The Ainu are an ethnic minority in Japan, living primarily on the northernmost Japanese island of Hokkaidō, although there were also small populations of Ainu living on the island of Sakhalin and in the Kuriles until the end of World War II, when the Soviet Union took control of Sakhalin and the Ainu there fled. Until the Meiji Restoration of 1868, when Japan took formal possession of Hokkaidō and began the systematic integration of the Ainu into the Japanese nation, the Ainu lived almost exclusively as hunter-gatherers north of the always advancing frontier of Japanese agriculture. 'Traditional' anthropological wisdom holds that the Ainu are descended from the aboriginal inhabitants of Japan who were gradually dispossessed of their land by the invading Japanese and their superior civilization. This view is held up by the fact that the Ainu generally do not look Japanese, by the apparently radical differences between the two languages, and by the large number of Ainu place-names in Japan proper. More recent anthropology, however, sees a far greater continuity between the two cultures, with many deep and ancient similarities.
Ainu literature was traditionally of an exclusively oral variety, and very little was reduced to writing in any language before the 19th century. Many of the stories occur in more or less lengthy poems known as yukar, which are an epic-like form. Many of the stories presented in this book also occur in the context of much longer and deeper stories, which is not made apparent; more than likely because the importance or even existence of the yukar was unknown to the author.
Basil Hall Chamberlain was well-known as one of the pioneering translators and interpreters of things Japanese in his time. (He also translated the Shinto classic Kojiki.) Like many philologists, his interest in the Ainu was purely academic, centering mainly on the light that knowledge of the Ainu could shed on Japanese place-names and prehistory. Like many of the Japanese among whom he lived and worked, his opinion of the Ainu was quite mean, and his comments in the Prefatory Remarks sound downright inflammatory today, a fine specimen of Victorian racism.
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