Wednesday, June 30, 2010

The Lost Wolves of Japan

I just finished a book called The Lost Wolves of Japan by Brett L. Walker. Such a nice book highlighting how the extinction of Japan's wolves can be surprisingly synchronised with the country's modernisation after the Meiji period. Basically, the book focuses on the change of social image of wolves among the Japanese. In the past, wolves were seen as deities and good fortunes, but after the introduction of western agricultural system along with the outbreak of rabies and other factors, Japan's wolves were seen as 'noxious animals' and 'man-killers' and were totally eliminated. Below is one of the parts I find very touching. It's about an old Ainu's folklore which involves a wolf as a deity.

― Ainu kamuy yukar, or divine epic poetry, also exposes traces of the wolf in Ainu cultures. One such example is the "Horkew kotan kor kur," as recited by ekashi (storyteller) Hiraga Satano and recorded in October 1967. The narrator is no other than Horkew Kamuy, the wolf god. Horkew Kamuy begins by describing its lavish treatment by its Ainu master. Once more exposing the blurry line between wolves and dogs, we learn that Horkew Kamuy (treated as a dog when in the village and the proximity of people) was fed in lacquered wooden bowls while sitting on stylized mats. Horkew Kamuy and its master also hunted together in the mountains. As Horkew Kamuy recalled:

My master
when he goes hunting
I, too, go with him to the mountains,
We take deer,
we take bear.
When I do this
my master,
his work is made easy...

However, Horkew Kamuy got into trouble when other wolves (from outside the village) talked it into going hunting with them. In a sequence that celebrates the effortless hunting skills of wolves, characteristics obviously admired by Ainu, Horkew Kamuy said:

Before my master came
I ran ahead,
not so much running as flying.
When I went to the hunting grounds,
my friends,
the other wolves,
came in large numbers.
for just one day,
let's run together,
let's play together."
"Ohhh," Horkew Kamuy howls.

The wolf pack then went to a second and a third hunting ground; until well into the evening they hunted and played together. When Horkew Kamuy finally returned home, the master beat the hapless animal to death with a piece of firewood from the hearth because it had not hunted with him. The Ainu master ranted:

"This bad dog,
this rotten dog,
today, for the entire day,
what has it been doing?
Not even one deer
has it brought to this house."

After having killed Horkew Kanuy―now a beaten "dog" in the village―with firewood, the master threw the body onto a heap of trash. When Horkew Kamuy woke up, it found itself floating downstream in an unknown river as if in a dream. Horkew Kamuy explained:

I realized
that at this point my
heart was standing tall in my chest,
my feelings were standing in my chest;
this is what happened to me.
From this point I flowed downstream
like I was flying,
like I was running,
forever downstream.

Midway down this dreamlike river, Horkew Kamuy found itself at the home of an even wealthier Ainu master. Unlike the earlier master, this one acknowledged Horkew Kamuy as a high-ranking god. He performed appropriate acts of reverence, such as whittling ceremonial inaw (wooden fetishes) and adorning the site with important ikor (treasure). Horkew Kamuy even dined at the iyoykir (treasure altar). Horkew Kamuy said:

Whittling inaw
he fastened the inaw to a sword duard [seppa].
He then took this and came outside:
I heard gossip
of lord wolf god [horkew tono]
a high-ranking god."

This new Ainu master then invited Horkew Kamuy into his house and to sit near the sacred treasure altar so that it could be worshipped accordingly. Eventually, the previous master, armed with gifts of apology, came to retrieve the wolf god. Horkew Kamuy consented to go back, where the exact same scenario occurred again: pack members invited the wolf to go hunting, it neglected to hunt for its master, and the master beat Horkew Kamuy to death. This time, however, Horkew Kamuy decided not to stop at the house of the previous wealthy master but rather continued downstream even further to the house of another Ainu. When this Ainu came out with inaw and ikor, eager to worship Horkew Kamuy, the wolf god fled across the ocean, where it encountered the wolf boss.

When the wolf boss heard the story of the evil Ainu who beat Horkew Kamuy, he was outraged and pledged "to go and kill the evil Ainu." The wolf boss assembled many boats, and the narrator, Howkew Kamuy, served as guide. When they arrived at the place of the Ainu, they were told by a frail-looking youth, who appears on the scene in another boat and whose knees wobbled when he walked, that the Ainu village was in the midst of a terrible famine. Although Horkew Kamuy was moved into not returning to the village to seek revenge, the other wolf gods were not. Horkew Kamuy explained:

They arrived at that village
the village upstream
where I was raised.
Without saying a word,
and without leaving behind a single insect,
all the people of the village
were killed.

This epic poem then concludes with a fairly straightforward message that highlights the interconnected place and interrelated nature of wolves and dogs in the Ainu imagination:

simply put,
a dog,
even if you kill one,
should not be sent in the direction
of the ocean.
Its ancestors are wolves.
It should be sent in the direction of the mountains.
That's the lesson of this story.

Brett L. Walker (The Lost Wolves of Japan, 2005)


Ryou said...

Thanks for sharing! It has a certain melancholic feel to it. I shall look for the book someday.

Unravel said...

Thanks Ryou for the comment!
Japanese folklores always have such kind of subtle melancholic feel, which I love the most.