less often.
The language of kamui yukar is formal and archaic. The tale is always the first person account of a kamui, a god or spirit, and always ends with a declaration of the form ‘…this was the song such and such a god sung about himself’. Where human heroes come into the narrative, they may be represented as children.
As well as restrictions on the form, the subject matter of kamui yukar has many patterns and subdivisions. Some relate to nature and animal spirits; The Song the Frog Sang is one of these. Another type relates to major, named spirits that are more like gods; The Song the Owl God Sang is in this category. These tales often explain and reinforce social customs such as the use of inau, sticks of shaved wood used in interactions with the kamui.
Particularly in this collection, an overarching theme is the close relationship between the human world, ainu moshir, and the spirit world, kamui moshir. Ainu culture involved a very close everyday relationship between the physical and the intangible; the layout of houses, the patterns of clothing, the tattoos with which women were adorned from childhood, the ubiquitous inau, the rituals of hunting, feasting and sacrifice were all physical signs of mankind’s dependency on the goodwill of the spirit world and were all required in order to maintain that goodwill.
The detail and pragmatism of this relationship is hard to picture now. For example, when hunting bear, there was an implied arrangement between the human hunters and the kamui within the bear. But this arrangement was not a simple exchange; it was a formal and complex multi-way agreement. Major kamui such as Apehuchi the hearth goddess played their roles and required their dues, and these roles could be complicated. Tracking dogs were messengers from Apehuchi who would invite Kimun Kamui, the god of mountains, to send a bear, which would then be shot with aconite-poisoned arrows. The kamui of the aconite plant could be seen as beautiful women who persuaded the kamui of the bear into accepting the invitation. The mere act of gathering the aconite to make poison involved offering beer and inau to four other kamui.
Chiri Yukie’s tales do not focus on the details, but paint a vivid picture of the vital balance and commerce between the two worlds. If one wishes to have fish to eat, it seems, one must remember to look beyond the fish to the kamui within it.