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The Suicide "Epidemic" in Pira-Utur Kotan (Part 1/3)

Study of suicide among the Ainu people in Japan
The Suicide "Epidemic" in Pira-Utur Kotan (Part 1/3)
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In 1959, a young scholar named Tomikawa Morimichi embarked on an academic journey that remains unique to this day. Never again would a study of such kind reappear within the Japanese academic community.

He attempted to better understand the widespread suicide among the Ainu people.

Although this study is often brushed off due to many methodological errors, I believe it provides a powerful story about the indigenous people of Hokkaido during a time of rapid change, discrimination, and assimilation efforts.

Therefore, this will be a 3 part series where we will take a deeper dive into the study by Tomikawa as well as the issue of suicide in general. This is part 1.

First, let's walk through the stories held within this study and what the situation was like.

Tomikawa's paper is divided into 4 parts:

  1. The cultural perspective on suicide
  2. Records available in archives about suicide among the Ainu
  3. Reports of Ainu suicide in the newspaper
  4. His own fieldwork in Pira-Utur Kotan (A village located near the southern end of the island)

I will be focusing on the last section, but a full report of this study will be made available on my Patreon for anyone interested.

Standing at the border of two small villages was a young newlywed girl named Okin. She is crouched down facing her hometown, Pira-Utur Kotan, while singing a traditional song called "Yaysema".

Location of Pira-Utur Kotan, now called Honcho, Biratori.

"Yaysema" (or sometimes, Yaysama) is a unique form of self-expression not seen in most Ainu dances or songs. It is 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.

In this particular case, Okin was mourning and angry. She had just moved to her new husband's home 4 months ago, to the town next door called Mukawa. It was an arranged marriage, likely due to the deteriorating situation among the Ainu people after the Japanese colonization in 1869.

Her yaysema is full of anger against her husband, her parents, and hate towards the town of Mukawa. She sings:

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

After this, she consumed the root of the Aconitum plant – also known as the Queen of Poison – and ended her life. She was 18 years old.

Prior to the colonization of their land, suicide was almost unheard of among the Ainu. Suicide was heavily stigmatized, and was one of the few ways people could end up in a place similar to our notion of "hell". However, beginning at the end of the 19th century, suicides were reported at a startling rate.

This is what led the then-graduate student, Tomikawa Morimichi to investigate this sudden rise in suicide.

Tomikawa hypothesized that the sudden rise in suicide was due to the rapid shift in the Ainu environment after being colonized in 1869. Not only were their holy hunting grounds cut down, but the Ainu were forced to work far from home and their traditional practices were mostly banned.

One recent example of environmental changes. This is a picture of Nibutani Dam, a dam constructed in 1997. It used to be a sacred hunting ground for the Ainu in this area, but their legal efforts to stop construction did not actualize. (Picture taken by me)

On top of this, the demography of their land flipped on its head. In 1887, about 93% of all households in the southern town of Pira-Utur were Ainu. By the beginning of the 2nd World War, more than 80% of the people were of Japanese heritage. Moreover, the population didn't only double – it grew more than 8 fold.

In the short period Tomikawa investigated the town of Biratori (the Japanese changed the name from Pira-Utur to Biratori), he was able to find 21 cases of suicide between the years 1892 and 1940. Out of these 21 cases, 17 of them occurred between 1906 and 1926; a time reported to have had the highest inflow of Japanese immigrants to the village area. In accordance with such information, Tomikawa concludes, that this rapid change in almost every corner of their social life led to many people choosing suicide as an escape from the growingly unfamiliar world.

Tomikawa further suggests 3 major changes that would have made people more suicidal.

First, the split in opinion about cultural practices within families. To illustrate this, Tomikawa refers to a story he heard from a friend of a young woman who had committed suicide.

She told Tomikawa that there was a major argument between the men and women in the family about tattooing the mouth of their young daughter. In the Ainu culture, women who come of age tattoo their mouths as a sign of spiritual connection to their gods called Kamuy. These tattoos were also considered to be a sign of beauty. However, the men in the family did not want her to tattoo her mouth, as that would quickly signal to the Japanese that she was an Ainu. They also thought that getting a tattoo would lessen the chance of her marrying a Japanese (which was heavily sought after to avoid discrimination) and could attract brothel owners. On the other hand, the women in the family wanted to tattoo the girl's mouth in accordance with their tradition and in defiance against the incoming Japanese influence. Being caught in between such tensions, it was not uncommon for young Ainu teens to become confused about their own identity, customs, and practices.

This, Tomikawa thought, made people more vulnerable to suicide.

Image of Ainu women with tattoos. By Tamoto Kenzo

Secondly, Tomikawa points to the rapid shift in the demography of the Ainu. As briefly mentioned earlier, many Ainu people looked to bear children with a Japanese, in the wish that they would better assimilate to the now dominant Japanese culture. Women often took low-class Japanese men as their husbands (who were often convicts or outcastes), in the wish that their children would have a better life. However, these families were extremely unstable and led to messy forms of divorce. As Dr. Lewallen points out in her study of Ainu women:

Until recently, some Ainu women were so anxious to marry anyone from mainland Japan (i.e., non-Ainu) that they chose criminals or abusive partners and were willing to settle for lifelong martial dysfunction as long as their children would inherit thinned Ainu blood (161)

There are also cases reported in which a Japanese person would make a family with an Ainu woman while he is working in Hokkaido, all the while maintaining a family back on the mainland. When it was time to leave, the Japanese man would lie to his "wife" that he will return – never to be seen again (Tahara, 2018). Such family structures greatly changed the demography and family structure among the Ainu.

Moreover, Tomikawa highlights the ravaging syphilis epidemic among the Ainu. Ainu men would go to brothels while they were away working and bring the STD back home. Also, Ainu women would be forced into prostitution, raped, and sent to brothels; not only being scarred emotionally but also contracting the deadly disease.

Tomikawa believes that the emergence of such dysfunctional families and the widespread disease pushed more people to take their own lives.

The last and most important shift Tomikawa saw was the change in self-perception among women. Although some cases of suicide can be seen in Ainu men, the majority of the suicides were by women.

The Ainu had strict gender roles within their culture, giving both the roles of men and women equal value. In extremely simplistic terms, the men educated young boys about their roles, and the women in turn educated the young girls. However, as the Japanese began to take over their land, they banned the Ainu method of hunting and forced men to work in fisheries far from home. With the Ainu men being away working for months in time, the responsibility of passing down their knowledge to the boys became the role of women.

This shift often pushed more men to access alcohol. It was not uncommon for the women staying at home to have to endure both the changing world around them and their now drunk, uncontrollable husbands.

In such ways, Tomikawa points to these 3 majors points to explain the rapid increase in Ainu suicide. And Okin's mournful yaysema can be better understood within this context.

This was to be the last intensive study about suicide among the indigenous people in Japan.

Sidenote: Tomikawa had another hypothesis about the genetic transmission of suicidal behavior. However, it has a lot of problems and is quite irrelevant to this post so I will not touch on it.  

However, I was not satisfied with his explanation. After reading through his notes, graphs, and commentary, I became convinced there was something else that pushed these people to take their own lives.

Something that is quite reflexive of our modern times.

Next week, we will explore the mysterious phenomena of suicide and talk about one way to understand them better: recipes.