Rare Ainu bear sacrifice ritual photos found after 61 years
The Asahi Shimbun by YASUHITO WATANABE/ Staff Writer July 26, 2017
The "iomante" ritual, which sends the spirit of the bear back to heaven, shot in February 1956 (Provided by Ichiro Ushiroyama)
Ichiro Ushiroyama, 82, donated in early July the valuable set of about 100 of the photos and negatives to a museum in Asahikawa, the city he is originally from, and also where the ritual took place.
“My father and grandparents when they were younger are in the photos," said Kenichi Kawamura, 66, director of the Kawamura Kaneto memorial museum of Ainu in Asahikawa. "It is a great documentation that can tell the details of costumes and instruments used. It will be useful for passing the culture on to future generations.”
Ushiroyama, a former news photographer who is not Ainu, took the photos of the “iomante” (bear sending ritual) at an Ainu settlement in the Chikabumi district of his hometown 61 years ago when he was a second-year photography student at Nihon University’s College of Art in Tokyo.
A night ritual held after the bear-sending ritual in the house of the chief, shot in February 1956 (Provided by Ichiro Ushiroyama)
The iomante is one of the Ainu people’s many sacred rituals, in which people catch a bear cub--considered the manifestation of a god--to keep it with great “hospitality” for one to two years before “sending its soul back to heaven” by shooting it with arrows.
At the time, there was a large settlement of several hundred Ainu in Chikabumi, and Ushiroyama negotiated a number of times with the elders of the community to gain permission to photograph the ritual, which was usually off-limits to outsiders.
Over four days in February 1956, Ushiroyama captured the moment of bear shooting, as well as other important processes of the ritual. Among them are “Kamuinomi” where more than 200 people gathered in the middle of a snow-covered field to pray to Ainu gods for the ritual’s success before the iomante.
A funerary dance for the bear was performed by the women of the settlement, and a night ritual took place where people consoled the bear’s soul while drinking at the settlement chief’s “chise” (house).
“I was given special permission to photograph it as I was a student," Ushiroyama said. "I remember the cold weather, the darkness inside the chise, and the kindness of people I felt then. I am pleased to have left a valuable record as a photographer.”
Ichiro Ushiroyama (Photo by Yasuhito Watanabe)
Iomante rituals were frequently conducted in Chikabumi until the 1960s, but the practice almost disappeared in the 1970s and has been little-known since.
According to the memorial museum in Asahikawa, an iomante was held in 1985 and 2000 to teach the tradition to younger generations, but no ritual has been held since 2000.
Even though it is a ritual with a long tradition, the public was not allowed to photograph it, and photographic records taken in the 1960s and earlier are rare.