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A Bear Festival among the Ainos

    Abstract

    ALTHOUGH it is well known that the Ainos of Yeso worship the bear, and have a festival known as the “bear-festival,” at which that animal is killed, no foreign writer, except the one whom we are about to mention, has ever actually beheld this ceremony. Dr. Scheube, of Kioto, in a paper recently published in the Mittheilungen der deutschen Gesellsckaft für Natur und Völker-kunde Ostasiens, describes one at which he was an honoured guest. He observes that these celebrations are becoming rarer every day; in the various villages which he visited there had not been one for some years. The motives assigned for this cessation of an old custom, is that the Ainos are becoming Japanised, and that the expenses are too great. In those parts of the island where Japanese habits have penetrated most, the absence of the skulls of the bears, which are also objects of veneration, is very noticeable; and as the individual who gives a bear-feast is compelled to invite all his relations, friends, and neighbours, and to supply them with unlimited quantities of saké (rice-beer)—a beverage which is three times mote expensive in Yeso than in Japan—the excuse on the score of expense is probably a valid one. It is, it seems, incorrect to say that the Ainos reverence, the bear as they do their gods—the god of the fire or of the sea, for instance; but they respect the bear above all other animals. He is most useful to them; he supplies them with food, raiment, and even with medicine. On the other hand, when enraged, the bear is a terror to them; he destroys their houses, plantations, and domestic animals, and kills themselves. The animal intended for sacrifice is selected while it is still very young, towards the end of winter, it is nourished by the wife of its owner at first, and when it gets stronger is fed on fish alone. In the beginning it runs freely about the house, but as it increases in size and strength it is placed in a cage. About September or October, when it is a year old, and has become so strong that it attempts to break its cage, the time for the ceremony is deemed to have come, and the great event of an Aino's life is about to take place. He first addresses long prayers to the gods and to the relations of the bear asking pardon for what he is about to do, and pleading that from the time the animal came into his possession he has showered favours on him, and has maintained him as long as possible; but he is poor, the bear is growing large, and he finds it impossible to support him any longer. He has therefore no resource but to slay him; and for this act, which is forced on him by inevitable necessity, he prays for forgiveness.

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