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Home » Archives » January 2007 » Ainu Folk Tales in English

Ainu Folk Tales in English

Sunday, January 7, 2007 Posted: 02:29 PM JST

Although Japanese politicians often like to promote Japan as a "homogeneous" nation. The truth is quite different. Japan is home to quite a few minority groups, some of them racial, others social. One of the groups that has suffered most from the homogeneous myth is the Ainu, a race of people indigenous to northern Japan. Since 1999, a team of people from a variety of nations and professions has been working to give the rich Ainu culture the attention it so rightly deserves. Under the moniker of U-e-peker they have been making Ainu folk-tales available in English.

Project U-e-peker published the English translation of Kayano Shigeru's Ainu Nenoan Ainu, a picture book packed with drawings and stories about how the Ainu once lived, in 2004.

In 2005, U-e-peker received a grant from the Foundation for Research and Promotion of Ainu Culture to help publish their English translation of Ainu to Kitsune, the story of a fox�s passionate appeal for humans to end their selfish ways.

U-e-peker has several more folk-tale translations on the shelf. These will be published as soon as there is sufficient funding.

I asked U-e-peker cofounder Deborah Davidson to tell a little about U-e-peker's projects:

(by Deborah Davidson) - Project U-e-peker came into being on February 9, 1999, when three people of different nationalities and professions gathered at my home in Sapporo to discuss what we could do to make Ainu folk tales more readily available in English-- particularly in the light of the potential resources of the recently established Foundation for Research and Promotion of Ainu Culture (hereafter: Ainu Foundation).

Our team rep, Hakodate-based Peter Howlett, had been using his own translations of Ainu folk tales in the ELT classroom for years, developing teaching materials that included notes in various languages (primarily Japanese, Korean, and Russian) so that they could be used beyond the context of Japan's ESL classroom, as part of a vision to create "classrooms without borders."

Noriyoshi Owaki, retired English teacher, former president of the Minority Group Conference, and secretary general of the National Network in Support of the Ainu Communal Property Case, approached our project from the perspective of preserving Ainu dignity and ethnic rights.

As a professional translator, my own approach to the project was a deep interest in the oral literature of an overlooked and under-appreciated culture. Like Peter, I had lived all my life in Japan, most of it in Hokkaido, in close proximity to the few remaining Ainu hamlets. Our physical appearance and nationalities had forced us to be categorized as outside the mainstream in the land we have called "home" for over fifty years, and maybe this is one reason why we were drawn so by the plight of the Ainu.

With each subsequent meeting, the membership of Project U-e-peker grew, encompassing more nationalities, professions, and perspectives along the way. Our first breakthrough came when Peter's translation of Ainu Nenoan Ainu was published by Tuttle Publishing as The Ainu: A Story of Japan's Original People (2004). Originally written by the Ainu activist Kayano Shigeru (1926-2006), it is a meticulously illustrated description of the traditional Ainu lifestyle and values in which he had been raised.

In 2005, the Ainu Foundation accepted our application for a publishing grant, and my translation of Ainu to Kitsune, Kayano's rendition of a traditional Ainu folk tale, was published by R.I.C. Publications as The Ainu and the Fox (2006). We hope to eventually publish our English renditions of the tales in Chiri Yukie's (1903-1922) famous yukar anthology, titled Ainu Shinyoushuu (Collected tales of the Ainu gods).

In 2006, shortly after the publication of The Ainu and the Fox, we established a Project U-e-peker website to inform the public of what we hope to accomplish and why. We are spread over several nations and continents, but our common desire is to have a part in drawing the world's attention to the literary charm and social/ecological wisdom contained in the Ainu oral tradition, before it is snuffed out in the general apathy which faces it in Japan.

Keywords: book_news culture_news national_news people_focus

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2 comments so far post your own

1 | At 01:59am on Feb 07 2007, Hdr wrote:
We thought on doing a feature on them, aren't they the ones with tattoos on their faces?
2 | At 03:42am on Feb 07 2007, Kjeld Duits wrote:
Yes, they are. Although you will nobody with tattoos on their faces anymore nowadays. You're about a century too late for that... Great site you have, by the way!
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