Things to prevent you from sleeping or eating

The French apostolic missionary Mermet de Cachon (1828–1870) finds his prying deflected and then rebuffed in Hokkaido (English transl. of excerpt in Refsing 2000:23; original reproduced same volume):

One day while I was visiting my good Ainu, I asked the elders about the origins of their ancestors, and about the first facts in their history, but I was unable to get anything out of my hosts; the elders trembled at my questions, shook their heads sadly, and appeared surprised at my simplicity or my temerity. Finally, the poet, the inspired man, arrived, and they took me to him with an expression of enthusiasm.

Here is the one who knows everything, they told me, ask him, he will tell you things which will prevent you from sleeping or eating […]. “Where do you come from, where were your ancestors born?” I asked him. “Did they come from heaven? Did they come from the earth? Was it the sea or the mountains that produced them?” “Neither one, nor the other”, he replied in a rather impatient tone of voice (Ibid. 9-10).

Sometimes I feel like de Cachon.


The story the “troubadour” relates is identical to that so delighted in by the Japanese, with the first Ainu the issue of an exiled [Wajin] princess and a dog: not necessarily proof that the Ainu originated it.1

Original French:

Un jour étant en visite chez me bons Aïnos, je questionnais les anciens sur l’origine de leurs ancêtres, sur les premiers faits de leur histoire ; il m’était impossible de rien tirer de mes hôtes ; les anciens frémissaient à mes questions, secouaient tristement la tête et paraissaient étonnés de ma simplicité ou de ma témérité. Enfin, le poëte, l’inspiré arrive : on me mène à lui avec un empressement qui tenait de l’enthousiasme.

Voilà celui qui sait tout, me dirent-ils, interrogez-le ; il vous dira des choses qui vous empècheront de manger et de dormir.

Pourquoi, noble étranger, fatiguer de questions ces gens simples et ignorants?

Il n’y a qu’un ciel et il n’y a qu’un poëte, que demandez-vous?

Mon interlocuteur était un homme déjà âgé, et s’il n’avait pas l’air d’être inspiré, il paraissait au moins beaucoup plus intelligent que ses compatriotes.

« D’où venez-vous, où naquirent vos ancêtres? demandai-je; viennent-ils du ciel? viennent-ils de la terre? est-ce la mer ou la montagne qui les a produits?—Ni l’une ni l’autre, » répondit le maitre avec un ton d’impatience bien marqué.


de Cachon, M. (1863). Les Aïnos : origine, langue, mœurs, religion / par Mermet de Cachon de la Société des Missions Étrangères, membre de plusiers sociétés savantes, chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur. Paris: Mesnel.

Refsing, K. (ed.) (2000). Early European writings on Ainu culture: Travelogues and descriptions, Vol. 1. Richmond & Surrey: Edition Synapse, Curzon.

Image source: Fitzhugh & Dubreuil (2000:29).

Original caption: 1.1: Abashiri Ainu: Romyn Hitchcock took this 1888 photograph of an Ainu group in Abashiri, a town on the Sea of Okhotsk in northeastern Hokkaido. Unlike photos made by many scientists visiting later who had their subjects dress in ceremonial robes, Hitchcock usually showed people in relaxed groups wearing everyday clothes. (NAA 98-10383)

Fitzhugh, W.W., & Dubreuil, C.O. (eds.) (2000). Ainu: Spirit of a Northern People. Washington, DC: Arctic Studies Center, Smithsonian Institution.


  1. Refsing 2000:91: 29. Penhallow (1884/85, 229) commented that a subjugated people might embrace stories made up by their conquerors, even when such stories were unflattering to them. On the other hand, canine descent is a motif with old, old resonances across North Asia and its adjacencies.
TwitterEmail