The Iyomande Ritual of the Ainu (Hokkaido)

written by Justin Infanger

The Ainu Iyomande ritual is an example of a cultural group drawing together as a whole, for the benefit of everyone involved. The Ainu inhabitants of Hokkaido capture and raise a bear cub from infancy, treat it with great respect, and during the ritual it is killed and its spirit is released to the kamuy moshir, or spirit plane, as an appeal for favor by the bear's kamuy cohorts. This ritual is significant not only on a spiritual level that connects the Ainu with the kamuy moshir, but also as a community event that allows for a brief egalitarian social structure.

The bear cub is cared for by a host family, and, while caged, is subject to great respect and generosity. If there is a shortage of food, the host family will feed the bear first and themselves last. This gesture of generosity is an appeal to the spirits to take notice of the special treatment, in hopes that they will in turn reward the Ainu with good hunting and a bountiful harvest. They are doing the bear a favor by releasing its spirit from the physical world to rejoin its family.

The actual act of killing the bear is done with an arrow; this is an example of magnification. While the Ainu regularly hunt with arrows, during ritual is it more significant because of the spiritual act it entails. It reinforces the significance and sacred nature of everyday hunting. As Geertz said, rituals provide a model for our lives, and the spiritual act of shooting the bear with an arrow during ritual crosses over into everyday life.

The Iyomande allows the Ainu to experience communitas, which is an intense feeling of social equality. This experience of liminality bonds all Ainu together because the ritual temporarily dispenses with the regular social structure. This feeling also carries over to regular life, and helps the Ainu avoid conflict and war.

Victor Turner's social drama is present during this ritual. The process of a social drama is: breach of routine, recognition of the crisis, redress (ritual), and restoration of the regular routine. Taking care of the bear is a breach in routine, and the perception of losing favor with the kamuy moshir is a recognition of the crisis. The response to the breach is an example of meta-message, because the underlying meaning of the ritual is the act of releasing the bear's spirit. The ritual is the redress, a remedy for the crisis. After the ritual comes the restoration of routine and return to normal life, having resolved the crisis and concluded the social drama.