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An Ainu woman playing the Mukkuri (ムックリ, a Jew’s harp). The Mukkuri is a traditional Ainu musical instrument played by women. It is made of carefully cut bamboo with two strings, and measures about 10 by 1.5 cm (3.9 by 0.6 inches). The player vibrates the tongue cut out of the bamboo by pulling one of the strings, while holding the instrument in front of the mouth. Volume and tone colors are changed by changing the shape of the mouth. Although a simple instrument, and similar to mouth harps found all over the world, accomplished players can create truly amazing music with the Mukkuri.
Ainu music is almost always sacred, as are the instruments themselves which are believed to be imbued with souls. In traditional times, music played an important part in everyday Ainu life. Short simple songs centered on everyday activities and were accompanied by the Mukkuri and the Tonkori, a plucked string instrument. When used as work songs, the music was rhythmic and featured lyrics related to the work that was performed. The songs were not just meant to create a work rhythm, but also acted as prayers and warded off evil spirits.
In addition to the simple everyday songs, Ainu music features epic songs, called Yukar. They are mythic narratives, usually seen from the viewpoint of the gods. Performed without musical instruments, these epic songs consist of long monologues, with the voice of the singer fluctuating within words. They may be performed in front of the open hearth at a friend’s house, or as part of a religious ceremony. In this case the epic song is outlined by the ceremony’s activities, while at the same time reinforcing the ceremony itself. The one cannot exist without the other, showing the important and sacred role that music plays in Ainu culture and consciousness.
For many years, Ainu music was banned by the Japanese authorities. Since the 1960s however, Ainu music has been making a strong comeback as part of an Ainu cultural revival.
Ainu music was especially performed by women, whose vocal qualities were preferred. Although nowadays the casual observer will have much trouble distinguishing Ainu women from other Japanese women, they traditionally looked very different.
Isabella Bird (1831-1904) who in 1878 travelled through the backcountry of Japan, described the Ainu women she encountered:
Passing travellers who have seen a few of the Aino [sic] women on the road to Satsuporo [Sapporo] speak of them as very ugly, but as making amends for their ugliness by their industry and conjugal fidelity. Of the latter there is no doubt, but I am not disposed to admit the former. The ugliness is certainly due to art and dirt.
The Aino women seldom exceed five feet and half an inch in height, but they are beautifully formed, straight, lithe, and well-developed, with small feet and hands, well-arched insteps, rounded limbs, well-developed busts, and a firm, elastic gait. Their heads and faces are small; but the hair, which falls in masses on each side of the face like that of the men, is equally redundant. They have superb teeth, and display them liberally in smiling. Their mouths are somewhat wide, but well formed, and they have a ruddy comeliness about them which is pleasing, in spite of the disfigurement of the band which is tattooed both above and below the mouth, and which, by being united at the corners, enlarges its apparent size and width.
A girl at Shiraoi, who, for some reason, has not been subjected to this process, is the most beautiful creature in features, colouring, and natural grace of form, that I have seen for a long time. Their complexions are lighter than those of the men. There are not many here even as dark as our European brunettes. A few unite the eyebrows by a streak of tattooing, so as to produce a straight line. Like the men, they cut their hair short for two or three inches above the nape of the neck, but instead of using a fillet they take two locks from the front and tie them at the back.1
1 Bird, Isabella L. (1911). Unbeaten Tracks in Japan: An account of travels in the interior including visits to the aborigines of Yezo and the shrine of Nikko. John Murray.