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Embroidered Cotton Robe (Chijiri), Ainu (Hokkaido, Northern Japan), late 19th c.
Embroidered Cotton Robe (Chijiri), Ainu (Hokkaido, Northern Japan), late 19th c.

Ainu (Hokkaido, Northern Japan), late 19th c.

Distinct in many ways from the dominant culture, the Ainu people inhabit the northernmost islands of the Japanese archipelago. Anthropologists have speculated that they may be descendents of the indigenous, prehistoric J¯omon civilization, while some linguists trace a tentative, ancient connection with the European Basque ethnicity. Of uncertain origin, Ainu society has survived centuries of persecution while preserving their rich spiritual traditions.

This embroidered robe, made by the Ainu of Hokkaido, speaks to the magical properties ascribed to everyday objects through the application of a refined decorative vocabulary. Inspired by deep religious feeling, the motifs and their arrangement are essential characteristics of Ainu dress. To guard the wearer from harmful spirits entering at the most vulnerable places, the ornamentation was applied to the collar, upper back, hemline, and cuffs of the robe. The making and decorating of clothing was gender related and solely performed by females—each family had a unique group of patterns, and this legacy was passed down through careful instruction. It took many years to learn all the intricate designs, and it was stressed that a mother should teach her daughter as many as she once learned.

Ainu garments were adorned with appliqué strips and embroidery; traditionally, a robe would be constructed from elm bark cloth or Japanese trade cotton. Old yukata (a type of cotton kimono) were also occasionally imported and the Ainu would decorate existing garments with motifs reflecting their shamanistic religion. This man’s calf-length chijiri — the term for a robe that is embroidered without appliqués—is made from a cast-off indigo yukata worked with taupe silk and cotton threads in chain stitch with feather stitch filling accents. It displays the main units of Ainu design: spirals called moreu and thorned, bracket-shaped motifs known as aiushi. These features are purely Ainu, but may have evolved as a synthesis of Jomon rope-like patterns and scrolling arabesques found on archaic Chinese bronzes. Additionally, tribal Ainu tattoos are also related to costume embellishments. Fluid yet structured, these designs were embroidered in innumerable combinations though always in symmetrical placement—free-hand execution of the embroidery ensured that compositions never appeared static.

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