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Investigating the Suicide "Epidemic" in Pira-Utur Kotan (Part 3/3)

Investigating the Suicide "Epidemic" in Pira-Utur Kotan (Part 3/3)

After reading Tomikawa’s 1959 study of the sudden spike in suicide rates among the Ainu, I planned a trip to visit the very town where Tomikawa conducted his fieldwork.

The town is now named Honcho, Biratori, but was called Pira-Utur Kotan among the Ainu. The houses were built along the main river called Saru River, and it is also split in two by another small creek running through it.

Although all of my informants told me that the small river running through the village was not significant, I had a certain hunch based on the information in Tomikawa’s study.

That is because every single suicide that used the Aconitum root occurred on one side of the village. In fact, 19 out of the 21 suicide cases can be traced back to this specific side of the river.

So then, could the "widespread" suicide really be explained by the rapid demographic shift in Hokkaido as Tomikawa suggested? Or was it actually a local event that transpired due to a very specific ecological niche?

This is what we'll attempt to make sense of today.


Before we do this, let us briefly review Tomikawa's study:

Tomikawa hypothesized that the rise in suicide cases was due to the rapid shift in the environment and demography among the Ainu people. To illustrate this demographic shift, we can look to two maps of Pira-Utur Kotan that Tomikawa drew:

Recreation of Tomikawa's hand drawn maps of Pira-Utur/Biratori Kotan. Drawn and translated by me.

Just at first look, you can immediately notice the immense change that occurred during the 50 year period.

Side note: "Wajin" refers to the ethnic Japanese, and the numbers seen in the fisrt map will become significant later.

As you can see, the town developed and the Ainu population has been greatly outnumbered by the Japanese. Such change came with many challenges to the Ainu people, which Tomikawa suggests led to suicide. Yet to quote Kral again from part 2,

We have learned of numerous risk factors for suicide... but none of these things leads directly to suicide. They lead to being upset (Kral 2019:23).

He continues,

Perturbation (the "risk factors")  does not cause suicide. It [causes] the person to do something about the perturbation (ibid).

So unlike Tomikawa, I argue that such changes only made people upset and perturbed; no causality with suicide can be said. It can even be said that almost every Ainu population across the island was made vulnerable during the rapid colonization of their land by Japan and Russia. Yet, not all areas saw spikes in suicide cases. So maybe a "cultural recipe" for suicide was made, transmitted, and acted upon here in Pira-Utur Kotan. Moreover, the recipe seemed to have thrived only on one side of this village.

To investigate this, I have made 4 questions for us to explore that will give us a better idea of what may have transpired:

  1. How we do know that all the suicides occurred on one side of the village?
  2. Why did suicide seem like a viable option?
  3. What's the Aconitum plant to the Ainu?
  4. How did the idea of suicide spread among the Ainu?

First, how do I know that 19 out of the 21 suicides, and every single suicide by Aconitum poisoning occurred on one side of the river? This fact was not mentioned in Tomikawa's study.

In Tomikawa's research, he suggests a genetic transfer of "suicidal behavior" by tracing back the genealogy of the people who committed suicide. He does so with the help of a few elders in Pira-Utur who had lived there throughout all the change. Although his argument was a rather weak one, this information proves crucial in another way.

Recreation of the kinship diagram Tomikawa drew for all 21 people. Drawn and translated by me.

This seemingly incoherent image is the kinship diagram Tomikawa drew of all 21 people who committed suicide. What this diagram allows us to do is to trace back the genealogy of each person who had taken their own life, and find out where their homes were located along the river.

Remember that first map I showed you earlier? The numbers seen under each circle actually correspond to a name that Tomikawa deemed the "head of the house" – usually the oldest male in the family. By coupling the genealogical information with this map, it allows us to locate where each person who committed suicide lived.

In fact, through this process we learn that many of the suicides occurred within the same household. Siblings would follow their brother or sister, or a child would follow in their parents' or grandparents' footsteps.

The red circles indicates that a member(s) of that household committed suicide during the span of Tomikawa's study. 

In the image above, I have visualized the aforementioned information. A circle colored in red indicates that a member of that household had taken their own life, making clear that all genealogically traceable cases of suicide were by people who lived on one side of the river.


Now, this raises the question: how did the cultural recipe of suicide by Aconitum poisoning not only emerge but become a viable option?

To explore this question, I visited a place you may not expect: a church.

In both maps drawn by Tomikawa, you will be able to spot a church along the river. To my surprise, this church building not only still stands, but continues to hold services and meetings on a weekly basis.

The church in Biratori today. Image from their website

The church is an Anglican Episcopal Church, first created by an English missionary named John Batchelor and a local Ainu leader named Penryuk in 1895.

Batchelor first arrived in Hokkaido in 1879, through the invitation of Walter Dennings. Seeing the great discrimination facing the Ainu people, Batchelor dedicated his life to help, serve, and spread the gospel among the indigenous people of his new home. Batchelor is also among the leading "scholars" of the Ainu, who has left us with an incredible amount of records, writings, and knowledge about the Ainu.

Through such efforts to help the Ainu people, Batchelor traveled across the island to build churches and safe havens for people in immediate danger or facing continuous discrimination. One of such legacies of Batchelor is the Anglican Episcopal Church in Biratori. The church was first built entirely for Ainu people; with an Ainu-style building, sermons and worship were conducted entirely in the Ainu language, and of course, all the members were Ainu.

Side note: The church made a new, more "modern" building in 1923, explaining the change in location of the church seen in the two maps by Tomikawa.

During my trip to Biratori, I had the pleasure of visiting this historical church and meeting two central members of the congregation.

"In just a few years, almost every woman in and around the village got baptized. Men like Penryuk attended the church too, but Batchelor didn't baptize him because of his drinking problem. So being part of the church became an important part of the daily life of these Ainu women"

That's Mr. Izawa, the town councilor of Biratori and a key member of this historical church. Although he does not claim Ainu ancestry, he inevitably has learned a lot about Ainu history due to him living in the area. Through such experiences, Mr. Izawa is also the committee chairman of the Comprehensive Ainu Policy Office.

Image of the first church and its members. This was hung on the wall at the new building. Photo by me.

After speaking to Mr. Izawa about my study, he mentioned that the large popularity of the church was probably due to the Ainu people looking for some safety and grounding from the growingly hostile environment around them. Tomikawa also shared this opinion by saying: "The Ainu women most likely joined the church not out of faith, but as an escape from their destitute environment and for a sense of community."

But suddenly, it all changed.

In 1899, the Japanese government passed a protection act – similar to the Dawes Act of the US – which looked to assimilate the Ainu people to the "modern and advanced" Japanese standard. This triggered a great influx of Japanese farmers into the Ainu land, which also changed the situation of the church.

"I think it was in the year 1900 [a year after the law passed] that worship at this church changed from Ainu to Japanese. Batchelor never stayed in one area for long, so it was probably one of his pupils who made this decision. We don't know exactly why, but it was probably in response to the incredible amount of Japanese people moving into the area. I also suspect that they wished to help the Ainu people by teaching them Japanese."

But did this really help the Ainu? The women who joined the church looked to get away from the Japanese. To them, the church served as a safe haven where they could be themselves.

"According to the attendee list of the church, by 1904 no Ainu people came to the church. I mean, why would they? Many didn't speak Japanese nor did they want to be affiliated with the Japanese."

Mr. Izawa tells me with a big shrug.

Even today, we only speak in Japanese. And not many people around here want to admit they are Ainu. Even though it has become more acceptable to do so!
Mr. Izawa on the right. The pastor of the church in the middle. We are discussing the data Tomikawa gathered.

Now guess when the first suicide occurred in Tomikawa's study, just based on this information from Mr. Izawa.

If you guessed 1900, you are spot on. If you further guessed it was a woman who lived near the church, you deserve a gold star.

The church that acted as one of the last places of refuge for the Ainu, also fell to the hands of the Japanese, leaving many without a sense of belonging or community. Their children were being indoctrinated to believe they were "inferior Japanese" or even worse "former dirt people", who were being saved by the gracious Japanese government. Their traditional practices were deemed illegal and the once tightly knit community was replaced by the rapid pace of democratic capitalism. This deteriorating situation made many of these people upset and perturbed.

But I hope by now you do not just conclude here that this led to suicide. The question still remains; why did suicide become a viable option for the people in Biratori?

To explore this, let's meet another person: Mr. Kihata. He'll tell us more about the Aconitum and its role within Ainu culture.


Image of the Aconitum plant grown as a display at Upopoy Ainu National Park. Photo by me
“I’m not sure about suicide, but from my knowledge the Ainu culture is extremely efficient”

That is Mr. Kihata, a botanist who is an expert on the diverse fauna on the island of Hokkaido. I was talking to him about the Aconitum plant.

“You can find Suruku [Ainu word for Aconitum] almost anywhere in Hokkaido. Although the strength of poison the plant contains depends on the environment, the roots here in the southern edge of the island is known for its punch.”

Mr. Kihata is an Ainu man, whose family is one of the most active members of the community. His grandmother is famous for her storytelling and songs, and he is following in her footsteps by exploring the relationship the Ainu had with plants.

“Each Ainu family had their own special recipe for preparing the poison of the Aconitum, never written down in letter [The Ainu did not have their own written language, but from the influence of China, Russia, and Japan, some did acquire the knowledge]. Just like any other part of the Ainu culture, everything was tied to their religion and belief in the spirit of Kamuy. Among these practices, hunting using the poison of the Aconitum plant required extensive ceremonies and preparations.”

He further explained how such practices also served to protect the Ainu from accidentally consuming the readily accessible and extremely lethal poison of the Aconitum plant.

“The plant is often hung up in the cise (house) for months to dehydrate. Then the root is steamed and made into a mash using a Suruknima, a special tool used just for the preparation of the poison. But the poison is too strong at this point, and if it were to be used to hunt game, it would render the meat and skin unusable. So with the hidden recipe past down through the patrilineal line, the poison would be mixed with a number of different ingredients to create the perfect balance.”

Then, Mr. Kihata points out something very interesting here:

Based on what you've told me, it seems like this ceremony taught the people about the lethality and location of this plant. I mean once you know what you're looking for, anyone could go on a stroll and find the plant. And if someone wants to die, it's either the plant or jumping into the cold waters of Hokkaido.

And there's the method. Although initially, the poison was a central part of keeping the Ainu alive, the changing times may have led people to idealize suicide through the use of this poison.


Now we can tackle the final remaining question: why did all the suicides occur on the same side of the village, and why were the majority of these suicides female?

To answer this, let us go all the way back to part 1 and Okinn's Yaysema.

"Yaysema" (or sometimes, Yaysama) is a unique form of self-expression not seen in most Ainu dances or songs. It is most often performed by women, and is full of stories about their loved ones, their grievances, or anything they wish to get off of their chest. Yaysema has been put akin with rapping or improv, as most people have their own unique beat or style while performing. (From part 1)

What I did not mention here is that Yaysema also served as a form of "gossip", often among women. These songs and grievances would spread among social groups and even be memorized if it was particularly impactful – like modern-day Taylor Swift songs.

So, when people like Okinn sang her Yaysema, she was not alone. And as it can be seen here, it almost serves as a suicide note:

At one point, I made up my mind
I ran out of the small house and head towards the border between Saru and Mukawa
I sang and sang till my voice gave out
I always believed Pira-Utur was the best. I hate Mukawa
That Mukawa Kotan, I'll never go back. I'll never return there

So as these songs spread among the women who have lost their place of belonging in the community and church, with the knowledge of the lethal and greatly accessible Aconitum plant, the cultural recipe of suicide seems to have been allowed to exist within that ecological niche.


What I hope you get out of this is one thing, which I also highlighted in part 2.

It is that many of the social (or even seemingly personal) issues are not some unfortunate pathogen that is apart from us. They are often the product of our society, even worse, they can be an integral part of it. Biases, stigmas, taboos on all fronts often allow for systems to work smoothly. Sometimes at the cost of some group across the globe, sometimes at the cost of our neighbors down the street.

Suicide is no different.