Collections of Relics of Culture of the Ainu, Japanese, Chinese, Koreans, Mongols

Valentina Gorbachova

A special place in this Department is given to the culture of the Ainu, a nationality that remains insufficiently studied to this day. This collection, ranking as the world's largest, began in the early 20th century and contains about 3,000 objects.

The first material relics of Ainu culture were obtained by the Ethnographic Department of the Emperor Alexander III's Russian Museum from the well-known ichthyologist and zoologist P.Schmidt.

In 1899—1901, as head of the expedition organized by the Imperial Russian Geographical Society, he explored the marine life of the Pacific Ocean seas washing the Far East coast. A man of wide-ranging scientific interests, he could not overlook the striking ver­nacular culture of that region. The forty-two items of the Ainu hunting and fishing gear, uten­sils and clothes that he collected on the west coast of Sakhalin (the village of Mauko) were conducive to sending, in 1912, a specialized expedition to the area of the Ainu habitation.

It was an unprecedented but highly successful journey to the Ainu of Southern Sakhalin and Hokkaido, which were at that time under the Japanese rule. The expedition was headed by V. Vasilyev, a well-known explorer of Siberia, a scholar on the staff of the Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography. An experienced collector, he was entrusted with the job of selecting items of material culture in that fascinating, if complicated region. Leaving St Petersburg in May 1912, he reached Tokyo in the middle of June. Here he had an unpleas­ant talk with the Russian Ambassador A. Malevsky, who gave him to understand that without a knowledge of spoken Japanese, Spanish or English he would get nowhere in Japan and fail to collect any items. "I am positive," said the Ambassador, "that you will not get a thing out of the Ainu. It would be a miracle if you should manage to acquire anything at all!" (the Russian Museum of Ethnography Archives, f. 1, inv. 2, No 57, sheet 92, overleaf). V. Vasilyev, however, did not lose hope, as he wrote to N. Mogiliansky, head of the Ethnographic Department (The Russian Museum of Ethnography Archives, f. 1, inv. 2, No 57, sheet 91).

The collector's extraordinary sociability and industry were duly rewarded. From the day that he first arrived in Tokyo, he was being assisted by the Bishop of the Russian Orthodox mission in Japan, Sergiy. The latter recommended him a guide, Mr. Naito, a theo­logical college lecturer, and this settled the seemingly insoluble problem. Other recommendations and advice proffered Sergiy also proved immensely helpful to Viktor N. Vasilyev. With the co-operation of the local authorities, as well as assistance on the part of Jimbo Kotor, a professor of geology at the Tokyo University, and John Bachelor, an English missionary and notable researcher from Sapporo, the success of V. Vasilyev's collecting activity on Sakhalin and then on Hokkaido was practically guaranteed. He met with hardly any resistance from the Ainu when buying utensils and household articles, although they were reluctant for some time to sell any cult objects. It was not until mid-July that V. Vasilyev was able to purchase some of those in a village. He also bought a small cage in which the Ainu kept a bear cub, a sacrificial animal for the Bear Feast. However, the trade became quite brisk in areas more tan­gibly influenced by Japanese culture. In the village of Mauka the collectors did not even need to go from house to house, because the Ainu themselves began bringing ethnographic objects as soon as they learnt of the demand for them. In another village, the collectors, helped by a middle-aged Ainu, managed to buy some tombstones, a bear's leash, a number of ritual inau and a pole used to mark the spot where the sacrificial bear was killed. With his work on Sakhalin completed in August 1912, V. Vasilyev set off for the island of Hokkaido. His major acquisitions were made in the village of Piratori, where the Ainu themselves kept bringing in ethnographic objects from morning till night, as some villagers on Sakhalin had done. Within five days he managed to buy over 800 articles, and it was only because the funds ran out that this striking process of assembling the Ainu cultural relics was terminated.

Therefore, V. Vasilyev's collecting policy among the Ainu of Sakhalin and Hokkaido was a pronounced success. He gathered about two and a half thousand items. The Ainu collection was further augmented with six collections numbering 235 items transferred to the Russian Museum of Ethnography from the Moscow Museum of the USSR Peoples in 1948. Those collections had formerly belonged to A. Olorovsky, the Russian Consul at Nagasaki, the mining engineer 1. Lopatin, the political deportee B. Pelsudsky, who was a distinguished authority on Ainu culture, and P. Verzbinets, a local postmaster on Sakhalin.

The collection representing the culture of the Japanese living in close proximity to the Ainu has grown from various sources. The first 49 items (boat models, fishing tackle, tools and clothes) came, like the Ainu collection, from P. Schmidt. 


FAN FOR BLOWING FIRE IN THE HEARTH. Ainu. Hokkaido Island Early 20th century. Acquired by V. Vasilyev during expedition of 1912
FAN FOR BLOWING FIRE IN THE HEARTH. Ainu. Hokkaido Island Early 20th century. Acquired by V. Vasilyev during expedition of 1912