Monday, December 12, 2011

Interview with TOMO Contributor Deborah Davidson

Deborah Davidson (translator/illustrator of the Tomo story “Where the Silver Droplets Fall”) was born and raised in Japan, going on to earn a BA in Asian Studies and an MA in Advanced Japanese Studies from US and UK universities. Since retiring from a 30-year career in Japanese-to-English translating, she has settled into a second career in the world of Japanese folk art. She resides in Sapporo, Japan. Her published translations include the works of novelist Miura Ayako and Ainu folklore. Visit her blog: 

Can you tell us a bit about how you came to settle in Hokkaido?
Deborah Davidson
I was born in Tokyo but moved with my parents to Hokkaido when I was just a few months old. My family moved around every few years within Hokkaido, and I grew to love every corner of this beautiful prefecture. The people and the land have their own character that is quite different from the rest of Japan, though I didn't realize it until after I was grown and had lived in Tokyo, Osaka, and Nagoya for a good chunk of time. I left Japan in 1973 to go to college in the US, and even though I moved back to Japan in 1980, I returned to Hokkaido only for infrequent visits until 1995, the year my husband, children, and I returned to Hokkaido for good. 

What has been your interaction with Ainu culture?
The influence of Ainu culture (food culture and language in particular) pervades all of Hokkaido life, though it's not often recognized. But, in addition to the subtle influences either noticed or ignored by all who live here, I had the rare opportunity to observe and interact with Ainu people and culture as a child living in Asahikawa, one of the areas where they are still relatively concentrated. This was possible because my father had been asked by Kawamura Kaneto (1893-1977), the revered chief elder of the Chikabumi Ainu, to help educate the children in his village. By the time I was eleven or twelve years-old, we lived within reasonable bike-riding distance from Chikabumi and I hung out there quite a bit. Having myself grown up as an outsider within mainstream Japanese society, I guess I felt comfortable being among the Ainu who (ironically) were also treated as outsiders in Japan.
Map of Hokkaido and Ainu-related locations © Deborah Davidson
I didn't give Ainu culture a whole lot of thought, nor did I start thinking of Ainu language or oral literature as something to study, until I re-settled in Hokkaido in 1995. Soon after moving back here, I made contact with an old school friend who was teaching English at a prestigious private high school in Hakodate. He had been greatly bothered by the fact that the typical Japanese student, even one raised in Hokkaido, is not taught anything about the Ainu. in fact, many of them believe the Ainu no longer exist in modern times. To make up for this lack in their education, my friend had begun using his own translations of Ainu folktales as a teaching aid in his EFL classroom.

In 1997, the Japanese government created the Foundation for Research and Promotion of Ainu Culture (FRPAC) which gave out grants to those who were working to research and spread information about Ainu history and culture. My friend and I gathered a few like-minded colleagues together to form Project Uepeker. We began submitting proposals to FRPAC to get funding to publish our English translations of Ainu folklore.

We decided to concentrate on translating Ainu tales that had already been published as picture books in Japan. The cost of publishing English versions of such books could almost be covered by the limited FRPAC grant, and the books could be targeted to both Japanese EFL students and native English speakers. So far we've managed to get two of our proposals accepted, resulting in the publication of The Ainu and the Fox by Kayano Shigeru (RIC Publications, 2006) and The Ainu and the Bear by Ryo Michico (RIC Publications, 2010). The books come with CD recordings of the text and online teaching notes to assist language teachers. 

Can you share some background about Yukie Chiri? When did you first encounter her transcription work?
Yukie Chiri in July, 1922
It's funny, I can't remember when I first encountered her work. Chiri Yukie (1903-1922) had been raised among the Chikabumi Ainu and was still remembered there when I was a child. The story I submitted to TOMO is her most famous work, and for a brief period it was included in the middle school reading textbooks used in Hokkaido public schools. But I do know that it wasn't until Project Uepeker was formed that I took my first serious look at Chiri Yukie.

I was working on an MA in Advanced Japanese Studies in the early 2000s, doing research on three historical women with close ties to Hokkaido, who had each made a lasting impact on Japanese society. The three women I had chosen to study were Chiri Yukie, Ogino Ginko (first licensed woman doctor), and Miura Ayako (popular postwar author). It was during my research that I fell in love (so to speak) with Yukie, who struggled to value herself and her cultural heritage at a time when the Japanese government was determined to absorb the Ainu people into mainstream society and demolish Ainu culture. Though my own struggles of growing up in Japan were nothing compared to hers, I felt a sort of kinship with Yukie. 

Can you tell us a bit more about the owl in the story?
Blakiston's Fish Owl (shimafukuro) Photo by Yoshihito Miki
The owl in the story is the Blakiston's Fish Owl, known as the Shimafukuro (striped owl) in Japanese and Kotan Kor Kamuy (god of the village) in Ainu. It is probably the largest owl existing today, with a wing span of up to six feet, and is now classified as a threatened species, though they were once plentiful in Hokkaido. The Blakiston's Fish Owl has traditionally been revered as the guardian of the Ainu village and is believed to act as a go-between for the human village and the land of the kamuy gods. It is high up in the pantheon of Ainu gods, competing with the brown bear (Kimun Kamuy, or ”god of the mountain") as the god of highest status, depending upon the tribal group and region of Hokkaido. 

You did the illustrations that accompany the story, as well as the above map. Can you tell us about your illustration work?
I painted those images in the etegami style, using sumi ink on thick washi postcards with a high "bleed" factor. If I hadn't painted it for publication in Tomo, I would have added color to the image and accompanied the image with words, without which no etegami is complete. Etegami is one of my abiding passions.You can learn more about this Japanese folk art by visiting my Etegami blog. The two images I submitted to Tomo illustrate a Blakiston's Fish Owl in flight, and inau, the whittled sticks used in communicating with the kamuy gods. 

Do you have any message for teens in Tohoku?
I think this question takes me back to what I said about Chiri Yukie's struggle to accept--and even take pride in--who she was, in spite of adversities and discrimination that are hard for us to imagine nowadays. If anyone knows what some of those adversities might have felt like, it would be the teens in Tohoku, as they deal with disrupted lives and the social stigma associated with the nuclear reactor accident.

Chiri Yukie first met the famous Japanese linguist Kinda'ichi Kyousuke (1982-1971) when she was in her mid-teens. It stunned her to meet a Japanese man who considered the Ainu language worth enough to study and preserve. Kinda'ichi had immediately recognized the potential in this linguistically gifted teenager and encouraged her to record the yukar (epics) and uepeker (stories) that she had learned from her grandmother, one of the rapidly dwindling keepers of the oral tradition. This was asking a lot of a girl who had learned to keep a low profile to avoid being bullied in school on account of being Ainu. I plan to write more about Chiri Yukie's struggle and accomplishments in a later blog post, but I believe her life itself is a message for the teens in Tohoku.


  1. I'd love to learn more about the Ainu. I'll have to do some research nest time I'm in Hokkaido. Nice interview, Deborah.

  2. Wonderful interview. I can't wait to see/read this story!

  3. Thanks @Claire, @Debbie! I've been asked to do a more detailed post about Chiri Yukie, which I hope you'll have a chance to read. Her story is quite intriguing.