Black feng shui cat, £5.50
Diameter: 13.500 cm (pendant)
Purchased from the Royal Anthropological Institute
Rooms 92-94: Japan
Ainu, 19th - early 20th century
From Hokkaidō, Japan
Necklaces were important heirlooms in Ainu society and were occasionally put out on display inside houses along with other prized possessions. They were worn by women on traditional formal occasions, but also to pose in front of the cameras of early travellers to Hokkaidō.
These necklaces are most commonly made of blue, black or white glass beads. An additional wooden medallion decorated with metal rosettes is sometimes added to the string, as is the case in this example. The glass beads were mostly obtained from China and mainland Japan and imported to Hokkaidō through the extensive trade links established by the Ainu with distant communities in Sakhalin, Manchuria, and closer neighbouring groups.
The Matsumae clan ruled over Hokkaidō as part of their fiefdom, occupying mainly the coastal areas. The role of the Matsumae retainers and the increased trading power of communities in Sakhalin during the eighteenth and nineteenth century narrowed the commercial exchanges of the Ainu. The prestige for the Ainu of goods from further afield, and of glass beads from China in particular, meant that the Matsumae would claim the beads were of imported origin even when they had been made in Hokkaidō itself.
W.W. Fitzhugh and C.O. Dubreuil, Ainu: spirit of a northern peo (Smithsonian Institution, Washington D.C., 1999)
J. Kreiner (ed.), European studies on Ainu langu, Monographien aus dem Deutschen Institut für Japanstudien der Philipp-Franz–von-Siebold-Stiftung, Band 6 (Munich, Iudicium, 1993)