The indigenous people of northern Japan call themselves “Ainu,” meaning “people” or “humans” in their language. Recent DNA evidence suggests that the Ainu are the direct descendents of the ancient Jomon people who inhabited Japan as early as 12,000 years ago. Astonishingly, the Jomon culture existed in Japan for some 10,000 years, and today many artistic traditions of the Ainu seem to have evolved from the ancestral Jomon. As such, this artistic continuum represents one of the oldest ongoing cultural traditions in the world spanning at least ten millennia.
Jomon culture, like that of the Ainu, was based on a hunting-and-gathering economy. Exploiting natural resources from riverine, terrestrial, and marine ecosystems, the Jomon achieved stasis through active and continual engagement with their surrounding environments. Archaeological evidence in the form of ceramic sculpture supports this view, but it also suggests that particular animals (bears, whales, owls) were highly revered and possibly worshipped as deities. Among the Ainu, all natural phenomena (including flora, fauna, and even inanimate objects) are believed to have a spiritual essence, and particular animals (e.g., brown bears, killer whales, horned owls) continue to be honored in ceremony and ritual as “spirit deities” called kamuy.
Apart from zoomorphic sculpture, Jomon artisans also created anthropomorphic figurines (dogū) that were probably used by individual families for protection against illness, infertility, and the dangers associated with childbirth. Markings on the faces of many of these dogū likely indicate body painting, scarification, or tattooing, and similar figures carved more recently as rock art or into masks by indigenous people of the lower Amur River basin of the Russian Maritime Region suggest an ancient and unbroken tradition of personal adornment and ritual practice.
Until very recently (the last fully tattooed Ainu woman died in 1998), Ainu women retained a tradition of facial tattooing lending support to the argument that the ancient Jomon employed the custom in the distant past. For the Ainu, tattooing was exclusive to females, as was the profession of tattooist. According to mythological accounts, tattoo was brought to earth by the “ancestral mother” of the Ainu Okikurumi Turesh Machi who was the younger sister of the creator god Okikurumi.
Because tattooing represented an ancestral custom derived from one common female ancestress, it was continued down through the centuries in the matrilineal line. Viewing tattoo practices through the lens of kinship, it is not surprising that the position of tattoo artist was customarily performed by grandmothers or maternal aunts who were called “Tattoo Aunts” or simply “Tattoo Women”.
At various times in history, Japanese authorities prohibited the use of tattoos by the Ainu (and other ethnic peoples under their authority like the indigenous peoples of Taiwan) in attempts to dislocate them from their traditional cultural practices and prepare them for the subsequent process of Japanization. As early as 1799, during the Edo Period, the Ezo Shogunate issued a ban on tattoos: “Regarding the rumored tattoos, those already done cannot be helped, but those still unborn are prohibited from being tattooed”. In 1871, the Hokkaido Development Mission proclaimed, “those born after this day are strictly prohibited from being tattooed” because the custom “was too cruel”. And according to one Western observer, the Japanese attitude towards tattooing was necessarily disapproving since in their own cultural system, “tattooing was associated with crime and punishment whereas the practice itself was regarded as a form of body mutilation, which, in case of voluntary inflictment, was completely averse to the prevalent notions of Confucian filial conduct”.
Of course, the Ainu vehemently evaded these laws because tattoos were traditionally a prerequisite to marriage and to the afterlife. One report from the 1880s describes that the Ainu were very much grieved and tormented by the prohibition of tattooing: “They say the gods will be angry, and that the women can’t marry unless they are tattooed. They are less apathetic on this than on any subject, and repeat frequently, ‘It’s part of our religion.’” One Ainu woman stated in the 1970s, “I was twenty-one years old before I had this little tattoo put on my lips. After it was done, my mother hid me from the Japanese police for five days. I wish we could have retained at least this one custom!”
The modern Ainu term for tattooing is nuye meaning “to carve” and hence “to tattoo” and “to write”, or more literally, sinuye “to carve oneself”. The old term for tattoo was anchi-piri (anchi, “obsidian”; piri, “cut”).
Traditional Ainu tattooing instruments called makiri were knife-like in form, and sometimes the sheaths and handles of these tools were intricately carved with zoomorphic and apotropaic motifs. Before the advent of steel tipped makiri, razor sharp obsidian points were used that were wound with fiber allowing only the tip of the point to protrude so as to control the depth of the incisions. As the cutting intensified, the blood was wiped away with a cloth saturated in a hot ash wood or spindlewood antiseptic called nire. Soot taken with the fingers from the bottom of a kettle was rubbed into the incisions, and the tattooist would then sing a yukar or portion of an epic poem that said: “Even without it, she’s so beautiful. The tattoo around her lips, how brilliant it is. It can only be wondered at.” Afterward, the tattooist recited a kind of spell or magic formula as more pigment was laid into the skin: “pas ci-yay, roski, roski, pas ren-ren”, meaning “soot enclosed remain, soot sink in, sink in”.
While this invocation may not seem important at first glance, it was symbolically significant nonetheless. Every Ainu home was constructed according to plan with reference to the central hearth and a sacred window facing a stream. Within the hearth was kindled fire, and within the fire was the home of an important deity who served as mediator between all Ainu gods – Fuchi. The fire goddess Fuchi was invoked prior to all ceremonials because communication with other kamuy (deities and spirits) was impossible without her divine intervention. Fuchi guarded over families and lent her spiritual support in times of trouble and illness or at times of birth and death. In this respect, the central hearth was a living microcosm of the Ainu mythological universe, because as a ritual space, it replicated and provided a means from which to actively intervene in the cosmos. However, it was also a space where Ainu and the gods grew wary of one another, especially if the fire was not burning at all times.
Ainu Tattoos, Girdles, and Symbolic Embroidery
According to Romyn Hitchcock, an ethnologist working for the Smithsonian Institution in the late 19th century, Ainu tattoo was laid upon the skin at specific intervals, the process sometimes extending over several years: “The faces of the women are disfigured by tattooing around the mouth, the style of which varies with locality. Young maidens of six or seven have a little spot on the upper lip. As they grow older, this is gradually extended until a more or less broad band surrounds the mouth and extends into a tapering curve on both cheeks towards the ears.”
Of course, the tattooist encouraged her client to remain still throughout the painful ordeal, since it was believed that the ritual would prepare the girl for childbirth once she had become a bride. It the pain was too great, one or more assistants held the client down so that the tattooist could continue her work.
After the mouth tattooing, the lips would feel like burning embers. The client became feverish and the pain and swelling would keep her from getting much sleep. Food became an afterthought and when the tattoo client became thirsty a piece of cotton grass was dipped in water and placed against the lips for the client to suck on.
The completed lip tattoos of women were significant in regards to Ainu perceptions of life experience. First, these tattoos were believed to repel evil spirits from entering the body (mouth) and causing sickness or misfortune. Secondly, the lip tattoos indicated that a woman had reached maturity and was ready for marriage. And finally, lip tattoos assured the woman life after death in the place of her deceased ancestors.
Apart from lip tattoos, however, Ainu women wore several other tattoo marks on their arms and hands usually consisting of curvilinear and geometric designs. These motifs, which were begun as early as the fifth or sixth year, were intended to protect young girls from evil spirits. One motif, the braidform pattern, consisting of two rectilinear stripes braided side by side linked to a special motif, represents a kind of band also used for tying the dead for burial. Other marks were placed on various parts of the body as charms against diseases like painful rheumatism.
As with burial cords, the braid-like weave structure of women’s plaited girdles called upsor-kut were embodied with a similarly powerful supernatural “magic” symbolizing not only a woman’s virtue, but her “soul strength”. First discussed by the Western physician Neil Gordon Munro, who with his Japanese wife operated a free clinic in Hokkaido in the 1930s, upsor-kut (“bosom girdles”) were objects worn underneath the woman’s outer garment (attush) and kept “secret” from Ainu men. They were made of woven flax or native hemp varying in length and width and in the number of strands. Composed of either three, five, or seven plaited cords (sometimes alternating with intersecting or overlapping lozenges or chevrons), they closely resemble the tattoo motifs that appear on the arms of Ainu women.
Interestingly, girdles were received upon completion of a girl’s lip tattooing just before or on the occasion of marriage. The design specifications of the girdle were passed down by the girl’s mother; she instructed her daughter how to make the girdle and warned that if it was ever exposed to any male, great misfortune would come to her and the family.
Dr. Munro recorded at least eight types of upsor with each form related to a different line of matrilineal pedigree and associated with several animal and spirit deities (kamuy), such as the killer whale, bear, and wolf crests. Thus aristocratic women, especially the daughters of chiefs (kotan), wore more powerfully charged girdles than common women, because their ancestry connected them more closely to the kamuy. Munro also observed that the daughters of Ainu chiefs were tattooed on the arms before any other women in the village, suggesting that these types of tattoos conferred prestige and social status to the wearer. In this sense, tattoos and girdles appear to be functionally related.
However, tattoos and girdles were connected on yet another, more metaphysical level. The Ainu believed that the fire goddess Fuchi provided Ainu women with the original plans for constructing the sacred upsor girdles. As noted earlier, Fuchi was also symbolized by the soot used in tattooing practice thereby linking the traditions of tattooing and girdling to Ainu mythological thought. And because each type of girdle was associated with a particular kamuy, it can be suggested that particular tattoos were perhaps associated with specific deities: “the wives of the deities were tattooed in a similar fashion as the Ainu women, so that when evil demons would see it, they would mistake the women for deities and therefore stay away”.
But the symbolic fortification of the body did not end with tattoos and girdles. It also extended to clothing. For example, Ainu embroidery seems to have had a related functional efficacy. Women embroidered simple double-stranded braid-like brackets around the neck, front openings, sleeves, and hem on the earliest
Ainu salmon skin and elm bark attush garments to keep evil spirits from entering the apertures of the body. The original designs, resembling braided rope, were nothing more than a solid color, usually dark blue similar to the color of tattoo pigment.
Among the indigenous peoples of the lower Amur River Basin (with whom the Ainu traded), similar design conventions embroidered and appliquéd onto traditional fish skin garments provided the wearer protection from evil spirits. Design motifs were placed on the borders around every opening in traditional robes (neck, arms, legs, front closure, and hem) and all borders had symbolic referents. For instance, the upper borders represented the Upper World and the patterns placed there offered protection in that direction; the hem represented the underworld or underwater world; and the middle parts stood for the world inhabited by humans. On one old indigenous Nanai fish skin robe I have seen in Vladivostok, avian designs represent the Upper World, fish patterns symbolize the lower realms and a Chinese inspired dragon completed the center.
Batchelor, John. (1901). The Ainu and Their Folk-Lore. London: The Religious Tract Society.
–(1907). Ainu Life and Lore: Echoes of a Departing Race. Tokyo: Kyobunkan.
Fitzhugh, William W. and Chisato O. Dubreuil (eds.). (1999). Ainu: Spirit of a Northern People Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press.
Hitchcock, Romyn. (1891). “The Ainos of Yezo, Japan.” Pp. 428-502 in Report of the U.S. National Museum for 1889-1890. Washington: U.S. Government Printing Office.
Munro, Neil Gordon. (1963). Ainu Creed and Cult. New York: Columbia University Press.