On some Ainu toponyms in Japanese texts of late 18th century

     A significant number of toponyms on Hokkaido, Sakhalin and Kuril Islands which are still in use today are of Ainu origin. They started to be registered from early 17th century by Europeans, Japanese and Russians both on maps and in travel journals. However, how written recording of toponyms could influence their being? I focused on two texts by Japanese government officials of late 18th century. The first text is “Ezo soshi” written in 1790 by Mogami Tokunai, the first Japanese who deliberately visited the island of Iturup in 1786. Another text is a letter by Kondo Juzo written in 1799 on Kunashir to his friend Furukawa Koshoken. Both texts are remarkable for registering the very moment of naming some geographical objects or recording toponyms reported by local people.
     In the article about the island of Iturup Mogami describes his trip around the island from its southwestern to the northeastern tip along the Okhotsk shore and then the Pacific shore. All toponyms are mentioned in chronological (according to author’s moving) order: Itoiya, Herutarube, Moyoro, Atsusanobori, Moshirinoshike, Etorofuwatara, Shanaa, Shochikiya, Sharushamu, Hinnebetsu, Toushiruru, Rebunshiri. Mogami provides most of these toponyms with brief explanations of their meaning. Unlike Mogami, Kondo Juzo presents Ainu toponyms of Kunashir without any special order. In his letter Kondo expresses his intention to publish a book entitled “Eight views of the island of Kunashir” upon his return to Japan and describes places of interests that he managed to visit and observe. He mentions Seseki, Kusarichi, Otachippu, Chachanuburi, Shokebe, Onnebetsu, Ruyobetsu, Bauchi and Atoiya. He provides these names with brief descriptions of characteristics that mark the places out and help to understand their meaning.
     Some of the toponyms mentioned by Mogami and Kondo later came into use, were fixed on Japanese maps and a few of them are still in use, even today in Russia. They are, for instance, the mountain names Berutarube and Atsonupuri (Herutarube and Atsusanobori in Mogami’s spelling) on Iturup as well as Tyatya volcano (Chachanuburi in Kondo’s spelling) on Kunashir.
     Highly credible look also toponyms with the formant “betsu”, which originates from Ainu “pet” (“river”). Hinnebetsu seems to derive from Ainu “pinne” (“male”) and “pet”. Onnebetsu is from Ainu “onne” (“old” or here “big”) and “pet”. Kondo says that this river is the biggest among those flowing down the mountain of Chachanuburi. Ruyobetsu is from “rui” (“whetstone”), “o” (“to be in quantity”) and “pet”. Kondo mentions that there are lots of porphyrite near this river.
     At the same time, some toponyms mentioned by Mogami and Kondo do not seem to be toponyms at all. For instance, Mogami says that the rock Etorofuwatara is located in the place named Moshirinoshike “almost in the middle of the island”. “Moshirinoshike” obviously derives from “Moshiri” (land, island) and “noshike” (middle), that is literally “the middle of the island”. Thus “Moshirinoshike” could be used by Mogami’s Ainu guides just as indication of distance but not as a regular toponym.
     In much the same way Kondo writes that “in a place named Seseki (on Kunashir) there is a hot spring that bubbles right in the sea”. “Seseki” originates from Ainu “sesek” (to be hot) and “i” (a nominalizer), thus “seseki” means “something hot” or “a hot place”. This word was often used for hot springs. In later maps there are at least three places on Kunashir indicated as “Seseki”, while today Seseki hot spring on Shiretoko peninsula is one of the most famous and popular resorts in Hokkaido. It seems reasonable enough that “Seseki” was just an appellative in Ainu that was mistakenly understood as a toponym by Kondo.
     Another example of a possible appellative taken as a toponym is the word “Atoiya”. Kondo mentions it as a place on Kunashir that serves as a departure point further to the island of Iturup. Mogami writes that “when travelling from Kunashir to Iturup people land in whether Itoiya or Herutarube (Beretarbe). “Itoiya” may be a mistaken “Atoiya”, which derives from “Atui” (sea) and “ya” (shore). This word appears on later maps as a toponym in the corner points of several Kuril Islands: Kunashir, Iturup, Urup and others. Thus “Atuiya” seems to mark the points when local Ainu were waiting for the weather good enough to travel to another island of the archipelago and back. If this suggestion is correct, then “Atuiya” too was an appellative adopted as a toponym by Japanese.
     The last example of a doubtful toponym is “Rebunshiri” mentioned by Mogami as a name of a mountain on the island of Iturup. He writes that the mountain Rebunshiri can be observed from the northern part of Iturup’s Pacific coast when one looks in the southwest direction. He describes this mountain as a volcano full of sulfur fumaroles and hot springs on its surface. It is clear that “Rebunshiri” refers to one of the volcanos in the central part of Iturup (now their names are Baranskogo, Tebenkova and Ivan Grozny, formerly Sashiusu, Odamoi and Yakeyama respectively). The problem is that “Rebunshiri” derives from Ainu “Rep=un=sir” and means “land/piece of land that lies over the sea” or simply an island. It is a regular name for small islands separated from the bigger ones by the sea (a well-known example is the island of Rebun northwest from Hokkaido). It seems that Mogami used an Ainu phrase “[the mountain that appears] on the land over the sea” as a name for the mountain itself since Ainu names for mountains regularly contain the formant -nupur or at least some nominalizer (-p or -us) but not -sir. Wasn’t it one more example of registering a situational, spontaneous description of the place as a toponym?
     This brief view on some Ainu toponyms on the islands of Iturup and Kunashir mentioned in Japanese sources in late 18th century shed light on the process of how toponyms were recorded for the first time by the representatives of a literate society. We managed to see that among the toponyms there were both credible ones and those that could not be toponyms at all at the time of their registration. This raises some questions for the further consideration. Were Ainu toponyms proper or common nouns (appellatives) in Ainu everyday conversation? Or both existed simultaneously? And if so, what was their proportion? Were there cases of fabrication of toponyms in response to inquiries of Japanese officials, or registering a situational, spontaneous descriptions of places as toponyms? I hope that further study of Ainu toponyms in comparison with later maps and descriptions as well as with special reference to usage of toponyms in Ainu folklore texts could clear at least some of these questions.

Vasilii Shchepkin,Senior Researcher, Institute of Oriental Classics, Russian Academy of Sciences)







Atsonupuri volcano on Iturup






Iturup toponyms in Ezo Soshi






Kunashir toponyms in Kondo Juzo’s letter