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Essay

Ainu place names

By Deborah Davidson

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When I was 8 years old, my family moved to a small town in Hokkaido called Bibai. The town's main industry was coal mining. It was hard, dirty and dangerous work. The mines eventually closed, and many people lost their jobs. But the name of the town was written with the kanji for "beautiful" and "song." I thought Beautiful Song was a splendid name for a town, even if it was poor and sooty, and I loved it.

Many, many years later, I was in Sapporo doing research on Ainu oral literature. I learned that 80 percent of Hokkaido place names — including Bibai — are from Ainu, not Japanese. The government often shortened the original Ainu names to make them easier for Japanese settlers to pronounce. Sometimes they translated the meaning of the original Ainu name into kanji. Other times they represented the sound of the original Ainu name with kanji that was not related to the original meaning.

Bibai is a good example of this. The Ainu called the village Pipa-o-i ("place of many swamp mussels"). The Japanese settlers arrived, and the village was renamed Numakai (Japanese for "swamp mussels"). Finally, it was renamed Bibai, a simplified pronunciation of the original Ainu name, written in kanji that was not related to the Ainu meaning.

The name of Sapporo, Hokkaido's largest city, is written with kanji that was chosen for its sound, not its meaning. The original Ainu name, Sat Poro Pet, means "dry, big river" in Ainu. But the name of Asahikawa, Hokkaido's second-largest city, is written with kanji that was chosen for its meaning, not its sound. The original Ainu name, which the Japanese settlers thought was Chup Pet, means "morning sun river."

Ainu words sound exotic to ears that are accustomed to English or Japanese. Kamihorokamettoku (written in katakana) is the name of a peak in the Tokachi range that my husband climbs every year. To my ears it sounds like a magical incantation, and I love to say it over and over.

Hokkaido place names tell us about the Ainu way of life. Sometimes they describe landmarks of important historical events and rituals. Other times they describe the location of food sources, or materials for clothing or building houses.

Place names that originate in the language of indigenous peoples can be found in many countries besides Japan. Of course, this includes English-speaking countries. Many books have been written on the subject. Seeking out such locations can be a fun way to plan a trip. Perhaps you have already done this. If so, what did you learn about indigenous cultures from those place names?

アイヌ語の地名

筆者が子ども時代を過ごした北海道では、80パーセントもの地名がアイヌ語に由来しているという。アイヌ語の発音に音が似た漢字を当てはめる場合と、元の意味を漢字で表す場合があるそうだ。

The Japan Times ST: June 30, 2017

The Japan Times ST 読者アンケート

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2017年11月24日号    試読・購読   デジタル版
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