Last week I visited a local gallery in Uehonmachi, Osaka. The Soho Gallery usually holds exhibitions of paintings and photographs by foreign and local artists but on this occassion it housed an Ainu textile delight. Mamiya-San is part of a group who has been awarded a grant, by the Japanese goverment, to keep Ainu culture alive, teaching not only Japanese people but to a worldwide audience. My mother and I are fascinated by this dying culture for a number of reasons. The Ainu people were very similar historically to Native North American Indians, both were hunter gatherers and had a great respect for their environment, adapting to difficult climates with ingenuity. Both utilised these skills to produce everyday essentials and more complex handicrafts associated with their beliefs.
I learnt today that each Ainu family has a specific symbology used to decorate their clothing and household textiles. The designs and their meaning have been past on orally through the generations. The areas on the garments which are heavily decorated are to protect important parts of the body, such as the lungs, thigh and back. Cuffs are for the protection of the hands and headbands for the head.
The pointed aspects of the design are to repel evil spirits, the curved spiral- like designs are labyrinths where evil loses its way. Most of these swirls occur at points on the human body where the lymph nodes lie. I found this particularly interesting considering there were no scientists to enlighten them in those times. Intially garments were made of woven plant fibres but as soon as the Ainu started trading with Japanese from Northern Honshu, cotton was most often used. The examples exhibited today at the Soho Gallery are modern as most of the orginals or antiques belong to Russia or are housed in one of the museums in Hokkaido and need a special environment to preserve them. One coat took about six months to create if it was worked on full-time but usually it was twelve months as there were other jobs to do. Only women made the garments, their men would hunt, note that the designs on their clothing were in areas perhaps prone to injury whilst hunting. The samurai, a very different creature had a long elegant bow, however the Ainu had a small compact bow to manoeuvre quickly and easily.
Unfortunately, as with most indigenous peoples, the story of the Ainu is rather sad. With the annexation of Hokkaido, by the Japanese government, in the mid nineteenth century, the Ainu were forced to give up their culture and be Japanese. When Mamiya-san was asked what is a typical Ainu name, she said we were told not to use our Ainu names and take a Japanese one. But the Ainu language still exists although it is rarely spoken as there are only about 100 pure blood Ainu today. Ainu parents encouraged their children to marry Japanese so their life would not be as harsh. Finally in 1997 the law pertaining to the banning of Ainu culture was rescinded and the Ainu were encouraged to enjoy their culture and traditions once more.
I found the hours spent at the exhibition most enjoyable and my favourite items were the shin protectors and headbands and of course watching Mamiya-san's deft fingers as she produced a magical design. One of the things my mother and I do have in common is we like to rescue items from the past, give them a future. The human race seems to spend most of the time destroying things then later spending a great deal of energy trying to preserve them. Textiles are fragile, but full of stories, meaning, history and beauty and we will carry on the battle to save them.
Louise Kate Young