The term Ainu refers to an indigenous people who once occupied the northern islands of Hokkaido, Sakhalin, and the Kurils and who are now largely assimilated into the Japanese population, although there are still remnants in parts of Hokkaido. Their language, which uses the word ainu for “people,” is unrelated to Japanese or Korean and had no written script, but contains a rich oral tradition that uses repetition and alliteration to create a sense of flow and harmonic intonation in dialogue. The primary oral narrative form is the yukar, an epic genre that features a hero, usually a boy or human but sometimes an animal. The Ainu practiced shamanism, and their stories often contain elements of spirit possession. Although a government policy of forced assimilation from the Meiji era on did much to eliminate Ainu culture, Japanese and Western ethnographers collected and published a number of yukar and other stories during the early 20th century. In recent years, the Japanese government has reversed its policy and made funds available for the preservation of Ainu language and culture, and a series of English translations of the narratives have recently begun appearing. A contemporary Ainu novelist is Uenishi Haruji (1925–).

Historical dictionary of modern Japanese literature and theater. . 2009.

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