FORBIDDEN LOVE: A TATTOOED AINU GIRL & A POLISH PRISONER
Updated: Jan 21
Following the lifting of his death penalty, Bronko, a Polish student, was deported to a Siberian heavy labor camp in the Sakhalin forest work near the Russian-Japanese border by the sea. A 42 km strait separated him from freedom. If only he could steal a fishing boat, he would have a chance to escape the Russian penal colony.
The border zone between Sakhalin and Hokkaido was inhabited by Ainu clans that Bronko befriended during his forestry work. The Ainu, indigenous inhabitants of Hokkaido, included clans that had migrated outwards to the Kuril Islands and Sakhalin.
Making their living as hunter-gathers and fishers, they frequently crossed the border with their families in both directions under the cover of night.
They were sometimes caught and had their fishing nets and hunting arrow-bows confiscated. Other times, their wooden boats were fired upon by guards from both sides of the border, and sunk to the bottom of the sea with their wives and kids.
The guards were awarded for killing the "spies": Ainu migrants’ lives were cheap.
Though the heavily guarded Japanese-Russian borders kept changing through the centuries, the Ainu clans‘ hunting and fishing grounds, the Land of Ainu, had remained the same since the times of Ainu Mosir.
When 21 year old Bronko began serving his 15 year forced labor sentence, he had no idea that Ainu Mosir was conquered by the Russian and Japanese invaders many centuries earlier.
Bronko didn’t know who the light skinned, heavily bearded men with large, grayish eyes, armed with spears and arrow bows, were. Or why they kept hunting bears and deer with their poisonous arrows instead of bartering the animal skins for guns.
Over time Bronko learned the Ainu language and understood more about their way of life and survival; Ainu arrows were silent, and poisonous arrow heads could as easily kill a huge bear, as defend their tattooed wives and daughters against any threatening Wajin.
Bronko became known as a ‘stranger’ or ‘Wajin' without even knowing that for the cross-border Ainu clans anyone who wasn't born an Ainu, would always remain a 'Wajin', or a non-Ainu.
For the Ainu hunters it didn't matter, if Bronko was a Japanese Wajin, or a Russian invader of their Ainu Mosir's hunting grounds, or a forced laborer cutting out their forest and awaking hibernating bears long before the gods’ decreed hunting time.
Bronko had no idea that Ainu shared their land with gods-of-nature, and disrespecting nature was tantamount to disrespecting the Ainu gods Kamuy. Nor did he foresee that in a few years he would fall in love with a tattooed Ainu girl, Chuhsamma.
He was unaware that a love between a non-Ainu and an Ainu was not always welcomed by Kamuy Gods particularly, if the girl had a tattoo around her mouth indicating that she was of a marriageable age. Or worse yet, if she was already promised by her clan’s elders to an accomplished Ainu bear hunter, or a young fisher with a self-built canoe.
Bronko was entering a dangerous zone without realizing that he was challenging the Kamuy gods inhabiting the sacred Ainu Mosir.
The forest was inhabited by Kamuy gods with various forms and names. The forest was loaded with hidden poisonous traps set up by nomadic Ainu hunters. The traps could easily kill a sleepy bear, as well as an unsuspected stranger trying to befriend a tattooed Ainu girl.
After many years of painstaking attempts, Bronko finally repaired an abandoned Ainu fishing canoe previously marked with bullet holes all over, and was almost ready to escape to Hokkaido, when fate dealt him a further blow. Cross-border shooting suddenly intensified. Russia and Japan were preparing to go to war, and the 42 km strait became pools of blood: any boat or canoe caught in the crossfire was sank.
The unexpected delay in Bronko's escape plans, brought him closer to the tattooed Ainu girl, Chuhsamma.
Though Chuhsamma's love for Bronko was at first opposed by some of her clan's elders, when she got pregnant, and Bronko promised to bring up their new-born son, Sukezou in an Ainu way their union was accepted and blessed by the Gods.
Bronko’s imprisonment had earlier been altered to the status of a forced settler, enabling him to move easily among the Ainu forest communities and participate freely in their sacred rituals. And during every visit to his Ainu friends, he acquired knowledge of new words that he added to the Ainu dictionary he was secretly preparing.
Bronko’s passion for following Ainu daily life and sacred ceremonies for their Ainu Mosir’s gods, was tolerated by the local Sakhalin authorities. The Ainu were considered to be dirty, primitive folks without their own written language.
Bronko’s interests in collecting Ainu stories and songs was viewed as a harmless aberration caused by his early beatings during his long imprisonment.
However, when his fluency in Ainu language and culture was discovered by the field anthropologists from St. Petersburg who visited Sakhalin, Bronko’s life began to change. His field reports about their rich oral history preserved in ancient songs, and his large collection of Ainu artifacts were highly valued by the Russian Imperial Geographic Society.
Bronko, a pardoned former death row convict allegedly involved in a plot to assassinate Tsar Alexander III, became curator of an anthropological Ainu section he had helped to set up at a local museum.
Though he was suffering frequent fever attacks and sudden drowsiness, he didn’t give up his field expeditions to remote Ainu communities. And with (the) help of forest herbs that Chuhsamma was brewing for him, his health was improving, albeit it worsened with every change of season.
With his frequent attacks of drowsiness, and continuing expeditions along the river frequented by starving bears, Bronko’s life was on the line. Sometimes, he was spotted semi-conscious resting among the river rocks by his wife Chuhsamma, and (was) helped home. Other times, a Kamuy god who appeared disguised as a fox or a river-bird, guided Bronko back to safety.
Bronko, didn’t know how long he would remain strong enough to keep his daily fieldwork of visiting forest Ainu communities spread hundreds of kilometres apart. But whenever his health permitted, he was back to his routines of a daily 20-30 km forest-walk trying to set up field schools for Ainu kids.
Being in hurry to finish his Ainu dictionary, Bronko didn’t care about (the) increasing numbness of his hands caused by frostbites or (about the) summer fever brought on by Sakhalin mosquito bites.
Meanwhile, Bronko’s younger brother, Jozef, who had been a former Siberian prisoner, hatched an escape plan that involved Bronko making a short trip to Hokkaido.
Baby Sukezou was still very small when Bronko arranged his Ainu expedition to Hokkaido. Together with Jozef’s Siberian friend, who was an internationally noted Polish geographer, Bronko went on a short research trip to collect artifacts among Hokkaido‘s Ainu. Along the way, Bronko became fascinated by the old Hokkaido songs that preserved Ainu clans' ancient journeys south to Honshu island's highest volcano and sacred underwater rocks.
Having finally got his chance to escape his Siberian exile and join his brother Jozef, by then settled in faraway Poland, Bronko’s love for his Ainu family superceded his desire to return to his native home.
Instead of traveling South to Honshu, Bronko returned to Sakhalin. He hoped to bribe the corrupted Russian local officials and arrange evacuation of his Ainu wife and son and bring them with him to Poland.
But the continuing war between Russia and Japan (1904-05) delayed Bronko's plan. When Bronko almost got clearance to bring his wife Chuhsamma and son Sukezou with him to Europe via Hokkaido and Honshu, Chuhsamma was expecting their second child. The clan elders refused to let her join Bronko for a risky passage across a 42 km long strait.
Allowing a tattooed Ainu woman with an Ainu child growing in her body to travel across the world to a strange land out of reach of the protection of the Ainu gods, was against the Ainu Mosir’s rules: Chuhsamma had to stay!
Reluctantly, Bronko, decided to make his journey alone but promised Chuhsamma in front of her Clan and the witnessing Ainu gods that he would return when the situation became more peaceful, not knowing that he would never be able to keep his promise and reunite with his Ainu family.
After making it safely across the strait to Hokkaido and several months later boarding a ship in Yokohama to Seattle, Bronko crossed the Pacific. Then he made it overland to New York, and finally crossed the Atlantic arriving in his native Poland after 19 years of forced absence.
Jozef and the rest of Bronko’s family could barely recognized him. The last time they met Bronko, he was an athletic cheerful student of law at St.Petersburg University questing to liberate occupied Poland from an oppressive Russian regime.
The middle aged man who came back was suffering from frostbites, progressive diabetes, and other life endangering diseases he had acquired during his Sakhalin imprisonment.
And yet there was also a pleasant surprise awaiting Bronko at his arrival. Bronko had no idea that he was already considered by the European academic establishment to be a world leading authority on Ainu language and culture. Or that his still unpublished fieldwork reports were being circulated by the foreign members of the Imperial Russian Geographic Society and quoted in major languages.
Though he was invited to lecture about his Ainu research at Krakow, Oxford, Sorbonne, and other leading universities, his mind was preoccupied by his guilt of leaving Chuhsamma and Sukezou behind.
Bronko’s travelling plans to reach Sakhalin (that after the war was divided in 1905 between Russia and Japan) were becoming ever less likely of materializing because of his failing health, the lack of funds, and finally by the outbreak of the First World War in 1914.
Sometimes, Bronko shared his worries with his younger brother Jozef. He confessed to his brother that the Ainu gods had followed him all the way to Europe, and he frequently heard their whispers whenever he was close to a forest or a river.
Bronko believed that the gods-living-in-nature disguised as animals and river birds reminded him of his promise return to the divided land of Ainu Mosir.
His brother Jozef, was too busy organizing a revolt against Russian occupiers to listen to Bronko’s bizarre stories about Kamuy gods disguised as migrant birds nesting around powerful underwater rocks. Jozef, who had served his sentence in a different part of Siberia, had no idea what the Ainu Mosir was all about, and thought Bronko was suffering from hallucinations.
Meanwhile, Bronko could not escape his past. He repeatedly heard an ancient Ainu lullaby that his wife Chuhsamma used to sing to their crying baby son, Sukezou. He imagined that their second child born during his absence was a beautiful girl.
The ongoing war and Bronko’s increasingly poor health were causing him repeated mood swings that he could hardly control anymore.
He knew that his chances of making it back to Ainu Mosir and his family were decreasing with every passing year.
Yet Bronko didn’t give up his dream to be reunited with his family forever. He was ready for his final journey to the other side of life where he could wait with the Ainu Gods for arrival of his family when the time will be right.
In 1918, just before the end of WW1, Bronko's floating body was discovered in the River Seine in Paris.
Bronko’s overseas exile and forbidden love deeply resonated with my own nomadic life.
As an exiled field anthropologist during the communist occupation of Poland, I was for 18 years crossing our Eurasian continent with camera and notebook in search of past links to my present life dilemmas.
The more I learned about the convict-turned-anthropologist, the more I was determined to know more about this man who was not afraid to love across cultural boundaries and challenge the gods.
It took me many trips across the Japanese Archipelago in search of Bronko's Ainu family. I found out that Chuhsamma died in Sakhalin before the outbreak of WW2, and her son Sukezou and daughter managed to leave the Soviet occupied Sakhalin for Hokkaido in 1945. But as they were living under their new Japanese names, nobody among my Ainu friends was familiar with their whereabouts.
My inquiries made Japanese authorities suspicious. The task of getting in touch with Bronko’s Ainu descendants seemed beyond my financial and anthropological resources.
Then during my first winter fieldwork among the Hokkaido Ainu in Nibutani- Biratori, where I lived in an Ainu village, or kotan, headed by an Ainu cultural activist Shigeru Kayano, I learned that Sukezou's son was probably living somewhere on Honshu island.
Then unexplainable coincidences entered my nomadic life.
Bronko's grandson, Kazuyasu Kimura, happened to be my neighbor and lived in nearby Yokohama just a twenty minutes drive away from my house, an even more surprising discovery.
One day, together with my Tokyo-born son, we visited Bronko’s grandson Kazuyasu in Yokohama. With the passing years we became close enough friends, that Kazuyasu asked me to teach him his grandfather's native language, Polish.
I wasn’t surprised at all that Kazuyasu was planning to visit Poland and learn more about his roots. First, he borrowed several of my works on Eurasian relations that I published under (a) different name in Japan. Then he wanted to see my family album and learned why my son and daughter were born ten thousand kilometres apart and yet they were given double names in both Polish and Japanese.
With our every meeting Kazuyasu's interest in Polish folklore and children songs featuring forest birds and animals was growing. Though he was curious to learn about my migrant past and my children's Polish-Japanese heritage, Kazuyasu was reluctant to talk about his own father's Ainu-Polish roots.
Sometimes it almost felt as if for a Hokkaido-born Kazuyasu, sharing with me his father Sukezou's Sakhalin memories was still a painful reminder of his family’s tragic past. Chuhsamma waiting for Bronko’s return lost her eyesight and like all of Kazuyasu's Ainu ancestors is buried in Sakhalin; Sukezou escaped Russian invasion of Sakhalin and is buried in Hokkaido.
And since his father's passing away, Kazuyasu moved further away from his Ainu roots and built his family home in Honshu.
It took years before Kazuyasu Kimura entrusted me with his own family story that he had learned from his father Sukezou's fragmented memories. Sukezou hardly ever mentioned Bronko's name. It almost felt as if Sukezou struggled to erase his missing father from his memory. Though Sukezou's mother Chuhsamma occasionally shared stories of Bronko with her son before passing away, she was also reluctant to say aloud his name fearing it may be overheard by evil spirits.
According to Kazuyasu's recollections, his father Sukezou wasn’t particularly interested in his Ainu ancestry. Unlike his Ainu mother Chuhsamma, Sukezou, wasn’t scared by the spirits hiding in the forest, and after moving to Hokkaido earned his living as a Japanese forest rancher. Kazuyasu’s search for his roots came much later in his life. He was already a happily married father of three daughters when he discovered that his grandfather Bronko was not a Russian colonizer of a mythical Ainu Mosir, but a sentenced to death Polish freedom fighter.
The more Kazuyasu was learning about his grandfather, the more he was becoming puzzled.
When during one of our many winter chats over warm sake and grilled octopus at my home, I mentioned to Kazuyasu Kimura that the family name of his grandfather is known to every Pole, and he, the Hokkaido-born grandson of Bronislaw Bronko Pilsudski is the only male heir to the legendary Pilsudski family name, Kazuyasu thought I was getting intoxicated.
It took me a long time and many books before I was able to convince Kazuyasu that the former Russian prisoners, Bronislaw & Jozef Pilsudski, became a part of modern Polish history.
The older brother, Bronko, as a world authority of Ainu culture; the younger brother, Jozef, a statesman and the first Chief of Polish State re-created after 123 years of partition (between Russia, Germany, and Austria).
In his first visit to Poland, Kazuyasu found out that his Grandfather and his Granduncle continue to be alive in hearts of the Poles: many schools and streets were named after them. And commemorative coins and stamps were being prepared to honour Bronko’s Ainu research.
In 1999 I attended an International Congress on Bronislaw Pilsudski's Life and Work in Krakow. Kazuyasu Kimura was our guest of honour.
During my lengthy chats in Russian with the visiting Siberian scholars, I could learn more about Bronko & Chuhsamma's Sakhalin fragmented past. The past that has merged myths with human drama remains freely floating across cultural and political boundaries separating Poland from Sakhalin and Japan.
While Kazuyasu Kimura-Pilsudski has continued revisiting the Polish side of his multicultural family for the past two decades, I have resettled along the Pacific-Shonan coast. The very coast that Ainu tribes used to explore thousands of years earlier, but not many people seem to know about their explorations. When I shared my painstakingly reconstructed love story of Chuhsamma and Bronko with my fellow Kamakura lifesavers, they found it far too exotic to be believable. Nobody had ever heard about an oddly tattooed Japanese Ainu girl who had lost her European lover to a faraway river Seine.
And yet for my old friends from a nearby Kamakura fishing village, this tragically twisted love-story of two distant lovers separated by the ocean, didn't sound strange at all. The fishers, whose ancestors used to carry traditional Shonan tattoos, believed in an afterlife reunion of two wandering souls and the lasting power of the ocean gods.
When I doubted the presence of the ancient ocean spirits, my widowed fisher friend, Yuko, cautioned me about challenging our local Shonan deity in an annual swimming race to a sacred underwater rock hiding in our Kamakura bay.
It took me three more years to discover that the fisherwoman was right: the local gods seemed not to like being challenged by the foreign-born folks.
[*TO BE CONTINUED IN A FORTHCOMING BLOG: “KAMAKURA’S SACRED ROCK POWER”]