Dissertation/Thesis Abstract

Exploring narratives in Ainu history through analysis of bear carvings
by Coulter-Pultz, Jude, M.A., Indiana University, 2016, 127; 10119500
Abstract (Summary)

The dominant narrative mode in Ainu studies today stresses an activist agenda that, although worthwhile, limits the potential for new research in the field. In this thesis, I analyze historical accounts of the development of Ainu bear carvings as a case study of the characteristics of the dominant activist mode and present an alternate narrative in order to demonstrate the need for a variety of approaches to Ainu research.

The activist narrative mode is structured to engender sympathy for Ainu people and respect for their cultural heritage. Activist accounts of Ainu bear carvings often claim that the carvers were pressured by the Japanese tourist industry to violate religious taboos against producing realistic depictions of bears. In this way, the carvings serve as a symbol of oppression of Ainu people under Japanese imperialism. At the same time, activist scholars state that the Ainu bear carvings followed a linear progression from tourist souvenirs to respected works of “fine art.” Thus, the carvings also reinforce optimistic projections regarding the future status of Ainu culture and socioeconomic condition.

My alternate narrative focuses on the complexities and ambiguities in the field and avoids judging events in moral or sympathetic terms. I explore a broad range of contextual issues, tracing the regional production of wooden bears from the paleolithic ancestors of Ainu people, examining the role of bears and woodcarving in Ainu culture, analyzing Ainu interactions with Japan, Russia, and other neighboring empires, and investigating the commodification of bear carvings as tourist souvenirs.

Activist narratives have contributed a wealth of valuable research to the field of Ainu studies and remain a useful tool for promoting social and cultural equality for Ainu people. However, automatic conformity to the dominant activist mode perpetuates the obfuscation of certain details in Ainu history, including the diversity within Ainu and Japanese cultures and institutions, instances of political cooperation between Ainu and Japanese communities, and unanswered questions regarding the complex development of Ainu cultural practices and beliefs. Although any historical account (including this thesis) inherently simplifies its subjects, varying our narrative approach helps us to identify and fill some of the gaps.

Indexing (document details)
Advisor: Foster, Michael Dylan
Commitee: O'Bryan, Scott, Sarra, Edith
School: Indiana University
Department: East Asian Languages & Cultures (EALC)
School Location: United States -- Indiana
Source: MAI 55/05M(E), Masters Abstracts International
Source Type: DISSERTATION
Subjects: Cultural anthropology, History, Asian Studies, Folklore, Art history
Keywords: Ainu, Bear carvings, Indigenous people, Japan, Narratives, White, Hayden
Publication Number: 10119500
ISBN: 9781339807348