While working on my graduation project I was looking for credible information on Ainu culture–especially in clothing. On the verge of giving up (by flipping the table and throwing a fit) and being frustrated of finding bare factual data on the Japanese ethnic group I came across on a wonderful find: Golden Kamuy by Noda Satoru.
Synopsis of Volume 1 (Viz Media): “In the early 20th century, Russo-Japanese War veteran Saichi “Immortal” Sugimoto scratches out a meager existence during the postwar gold rush on the wild frontier of Hokkaido. When he stumbles across a map to a fortune in hidden Ainu gold, he sets off on a treacherous quest to find it. But Sugimoto is not the only interested party, and the harsh conditions of the northern wilderness, ruthless criminals and rogue Japanese soldiers, Sugimoto will need all his skills and luck–and the help of an Ainu girl named Asirpa–to survive.”
Prior to reading Noda’s series, the first and only allusion of the Ainu I had comes from the character Horokeu “Horo-Horo” Usui in Hiroyuki Takei’s Shaman King. I am very well aware that there is not much to base off from the character about the community other than his clothing and snowboard patterns along with his guardian spirit. But that is all. I needed factual reference material for the Integrative Project. That is where Satoru Noda’s Golden Kamuy comes in!
Who are the Ainu?
The Ainu are the indigenous people of Japan–notably from Hokkaido, northern Honshu/mainland Japan and the Sakhalin Island. The Ainu people have distinct physical features that stands out from their Japanese counterpart, such as light skin color, stout frame, deep-set European-shaped eyes with thick and wavy hair. It is believed that full-blooded Ainu may have blues eyes or brown hair-due to the possibility of being Caucasian descents.
Traditional Ainu customs, too, differed from customary Japanese practices: Ainu men and women sported and maintained shoulder-length hair. After a certain age Ainu men grow full beards and Ainu women have tattoos around the mouth as they come of age. In Golden Kamuy, the portrayal of such is Asirpa. Together with Sugimoto, we–the readers– are exposed and learn about the Ainu community.
Hunter-Gatherers Lifestyle and Cuisine
Being hunter-gatherers, the Ainu lived off of their land. Their diet mostly consist of wild game such as deer, bear, rabbit, fox. They also consume fish like salmon and huchen, whale–orca (only when it’s dead, due to being revered as Repun Kamuy– the god of the sea). Root vegetables (lily bulbs), wild plants like pukusa (a type of wild garlic) and pukusakina (soft windflowers) are plant-based staples to the Ainu diet. Butterburr too was used in cooking and for medicinal purposes.
Unlike the Japanese consuming raw meat, the Ainu always cooked their meat and never eating anything uncooked. Although citatap (lit. mincing) is a dish made by mincing fresh meat and consumed raw. A recurring gag in the series is Asirpa forcing Sugimoto to consume raw brains and eyeballs whole due to being delicacies. Other than that, Ainu cuisine mainly consists of soup dishes called ohaw.
The Way of Gods
Similar to Shinto, the Ainu are also traditional animists and believed that all things in nature dwell spirits (gods) called kamuy. There are a myriad of gods in Ainu belief, the Kim-un Kamuy (god of bears and mountains), Repun Kamuy (god of the sea) and Kamuy-huci (goddess of the hearth) are very significant deities. Nevertheless all animals are believed to be embodied gods on Earth, bears still reverred as kamuy–the head of gods or “God”.
In the second chapter of volume 1, Asirpa explains to Sugimoto that any animals/kamuy–a bear in this case– attacks or kills a human it becomes a wenkamuy (evil god). The Ainu do not consume animal gods that have killed humans nor do they take their fur to make use of it.
What makes Golden Kamuy a compelling manga series–in my opinion–is that the author sheds light and educates the readers on Ainu culture in a thrilling action-packed story. Noda utilizes Ainu vocabulary to describe particular plants and animals of Hokkaido that are part of their diet as well as expressions like sisam (non-Ainu Japanese) and hinna -“a way of showing gratitude for the food”. The title itself has the Ainu word kamuy, similar to the Japanese word kami, means god. In fact, an Ainu Language supervisor [by the name of Hiroshi Nakagawa] oversees the vocabulary used in Satoru Noda’s work. Also, there is a list of Ainu culture references at the end of the first volume. This also includes the mention of the Cooperation from the Hokkaido Ainu Association and the Abashiri Prison Museum.
Unlike traditional Japanese kimono, which are usually made with silk and/or cotton, Ainu robes–attus amip–are made out of an elm tree bark. In the fifth volume (chapter 47) of Golden Kamuy, Asirpa reveals to Sugimoto how the garbs are made from stripping (or rather “removing a portion of the tree’s clothing”) of the thicker bark from an elm tree, then separating the outer bark and soaking the inner bark to obtain layers of thin fibers, tearing the fibers into thinner strips to twist for thread and finally weaving the fibers to form the cloth called attus.
Golden Kamuy and as a Reference for the Integrative Project
At the back pages of the first volume of Golden Kamuy, you will find a page dedicated to reference materials the author used for the first volume. That is probably the first time I have seen a reference page in a manga. However, due to being a fairly new series at the time, there was no online evidence validating the series’ references credibility. Therefore, I was unable to credit Noda’s series as a source material for my graduation project. It is after all a potential reference to Ainu culture I can get regardless as a manga. Though I did manage to find another striking reference about the Ainu people entitled Un Voyage Chez Les Aïnous: Hokkaïdo by Arlette and Andre Leroi-Gourhan, which I ended up using as my reference material. It offers very similar information on the Ainu as the authors gathered such knowledge during their expedition in Hokkaido.
Nonetheless, I do suggest reading it if you are into historical fiction, gold rush action–with some comedy–as well as food culture. The visuals are great too and the pacing remains consistent as not to bore the audience: action scenes, fights and flashbacks only last for a chapter or two.