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Ainu- Iyomante 

In this paper, I focus on Iomande, “the bear sending off ritual” practiced

 by the Ainu people of  Hokkaido. Iomonde is practiced by all Ainu

 people in all regions except those of the northern  Kuriles, and the

 rituals are slightly different from one location to another (Emiko, 240).

 The  process consists of three stages occurring over two years.  First,

 hunters capture a bear cub.  Second, women raise the cub for about

 one to one and a half years. Third, Iomande is held at  the beginning of

 the winter when the bear is ritually killed and its soul is sent back to

 the  mountains (Emiko, 244).

Myth plays an important role among Ainu people. Rapport and Overing

 discuss the function of  myth. They note that:

“ [I]t serves to reinforce social cohesion and unity by presenting and justifying traditional order. Mystic discourse reminds a community of its own identity through the public process of specifying and defining its distinctive social norms. Whether or not people believe the irrational content of myth is irrelevant, for its symbols have served a crucial social function in the maintenance of the given social order”(Rapport and Overing, 276) 

The myth concerning the origin of Iomande is a good example of this

 theory.Although Ainu  people do not have a written language, they do

 have a well-developed oral tradition where we  can find the myth of

 the origin of Iomande.  According to Higashi Suzunai, an Ainu man

 interviewed by Hilger, there was a great famine  among the Ainu

 people in ancient times. Because people were suffering, Kamui Ekashi

 (the  leader of the deities) ordered his subordinates to disguise

 themselves as bears. He ordered  them to go to the Ainu people to

 conduct a ritual in which a bear would be shot so that its soul

 could be released and go back to the bear deities where it belongs.

 Thus, the Ainu people  started Iomande, the ritual that involves sending

 the soul of bear back along with millet  dumplings and millet sake with

 the wish for the bears to come again  (Hilger, 89). I found that  the

 lives of Ainu people are interwoven with  myth.  As Rapport and

 Overing state, when Ainu  people justify, legitimate or explain the

 reason why they do the things they do, they  often use myth.

Another example to demonstrate how the lives of Ainu people are

 interwoven with myth is the  reason why Ainu people address

  Kamui(deities) of fire in prayer on all occasions before they

 offer any other prayers. According to Petei, who is an old male Ainu

b person:

“While all Kamui were still living in the skies, their children played with snowballs. Oneday, inadvertently, a snowball fell from the sky. The Highest Kamui saw this and told the children to shoot at it immediately. All except one boy missed the target. His arrow split the snowball in two. Out flew two birds, one white and one black. Upon investigation, the Highest Kamui found that the boy who had shot the snowball was the child of the Kamui of Thunder, Kanna-Kamui and of Abe Fuji-Kamui, Kamui of Fire. These two had been married without permission from the Highest Kamui. This boy was sent by the Highest Kamui to the earth to govern the earth and to be a leader of humans-Ainu, as you know, means ‘humans’. Since the boy was only a child, the Highest Kamui sent his mother, Abe-Fuji-Makui, with him. It is she who has, since then, governed our fireplaces on earth and has been the mediator between the other Kamui and men”(Hilger, 94).

 Therefore, myth plays a very important role in Iomande as

 well as all aspects of  Ainu life to help justify, legitimate

 and explain Iomande and the lives of Ainu  people.

             Holy and Stuchilik explain that “social life is a matter of intention and performance: the impacting of meaningful, goal-oriented actions upon the world so as to maintain or change a status quo” (quoted in Rapport and Overing, 53). According to them, while performances are responsible for unceasingly reconstructing the human world, the cognitive model of intentions is responsible for constituting the world of humans. We can apply their theory to the case of the Ainu people.  Ainu people understand Iomande as a ritual of rebirth for the bear. The purpose is to send off the soul of the bear in a ritually proper way so that it will be reborn in the mountains where the bear deities, Kimun-Kamui live. By treating the bear with love and respect and sending its soul back with gifts and offerings to the bear deities, the bear Kamui will be pleased and will provide the Ainu people with meat and fur (Emiko, 241). Therefore, with clear intention of ritual, Ainu people perform Iomande, which serves to maintain a good relationship between the human world and the deity world.

The Iomande ritual illustrates multidimensional aspects of Ainu people’s

 life such as religious,  political, social and economic one. Since the

 Iomande ritual involves not only the members of  the immediate

 settlements but also other communities’ members, it provides a

 significant  opportunity for male elders to display their wealth,

 symbolizing personal and community  political power to those from

 other settlements (Emiko, 241). Although they are all Ainu people,

 there are separate communities based on settlements. Cohen argues


“community should be seen as a symbolic construct and a contrastive one; it derives from the situational perception of a boundary which marks off one social group from another: awareness of community depends on consciousness of boundary”

(quoted in Rapport and Overing, 61). 

Therefore, as Cohen discusses, communities are divided based on

 geography and Iomande could  play a role as a symbol of awareness of

 one’s own community.

            There is a relationship between Ainu people’s moral values and Iomande. Among Ainu people, there is an emphasis on a person’s generosity. This emphasis is related to Ainu deities, who offer their own bodies and flesh to humans for the sustainment of life. For example, bear deities offer their own bodies to humans, and therefore, the Ainu people have the Iomande ritual to send the bear’s soul back with gifts to the mountains where the bear deities reside. Political leaders are chosen on the basis of generosity, the person who is willing to share (Emiko, 242).

 Iomande also illustrates Ainu cosmology. Ainu-moshir refers to the earthly or natural word where humans live, and Kamui-moshir signifies the supernatural world where deities live. Takeshi notes that:

“Ainu myths tell how in the process of establishing Ainu-moshir, the deities of Kamui-moshir

generated other supernatural beings both good and bad, among with the inhabitants of the real world such as humans, animals and plants”(quoted in Irimoto,74).


The Iomande ritual centers on the relations between humans and deities,

 and based on this  relationship, there is a complex concept of

 host/guest/visitor/gift related to the Iomande  ritual. According to


“The forest serves as a host to the hunter, who must comport himself as a proper guest. The hunter is a host inviting the animal to feast on the gift of its own meat. The animal is host to the hunters as they feed on its flesh. The animal is a gift from the Mater of the Animal, as well as being a visitor from the spirit world. The animal gives

itself to the hunter. The hunter, by killing the animal, enables it to return to its supernatural owner and to its home from which it has come to earth as a visitor”(Smith, 59)


This relationship also shows us that the Ainu people’s concept of the

 human world and the divine  world and those common norms that Ainu

 people posses could give them a stronger sense of  belonging. According

 to Warner, consciousness of the fact that they live with the same norms

 and within the same social organization provides community members

 with a sense of belonging  (quoted in Rapport and Overing, 61) As they

 participate in Iomande, people experience the  departure of the spirit

 of the bear for  the divine world and experience the existence of the

 spiritual world. Through the shared experiences, Ainu people  are able

 to create a stronger  sense of community. Frankenberg suggests that:

“[I]t is common interests in achievable things

(economic, religious, or whatever) that gives members of a community a common interest in one another. Living face to face, in a small group of people, with common interests in mind, eventuates in community member’s sharing many stranded or multiplex relations with one another; also sharing a sentiment towards the locality and the group itself”(quoted in Rapport and Overing, 61) 

Based on my research of the Ainu people, their common interest is to

 send the bear’s spirit back  to world where bear deities reside so that

 the latter will send more bears next year.

            Finally, by focusing on Iomande, we can observe two different

 worldviews which  Rapport and Overing discuss. According to them,

 “world-view is used to point up critical  differences between groups of

 people, based on how they view the world” (Rapport and

 Overing, 395). For Geerz, “word-view refers to an intellectual

 understating of the world, a way  of thinking about the world and its

 workings, which is common amongst a particular group”

 (quoted in Rapport and Overing, 396).  To support their theories, in

 1970, the Japanese  government passed a law that forbade practicing

 Iomande because the Japanese considered the  Ainu way of killing bear

 to be cruel. However, according to an Ainu woman, Kayano:

“The bear was not pierced with a spear, but was shot at with arrows, then clubbed, and finally throttled to death between two logs. This was a ritual dismissal of him. It was not cruel. Furthermore, dispatching the bear was kindness, since his spirit went to the world of bear spirits, a place of happiness for him” (Hilger, 87). 

She then recited such a prayer: 

“Oh bear! You are of benefit to us. You give us your fur for clothing and bedding; you give us meat for good. In order to show our gratitude we shall now send you back to your own country with many, many gifts for your bear relatives there. We are going to perform for you a variety of interesting dances” (Hilger, 87).


As I demonstrated to above, While the Japanese view Iomande as cruel ,

 Ainu people consider  Iomande as a sacred ritual, “the bear sending off

 ritual” returning the bear soul back to the  divine world where it came

 from. These different ways of understanding the world between

 the Japanese and the Ainu illustrates two different worldviews.  



Fitzhugh, William W.  and Dubreuil, Chisato O.  1996. Ainu. Los Angeles:  University of Washington Press. 

Hilger, Inez M. 1971. Ainu, a Vanishing People. Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press. 

Rapport, Nigel and Overing, Joanna. 2000. Social and Cultural Anthropology: The Key Concepts. London: Routledge. 

Smith, Z. Jonathan. 1982.  Imagining Religion. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 

Yamada, Takako and Takashim, Irimoto.1997. Circumpolar Animism and Shamanism. Sapporo: University of Hokkaido.

Yamada, Takako and Takashim, Irimoto.1994. Circumpolar Religion and Ecology. Tokyo: University of Tokyo Press.