The Smiling Tattoos of the Ainu Women
The word Ainu means “human” or “people” in the language of Ainu, which belongs to the indigenous people of Japan and Russia that carry the same name. Primarily associated with Japan, the Ainu have had a rough road over the last several centuries – a pattern that mimics the indigenous peoples of America and other parts of the world.
The Ainu of Japan are typically said to descend from the Jomon people, who appeared in Japan around 16,000 years ago, and are also associated with the Emishi people and the Satsumon, who were both active around 700 CE and into the early 1000s CE. Like their ancestors, the Ainu were hunter-gatherers. During the summer, they would gather plants and fish for salmon, and during the fall and winter, they would hunt rabbit, bear and ezo deer. Bears were particularly sought after in winter because they were hibernating and weak, and could be more easily killed with the spears and arrows that the Ainu used for hunting.
During the 1700s, Ainu land around Hokkaido was given to the samurai, and laws were passed to make it illegal for the Ainu to use tattoos, to sacrifice animals, or to practice their religion. Uprisings occurred, but were shut down hard – genocidally hard in many cases – and many Ainu assimilated into Japanese society to hide. While today 25,000 people identify as Ainu, or part-Ainu, it’s estimated that the number is closer to 200,000 in Japan, with many not wanting their heritage to be known to avoid discrimination.
Tattooing among the Ainu was for women only. A specially trained woman would tattoo a girl’s face and perhaps forehead. After marriage a woman’s arms would likely be tattooed from the fingers to the elbows, though no one seems sure about the whens and whys of this. Of course, it doesn’t help that most of the documenting was done after traditional Ainu society was crushed.
The process of the tattooing began early, around age 6 or 7 (Though some said as late as 12. It likely varied by village). A few dots
at first, near the upper lip, made with small cuts from a ceremonial knife. Each year new cuts would be made, and the cuts rubbed with charcoal (Specifically birch charcoal, for its rich, dark color), and then the wound would be cleaned in an antiseptic made of boiled ash bark. The process continued until her wedding day, when the groom would make the final cuts that turned the tattoo into a smile (Though again, accounts on the final tattooing vary, with others saying that women continued the process for many years after marriage).
As to why the tattoos happened, by the time the histories were being written, there was already a debate about this among the Ainu. Some said that the practice came from “pit-dwellers” the Ainu had conquered, while others said that the pit-dwellers never used tattoos at all. A more common explanation is religion and disease. Historian John Batchelor wrote, in The Ainu and their Folklore (1901):
“The tattoo marks are placed especially upon the lips and arms,” Batchelor wrote, “because they are the most conspicuous parts. They are put there in order to frighten away the demon of disease. Now the wives of the heavenly deities are every one of them thus tattooed, so that when the demons come, and find that the Ainu women are marked in the same way, they mistake them for goddesses, and forthwith flee away.”
Batchelor also says that when a woman became old and her eyesight failed, she was encouraged to re-tattoo her mouth and arms to bring back her health. When outbreaks of disease occurred in a village, the women would band together and tattoo each other again to fight the disease with what they called “the scent of tattooing.”
While the Japanese government outlawed the tattooing in the late 1700s, women of the Ainu villages warned their daughters that to marry without tattoos was a great sin. If they did, the legend said, they would die and go to hell where the demons would take large knives and do the tattooing all at once.
So that’s harsh.
The process did slowly die out over the centuries, and it was reported in 1998 that the last tattooed Ainu woman had passed away. Photographs taken over the last hundred years show a mix of young women with and without tattoos.
Interestingly, the tattoo method and its meaning match closely with explanations for tattooing in ancient Egypt, and – it’s assumed – with the methods and means of tattooing in stone age societies. The method of using ash instead of ink is a very ancient one, and the connection to healing and medicine is also very ancient.
The Ainu people may very well have been continuing traditions tens of thousands of years old.
About that bear…
The Bear Festival. The Ainu’s traditional religion included elements of animal sacrifice, and since people will naturally wonder why there is a picture of an Ainu woman with a baby bear in this blog, I feel I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the Bear Festival, last celebrated in the late 1800s and witnessed by the earlier mentioned John Batchelor.
It was the largest religious festival of the year. A bear cub would be given to an Ainu woman to raise, and the cub would run free
through the village until it got too big or dangerous to do so. The Ainu considered bears to be superior creatures, second only to foxes in the woodlands hierarchy, and the festival was called a “sending away” for the bear cub, which is the same term the Ainu used for their own deaths.
An invitation would go to the surrounding villages that read:
“We are about to send the cub away to its home among the mountains. Come ye friends and masters to the feast. We will then unite in the great joy of sending the mighty one off.”
When everyone arrives, liquor is drank, much revelry is had, and then the bear is given a message for its ancestors and ceremonially killed. In some places, the blood of the bear is drank, and the meat is eaten and the skin is saved, and sometimes people paint themselves in the blood, etc.
After the ceremony, the bear is no longer called “bear” but “guardian” and is considered the guardian of the village until the next bear – which might be a reincarnation of the old bear. That part is a little hazy.
But that’s why there’s a picture of a woman with a bear cub.
It’s because she ate it.