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Bears and humans in pre-historic Japan

What is known of the relationship between the bear and the people of pre-historic and early Japan has been gleaned from the various bear-related artefacts found in a number of Jōmon (10,500 B.C. to 400 B.C.) and Yayoi Period (400 B.C.–A.D. 250) sites in northern Tōhoku. Wild boar, deer and bears became important game species during the Jōmon Period, taking the place of the Ice Age mammals that were hunted by the Palaeolithic predecessors of the Jōmon people.1 Not only were these animals an important source of food, but of clothing, tools and other items also.2 Furthermore, they became important in the spiritual lives of the pre-historic people of Japan—some more so than others. We are able to understand something of the role they played from archaeological artefacts such as pendants, bones and earthenware found in archaeological sites of the Jōmon and Yayoi Periods.

Earthenware pots decorated with bear figures or motifs, clay figurines of bears, bear-tooth pendants and other bear-related artefacts have been found in Jōmon and Yayoi Period sites in northern Tōhoku and Hokkaidō. Significantly, no such artefacts have been found from the southern half of Tōhoku south-eastwards (despite bears inhabiting the south-east of Japan also).3 This distribution is even more limited in the case of bear effigies. Outside Hokkaidō, bear-shaped effigies have only been found in Aomori (at fifteen Jōmon and Yayoi Period sites) and Iwate (four Jōmon and Yayoi Period sites).4 This distribution may indicate that the bear symbolism and ritualism evident in the Tōhoku region was connected to the spread of bear-centred beliefs found in hunting societies around the Arctic Circle (including Hokkaidō). However further research will be required to establish this with any certainty.

What were the purposes of these bear-shaped figurines and other bear artefacts? Fukuda (1998) suggests that the earthernware receptacles may have developed in the Late Jōmon Period (1500 to 1000 B.C.) to replace ceremonies involving the sacrifice of live animals. It is surmised that receptacles were designed to contain blood, or other liquids of some kind.5 Animal-shaped earthenware figurines (dogū ) also began to emerge from the late Jōmon Period at sites distributed from Hokkaidō in the north to Kyūshū in the south. While animal-shaped artefacts have been found in the form of birds, fish, shellfish, insects, sea animals and amphibians, it is terrestrial mammals that are the most common. Fukuda suggests that these animal effigies were used in rituals for the supplication of the gods for a good hunt.6 The predominance of terrestrial animals as motifs certainly appears to support this proposition. Kobayashi (2004) also suggests that rituals to pray for success in hunting were probably a significant aspect of Jōmon life, but proposes one further dimension to the use of these artefacts: animal reincarnation ceremonies, similar to those recorded in the ethnographies of Ainu and Siberian hunters. One such example is a buried bear skull at Saibana in Aomori Prefecture, which appears to indicate some kind of ceremonial activity.7

The appearance of animal figurines and motifs cannot be explained by the practical importance of the animal alone. Judging from archaeological finds from Jōmon Period middens in the Tōhoku region, it is thought that, among all the large mammals, wild boar and deer were the game animals hunted in greatest numbers. Yet, few deer figurines or deer-motifed artefacts have been found, though large numbers of wild-boar and bear related artefacts have.8 No persuasive theory has yet been offered to explain this. Sutō (2004) suggests that the discrepancy may be due to the fact that the antlers of deer were difficult to mould.9 While this is certainly possible, this difficulty could have been avoided by modelling female deer (without antlers).

Nagamine (1986) posits an alternative theory for the prevalence of bear/boar figurines, which relates to the function of women in Jōmon society. He suggests that in the Late Jōmon (1500 to 1000 B.C.) and Final Jōmon (1000 to 400 B.C.) Periods, it became the role of women to catch insects, turtles and other slow-moving animals. Young boar and bears were easier to catch, he proposes, because, in contrast to deer, which were ‘agile and difficult to catch, the young of wild boar or bears only crouched instead of running away when people tried to catch them.’ He suggests that these figurines may have been made by women as ritual objects for incantation, or as representations of their food- gathering functions. Furthermore, Nagamine proposes that women raised the young of bears and boar for ritualistic sacrifice, in a similar fashion to the Ainu ceremony for the bear. As evidence of this he points to archaeological finds of the bones of young wild boar which suggests their ritualistic use.10 While this theory is an intriguing one, it is not altogether persuasive. For example, he provides no evidence to support the suggestion that these figurines were only created by women, nor that young

animals were raised by women; nor has the propensity of a young boar or bear to crouch when pursued been substantiated.

In complete contrast to the theory proposed by Nagamine, it has been suggested, rather more persuasively, but by no means conclusively, that wild boar and bears were associated with a higher level of spiritual significance, and therefore were more frequent subjects of effigies and motifs. Watanabe (1990, cited in Pearson, 1992) proposes that only people of chiefly rank engaged in bear and other large animal hunting, which was regarded as a high-status activity.11 However, some caution is required here, as Watanabe’s conclusion is deduced from comparative research of hunting and gathering societies worldwide, rather than being derived from direct evidence gathered in Japan.

Of all regions in Honshū, the Aomori region boasts the largest number of bear-

shaped or bear-motifed artefacts,

particularly from the late Jōmon Period onwards. In the Yayoi Period, the number of bear artefacts found in Aomori outnumber even those of wild boar.12 Fukuda (1998) concludes that in this area both wild boar and bears were the focus of magico-religious beliefs in the Mid to Late Jōmon Periods (2500– 1000 B.C.), while bears became the more central figure in spiritual beliefs and ceremony in the Yayoi Period.13 This may be as a result of its proximity to, and a high level of interaction with, southern Hokkaidō: indeed, there are

striking similarities between the

development of animal-shaped and motifed artefacts in the Aomori region and Hokkaidō.14

This cultural similarity can be explained by the fact that, archaeologically speaking, Tōhoku was part of the Epi-Jōmon (the ‘post-Jōmon’ hunting and gathering period of Hokkaidō, lasting from 250 B.C. to A.D. 700) sphere of influence until its conquest and settlement by the Yamato Japanese in the eighth century onwards. (See Figure 19 for an overview of the archaeological periods of Hokkaidō Period Honshū Hokkaidō–Sakhalin (&


Japanese state formation KOFUN state formation YAYOI agriculture EPI–JŌMON Hunting, gathering, fishing Final Late Middle JŌMON Early hunting, Initial gathering fishing Incipient Present A.D. 1200 A.D. 700 A.D. 600 A.D. 250 250 B.C. 5,000 B.C. 10,000 B.C. 30,000 B.C. PALEOLITHIC hunting, gathering, fishing

Figure 19: Archaeological cultures of Hokkaidō and surrounding regions (Adapted from Yamaura & Ushiro, 1999)

and Honshū.) The introduction of wet rice agriculture into Japan resulted in a transition from a largely hunting and gathering culture to a largely agricultural culture (Yayoi Period culture) and was followed by the Kofun (Yamato) Period (A.D. 250 to 600), characterised by the construction of burial mounds. However the influence of these cultures permeated from the south, and it was not until the Heian Period (A.D. 794 to 1185) that the Yamato culture fully penetrated the Tōhoku region, and much later (the Meiji era, A.D. 1868 to 1912) before Japanese influence fully permeated Hokkaidō. Thus, while the economy became agrarian-based in the southwest, the predominantly hunting and gathering lifestyle of Tōhoku and Hokkaidō persisted through to the Middle Ages.

During the Jōmon and Epi-Jōmon periods, there is evidence not only of cultural interaction, but also biological mixing between the people of northern Honshū and the inhabitants of Hokkaidō. Scholars know, for instance, that inhabitants of Hokkaidō and northern Honshū were moving between the two islands by eight millennia ago.15 There is also thought to have been a high level of trade and intermarriage between the southwest region of Hokkaidō and northern Tōhoku.16 Epi-Jōmon influence from Hokkaidō is thought to have extended south into the Tōhoku region, reaching as far as the Sendai region near the northern boundary of the Kofun culture between A.D. 400 to 500. Japanese written records also indicate contact between the inhabitants of Hokkaidō and people known as the

Emishi , inhabitants of northern Tōhoku (discussed further in Chapter Ten), during the Satsumon Period (A.D. 700 to 1200).17 Later, when the historic Ainu cultural period began (from approximately A.D. 1200), Ainu are thought to have inhabited not only Hokkaidō, Southern Sakhalin, and the Kurile islands, but also the Tōhoku region.18 As a consequence, it is problematic to think of ‘Epi- Jōmon/Ainu culture’ and ‘Tōhoku culture’ as separate and mutually exclusive cultural spheres in the periods prior to, and even following, the Tōhoku region’s assimilation into the Yamato state.

This is significant within the context of the discussion of the significance of bears, because given this high level of interaction, it is probable that there was some mutual influence between the ancestors of the Ainu (and later the Ainu themselves) and the inhabitants of Tōhoku in relation to the wildlife that was so central to their lives. Indeed, judging from the similarity in archaeological finds of bear related artefacts, particularly between Aomori Prefecture and southern Hokkaidō, it is reasonable to assume that the pre-historic people of Hokkaidō and northern Honshū probably shared some common practices and beliefs in relation to bears, albeit different species. It is possible that in northern Honshū these practices largely died out as Yamato culture infiltrated the region from the south. It is also possible that the rituals observed later (from the sixteenth century) by the matagi hunters of the Tōhoku region developed from a form of bear (and other animal) ceremonialism practised by the pre- Yamato people of Tōhoku, but this link is yet to be verified. Nevertheless, there are a number of parallels between Ainu and matagi culture, and the literature discussing these commonalities will be discussed later in this chapter.

8.3 The development of the Japanese geomentality and the sacralisation of