OLD PHOTOS of JAPAN, a photo blog of Japan in the Meiji, Taisho and Showa periods

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Old Photos of Japan
shows photos of Japan between the 1860s and 1930s. In 1854, Japan opened its doors to the outside world for the first time in more than 200 years. It set in motion a truly astounding transformation. As fate would have it, photography had just been invented. As the old country vanished and a new one was born, daring photographers took photos. Discover what life was like with their rare and precious photographs of old Japan.
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1920s • Ainu Women Using Mortar


Two Ainu women using a traditional Ainu mortar (nisu), made from a hollowed-out sugi (cryptomeria) log. It was used for threshing millet (later replaced by rice), wheat, and roots, as well as for beating grains into flour and paste. The two-ended pestle (iyutani) was held in the middle, which was slightly thinner. Although photographs usually show the women holding the pestle with a single hand, English painter, explorer, writer and anthropologist Arnold Henry Savage Landor (1865–1924), who visited the Ainu during an exploration in the late 19th century, describes both hands being used:

During the process of pounding millet—which is only practised in the southern part of Yezo1—two or three girls stand round a mortar in which the millet has been placed, and each girl, holding with both hands a pestle, beats and sings, one after the other, the words “Huye, huye,“ as the pestle is let down, increasing in loudness when the grain requires harder pounding, and slowly decreasing in volume towards the end. This pounding begins about sunset, and the place chosen for the operation is generally the small porch of the huts. It has indeed a weird effect to hear these many voices from the distant huts gradually dying away as darkness comes on, till finally only two or three break the stillness of the coming night. Then even those wear away, and everything becomes as silent as the grave.2

Although agriculture played a role in Ainu society, it was a secondary one, supplementing the main diet of fish—especially salmon and trout—, game and a wide variety of wild plants. Game consisted mainly of deer, bear, rabbit, fox, and raccoon dog. But other animals like birds were also part of the Ainu menu.

Food was dried in the sun, boiled and dried, or smoked on racks above a fireplace. The exception was trout, which was grilled before being dried. In order to survive the long hard winters of the Ainu territories, food was stored in elevated storehouses called pu.

Ainu usually ate two meals a day, breakfast and dinner. Lunch was eaten only occasionally. The staple food consisted of a type of soup (ohaw or rur), which could contain meat, fish or vegetables, with a sort of porridge (sayo) as side dish. Fish was also eaten on skewers. Additionally, grains, plants and vegetables were eaten. Fruit, and many wild plants, were eaten raw.

Seasoning consisted of fish or animal fat, salt and other spices. The main Japanese condiments of miso (soy bean paste) and shoyu (soy sauce) were not used.

Interestingly, chopsticks were only used by men. Women used wooden spoons.


1 Also Ezo, Yeso. Current Hokkaido.

2 Landor, Arnold Henry Savage (2001). Alone with the Hairy Ainu or, 3,800 Miles on a Pack Saddle in Yezo and a Cruise to the Kurile Islands. Facsimile reprint of the 1893 edition by John Murray, London. Adamant Media Corporation, 262. ISBN 9781402172656.

3 Information on the Ainu diet was supplied by the Ainu Musuem in Shiraoi, Hokkaido.

Photographer: S. Kinoshita
Publisher: Unknown
Medium: Postcard
Image Number 80201-0049

Quote this number when you contact us about licensing this image.
You can also licence this image online: 80201-0049 @ MeijiShowa.com.

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Reference for Citations

Duits, K. (2009, February 11). 1920s • Ainu Women Using Mortar, Old Photos of Japan. Retrieved on 2021, Sep 27 from https://www.oldphotosjapan.com/photos/652/ainu-women-using-mortar

Posted by • 2009-02-11
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