Introductory Guides to Historical Recordings

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#Note: Users can listen to sound recordings introduced in this text at the National Diet Library or
Historical Recordings Collection (Rekion) partner libraries.

Ainu Traditional Music Recordings in the Historical Recordings Collection


Ainu Culture Research Center, Hokkaido Museum

1. Overview

Recently, opportunities have increased to witness performances of Ainu songs, traditional oral storytelling, dances, and music of traditional instruments up to now only passed down from generation to generation of the Ainu people. Some of you readers may have even seen such a performance.

Since the Meiji era, the circumstances of the Ainu people and their culture have changed significantly, which has, in turn, influenced the transmission of their traditional performing arts and repertoires, as well as their style. The opportunities for the Ainu to speak their own language and perform their own traditional arts, however, decreased under the guise of "assimilation policies"―a major factor responsible for such changes. At the same time, there were still people who occasionally performed traditional songs and dances at ceremonial gatherings of their kinfolk or who hummed songs in the Ainu language as they went about their daily lives. Performance repertoires were also passed on through the new platform of performances at tourist destinations.

The National Diet Library has four Ainu music collections in its Historical Recordings Collection that acquaint listeners with the hallmarks of Ainu music and give them a taste of its charm. The Japan Broadcasting Corporation ("NHK") produced each of these collections shortly after World War II after carrying out fieldwork and making recordings with release and broadcasting in mind.

Main geographic locations of the recording collections

Main geographic locations of the recording collections (Listed by the name of the current municipality)
Red: Collection 1, Blue: Collection 2

  • Ainu Song Collection 1 (Collection 1)
    • 78-rpm record 26 discs
    • Record Number: PR152-177
    • Recorded: 1947
    • Produced: 1948
    • Recording locations: Asahikawa, Obihiro, Biratori, Noboribetsu, Kushiro
  • Ainu Song Collection 2 (Collection 2)
    • 78-rpm record 15 discs
    • Record Number: PR360-374
    • Recorded and produced: 1948
    • Recording locations: Bihoro, Akkeshi, Nayoro, Oshamambe
  • (Series Untitled)
    • 78-rpm record 4 discs
    • Record Number: PR485-488
    • Recorded and produced: 1949
    • * Recorded by NHK when about 20 Ainu performers from Shiraoi, Hokkaido came to Tokyo for an Ainu entertainment performance in 1949.
  • "Sakhalin Ainu Koyo" (hereafter, "Koyo" [Traditional Folk Songs])
    (Traditional Folk Songs of the Sakhalin Ainu People)
    • "Viny-cord disc"( [vinyl + record] Binikodo-ban) (A semi-long play 78-rpm record NHK developed which consisted of an aluminum disc coated in vinyl paint) 21discs
    • Record Number: VC17-37
    • Recorded: 1951
    • Produced: 1952
    • * This is a recording of performing arts tradition of the Ainu population indigenous to Karafuto (currently recognized as Sakhalin) who were forced to settle in Hokkaido after World War II.

One could rightly call "Collection 1" the first organized and systematic project to record Ainu music. Note that the Ainu language scholar, Mashiho Chiri (1909-1961), accompanied and collaborated with the teams who conducted the fieldwork and made the recordings of "Collection 1," "Collection 2," and "Traditional Folk Songs." He also supervised the production of and contributed commentaries for each collection.

Even now these records serve as a rich source of information about the tradition, study, and research of Ainu culture, especially its music. This author would like to express her profound respect to the NHK staff involved with the research, recording, and record production during the turbulence following World War II, as well as to the many performers who graciously left their precious folklore to future generations when requested for recordings.

English version released on March 18, 2021.

2. Introduction to the Source Recordings

To help unfamiliar readers and listeners understand the Ainu performing arts, let us outline and discuss some of the hallmark features and genres of Ainu music and mention a few major relevant source recordings here.

The Style of the Chorus

The ukouk is representative of the special features of Ainu music. This is a type of musical canon or round in which a melody is sung so that one or more singers starting several beats behind can catch up to it. This results in a polyphonic sound. Aside from the ukouk style, there is a style in which multiple melodies are sung at the same time; a responsorial singing style in which after a lead singer sings one phrase, the rest of the singers repeat the phrase; and a style in which the chorus sings in unison.

Vocalization and Tone

"The Historical Recordings Collection" allows users to listen to a variety of vocal performances employing traditional techniques contemporary to their recording. Rich tonal changes themselves are an important element comprising Ainu melodies. Examples of these include alternating quickly and continually between falsetto and natural voices; singing in a strong, deep, guttural voice; trilling in a high pitch with the tongue, and mixing breathing sounds with vocal sounds.

Sitting Songs


A sintoko
A lacquerware container cherished as an indispensable implement for ceremonies and banquets. This item was believed to have been obtained through exchange between the Ainu and the Wajin people (the historic name of the people believed to be ethnically dominant living in the main island of Japan).
(Hokkaido Museum collection item 022026)

These "sitting songs" are called upopo or rok upopo, depending on the region.
The lid of a lacquerware container, known as a sintoko, is placed in the center of the floor and is surrounded by a number of people sitting in a circle. The singers then tap the lid with their hands in rhythm as they sing. While predominately canonical polyphonic ukouk style songs are performed, responsorial singing and unison style songs may also be performed, depending on the region.

Circle Dances (Circle Dance Songs)

Circle dance songs are known variously as rimse, rimse upopo, upopo, horippa, or heciri, depending on the region.

Everyone faces the center and forms a circle, singing and dancing while clapping as they move clockwise. Circle dances songs usually consist of short vocalizations with no inherent meaning sung in short melodies that are repeated back in a responsorial singing style.

Words of Prayer and Formal Salutations

Traditionally, ceremonial prayers and formal salutations are handled by male elders, who recite the words in a melody.



An Ainu baby cradle (sinta)
(Hokkaido Museum collection item 053179)

Depending on the regions, Ainu lullabies may be called ihunke, ihumke, iyonnokka, or iyonruyka, among other names.

Caregivers sing these Ainu lullabies to babies to put them to sleep as they carry them on their backs or in cradles called sinta. In contrast to the lullabies sung in Collection 1 and Collection 2, which contain the continual "r" sound made by trilling the tip of the tongue "hororse," or which are sung with the idiomatic lyrics such as, "Sleepy rocking cradle, go down to sleep, down to sleep," in the Ainu language, the lullabies in Traditional Folk Songs are sung exclusively with vowels, and vary depending on the region.

Ainu Lyrical Songs

Ainu "lyrical songs" may be called yaysama or sinotca, among other names, depending on the region. Each performer sings with phrasing and accentuation that reflect their own life experiences and emotions. Songs of falling in love and tender emotions are called yaykatekar while songs of grief and sorrow are called iyohay’ocis.

Both genres of lyrical song repeat vocalizations with no inherent meaning such as "yaysamanena" and "ayororope" and include Ainu idiomatic lyrics such as, "I want to be a bird! I want to become the wind!" While there are anecdotes of people singing those songs by themselves to forget their troubles, there are also songs for gatherings with friends with improvised dances and hand-clapping. This demonstrates the vast array of themes and tones for these songs.

The Ainu Oral Storytelling Tradition

There are three main types of traditional Ainu oral literature (storytelling) and the names vary depending on the region.

  • 1. Mythic epics (kamuy-yukar, oyna, menokoyukar, etc.)
  • 2. Epic songs (yukar, sakorpe, yayerap, hawki, etc.)
  • 3. Ainu prose tales (uwepeker, tuytak, tuytah, etc.)

Ainu mythic epics (1) and Ainu epic songs (2) are sung and spoken to a melody. In Ainu mythic epics (1), set refrains are repeatedly interjected for each story, and the story progresses with the narrator voicing the gods delivering their own monologues. In the epic songs (2) that include the brave tales of young heroes, a wooden stick called a repni is used to beat a rhythm as the story is told. The listeners surrounding the reciter interject with hand-clapping and responsorial chanting during breaks and climaxes of the story. Ainu prose tales (3) do not include the kinds of melodies found in Ainu mythic tales (1) and Ainu epic songs (2); listeners also contribute appropriate verbal responses in keeping with the flow of the story. You can listen to actual examples of this through the National Diet Library’s Historical Recordings Collection.

Rekukkara (Rekuhkara)

Rekukkara is a game of the Sakhalin Ainu in which two people form a megaphone-shaped resonance tunnel between their mouths using both hands and reverberate breaths and vocalizations between them to create any number of sounds and melodies. Similar games and use of sound can be found in indigenous peoples like the Inuit in Canada and the Chukchi people in far eastern Siberia. Records of rekukkara are extremely scarce, so the "Rekukkara" track in Koyo [Traditional Folk Songs]) is a rare source recording in which one can actually listen to two people performing the rekukkara between them.

The Tonkori


The Ainu Five-stringed Zither (tonkori)
(Hokkaido Museum collection item 023445)

The Ainu tonkori is a zither-type stringed instrument. Most tonkori are five-stringed and they are fretless and played with open strings. While it is believed to be an instrument of the Sakhalin Ainu, these days it played in a wide variety of areas independent of its area of origin. Of all the Ainu instruments, there are often many opportunities these days for the tonkori to be played alongside the mukkuri (mouth harp).

Ainu instruments are primarily played by themselves, but in Sakhalin, the tonkori has also been known to be played by performers while singing and dancing. The "Tonkori Heciri" track on Traditional Folk Songs is one example of this.

(Reference Bibliography)

  • NHK Nihon min'yo taikan (A General Survey of Japanese Folk Songs) Production Staff (ed.). NHK min'yo chosa no kiroku (NHK Folk Song Survey Records) 1939 − 1994. Nihon hoso kyokai hoso jigyo-kyoku deta joho-bu (NHK Data Information Department, Broadcasting Operations Bureau) (publisher) Ongaku no Tomosha Corp. (producer), 1995, p.17-23.
  • Kochi, Rie. Ainu ongaku no onsei shiryo ― kokan sareta anarogurekodo-ban ―. (Audio Materials of Ainu Traditional Music: A Catalogue of Published Analog Records) Bulletin of Ainu Culture Research Center, Hokkaido Museum, 2018, 3, p. 73 - 116.
  • Kochi, Rie. "Ainu ongaku" (Ainu Music). Ongaku no Tomosha Corp. (ed). Nihon ongaku kihon yogo jiten (A Dictionary of Basic Japanese Music Terms). Ongaku no Tomosha Corp., 2007, p. 159-168.
  • Tanimoto, Kazuyuki. Ainu-e o kiku: henyo no minzoku ongakushi (Ainu-e: Music Ethnography of a Cultural Transformation). Hokkaido Daigaku Tosho Kankokai, 2000.
  • Chiri, Mashiho. Ainu no kayo dai-1-shu (Ainu Songs, Vol. 1). NHK, 1948.
  • Chiri, Mashiho. Ainu ni densho sareru kabu shikyoku ni kansuru chosa kenkyu (Research Studies on the Songs, Dances, Verse, and Music Handed Down by the Ainu). Bunkazai Hogo Iinkai ([Japan] National Commission for Protection of Cultural Properties), 1960.
  • NHK (ed.). Ainu dento ongaku (Traditional Ainu Music). NHK, 1965.
  • NHK (ed.). Ainu no ongaku (The Music of the Ainu). Nihon hoso kyokai hoso gyomu-kyoku shiryo-bu ongaku shiryo-ka (NHK Music Materials Division, Broadcasting Operations Bureau), 1967.
  • Banno, Yuichiro. Sengo ma mo nai koro no Ainu kayo no rekodo (Records of Ainu Songs Shortly After the War). Sanko shoshi kenkyu (Reference Service and Bibliography). 1986, 31, P. 71 - 74.
  • Banno, Yuichiro. Sengo ma mo nai koro rokuon sareta Karafuto Ainu no kayo ― NHK seisaku no jun chojikan SP rekodo ― (Recordings of Karafuto [Sakhalin] Ainu Songs Shortly After the War - on the semi-long play 78-rpm record medium developed by NHK.). Sanko shoshi kenkyu (Reference Service and Bibliography). 1991, 39, P. 84 - 86.
  • Ainu Culture Research Center, Hokkaido Museum (ed.). Pon kanpi-sos 7 Geino (Performing Arts). Hokkaido Museum, 2001.
  • Ainu bunka shokai shosasshi Pon kanpi-sos (A Booklet Introducing Ainu Culture - Pon kanpi-sos). (Ref. 2019-09-01).

(Rie KOCHI, Ainu Culture Research Center, Hokkaido Museum)

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