When I was 12 years old, my sisters and I used to ride our bicycles to Chikabumi, an Ainu settlement not far from our home in Asahikawa, Hokkaido. We loved to explore the Ainu gift shops and watch Ainu artisans at work. In those days I had no idea that Chikabumi had once been home to the young translator Yukie Chiri, who would be an inspiration to my own translating career many years later.
Yukie Chiri (1903-1922) grew up at a time when the government’s policy was to wipe out the language and customs of the Ainu people so that they could be absorbed into mainstream Japanese society. Fewer and fewer Ainu were speaking their native language, and much of Ainu culture was being forgotten.
Yukie moved to Chikabumi when she was 6 to live with her aunt and grandmother, two of the few remaining guardians of Ainu oral literature. In addition to this unusual home environment, Yukie’s natural intelligence opened up opportunities for more formal education than was common for Ainu children. She was fluent in both Ainu and Japanese to an extent that was rare among her generation.
When Yukie was in her mid-teens, she met the Japanese linguist Kyosuke Kindaichi while he was in Hokkaido collecting data on the Ainu language. He immediately recognized the young girl’s talent and invited her to Tokyo to assist his research. But Yukie had a heart condition that made it difficult for her to travel. So Kindaichi sent her blank notebooks and asked her to record her observations about Ainu language and culture.
Yukie filled the notebooks with transcriptions of the story-poems called yukar that she had learned from her grandmother. Since the Ainu did not have a written language, she used the Roman alphabet to transcribe the Ainu sounds. To each yukar she added her own brilliant Japanese translation that preserves the graceful, musical quality of the original Ainu.
In May 1922, Yukie finally made the decision to go to Tokyo. There she continued her work with yukar and assisted Kindaichi’s Ainu language research. She completed her yukar anthology on Sept. 18, about six months after arriving in Tokyo. That night, only a few hours after she had put down her pen, 19-year-old Yukie died of heart failure.
Yukie kept a diary while she lived in Tokyo. It reveals how she suffered for being Ainu, how she struggled with her identity, and how she came to find pride in her heritage. She was a forerunner of the movement to preserve and revitalize Ainu culture and language. In doing so, she made enormous personal sacrifices and became a source of inspiration to many. (Deborah Davidson)