The Bear Ritual of the Ainu


The Ainu are an aboriginal hunter/gatherer/fisher people who once inhabited many of the islands that bound the southern half of the Sea of Okhotsk north of the main Japanese island of Honshu. There were Ainu populations, now extinct, who were on the Kurile islands.1 The few hundred Ainu who inhabited the southern half of Sakhalin Island were relocated to the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido at the end of World War II when Sakhalin became a territory of the recently defunct USSR.2 The Ainu native to Hokkaido are, and were, the most numerous and are the best known to the outside world; they are still living on Hokkaido, although their tribal culture has been obliterated. The origins of the Ainu have been a puzzle to physical anthropologists since they were first observed by Westerners in the late nineteenth century. They are not a Japanese or Mongoloid people for they have wavy hair, abundant body hair, frequent lack of the epicanthic fold about the eyes and a well developed chin. A variety of archeological and dental evidence suggests that the Ainu are descendants of the Jomon people of the early Neolithic in Japan and that the Jomon people are, therefore, not the ancestors of the present day Japanese (Ohnuki-Tierney 1974, Turner 1976).

The interest of the Ainu to us concerns the most spectacular element of their culture which served to call the Ainu to the attention of the Western world. The Ainu practiced an elaborate bear cult into the 1920s which immediately calls to mind the Paleolithic bear cult and the epiphany of the Great Goddess as Bear Mother. The Ainu captured a bear cub, nurtured it for months and then sacrificed it during an elaborate ritual. They are the only people to have retained a full fledged bear cult into the twentieth century and the Paleolithic elements are unmistakable; the Ainu are truly spectacular from a Western anthropologist's viewpoint.

The bear in Ainu ritual is distinctly masculine and not the Great Goddess as Bear Mother. It would certainly be 'inappropriate' to sacrifice the Bear Mother who represents the Goddess as Life Giver. This Ainu bear is the earthly manifestation of the head of the mountain gods, Chira-Mante-Kamui; his bear form is his disguise when visiting the earth. The Ainu gods view humankind as equal to them. They wish to be on the best of terms with human beings because the offerings made during rituals reach the kingdom of the gods where they become the banquet items when the gods themselves hold festivals. The flesh and skin of the deity's disguise is the god's offering to humankind. The ritual surrounding the bear frees the god to return to his kingdom where the deities can enjoy the fruits of the ritual; those ritual 'fruits' magically increase when they reach the abode of the gods. There are several important groups of deities, two of which are the mountain gods of which Chira-Mante-Kamui is one, and the sea gods and goddesses.

When a bear cub is caught in the mountains, he is brought home alive and served human food in a log cage. If he is so young that he has no teeth, he is suckled by a human nurse. When the bear is two or three years old, the Bear Festival, called Iomante or Kumamatsuri, is held in mid-winter when the fur is thickest and the meat is sweetest with fat.3 When all is prepared, the bear is taken out of the cage with a rope and placed between the altar and the god's window. Villagers shoot the bear with ceremonial arrows and then kill it with ordinary arrows or crush it with a huge log. The dead bear is placed before the altar, offerings are made to it and dances are performed. Festivities last for three days and nights. On the first night, to the left of the fireplace, a secret ceremony is performed called Keo-Mante, which means sending the dead body off. The brain, tongue and eyeballs are taken out of the skull and it is filled with flowers. This ceremony is held at midnight and it sends the Chira-Mante-Kamui's spirit back to his mountain heaven home. No women are allowed to take part in this particular ceremony. It is important to realize that these ceremonies do not involve making peace with the bear's spirit because it provided food for humans. The Ainu do not conceive of these rituals as involving concepts of this sort. Their relationship with a god is the primary focus of the ceremonies, not the mere acquisition of calories which mandates the placation of the animal spirit (Kindaichi 1949).


The 56 Kurile Islands form a 750 mile chain extending from the Kamchatka Peninsula of Russia to the northeast coast of the Japanese island of Hokkaido. These volcanic islands were discovered in 1634 by the Dutch navigator Martin de Vries and were occupied by the Russians in the 18th century. They were given to Japan in 1875 in exchange for North Sakhalin Island and then returned to Russia in 1945 (Merriam-Webster 1972: 632).
Sakhalin is a large island of almost 26,000 sq. m and 589 m. long. It lies in the western part of the Sea of Okhotsk between Russia and Hokkaido. It's earliest imperial history is Chinese, the Japanese first visited c.1630 and they had explored and sparsely settled it by the end of the18th century. A dispute with Russia c. 1853+ resulted in Sakhalin being ceded to Russia and the Kurile Islands went to Japan. It was occupied by Japan in 1905 and then returned to Russia in 1946 (Merriam-Webster 1972: 1051).
There is a spectacular and authentic film of an Ainu Bear Festival which is narrated in English. It was filmed in the Saro River Valley in Hokkaido in the early 1930's and depicts the last such ceremony conducted by the Ainu. It is titled Iomante and is available for rental showing by the University of California Extension Media Center, Berkeley, CA 94702.