Carved from a Single Block: The Materiality of Wood in Ainu and Japanese Cultures

Artists’ materials can be imbued with a range of meanings. They demonstrate social, cultural, political or economic functions and can communicate ritual or symbolic significance. When harvested directly from the earth, materials tie us to the land and evoke a sense of place and belonging. This paper comparatively examines the process of carving a single block of wood in two different cultures—Ainu and Japanese—in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The Ainu are a people native to the northernmost extents of the Japanese archipelago and historically occupied the island of Hokkaido, the Russian peninsula of Sakhalin, and islands stretching northward towards Kamchatka. Despite a shared geography, the historical framing of the Ainu as non-Japanese has caused scholars to ignore their art and aesthetics or treat the Ainu as categorically irrelevant to the content and canon of Japanese art history. This paper uses the materiality of wood as a case study showing educators how they can decenter Japanese art history and more fully integrate Ainu culture into the study of the region. Focusing on two types of objects that were roughly contemporary, Ainu wooden trays called ita from the Biratori region and the wooden blocks used in Japanese woodblock printmaking, this paper disrupts stereotypes around indigenous craft. A focus on material culture highlights the similarities and differences between these cultures, their values, and the carving process and shows how each culture simultaneously navigated the imperative to westernize in the nineteenth century through innovative designs.

Client: Association for Asian Studies Date: March 28th, 2022 Services: Honolulu, HI

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