Ezo was the pre-modern Japanese name for what is now called Hokkaidō, the northernmost of the four main islands that now make up the Japanese archipelago. The indigenous race, the Ainu, differ in physiognomy, language and culture from the mainland Japanese people, who fully explored and colonized the island in the late nineteenth century. There had been expeditions before that time, when trading posts were first established. Paintings by Japanese artists depicting the Ainu first appeared in the later eighteenth century.
The artist Hirasawa Byōzan (1822-76) lived for periods among the Ainu and painted many works depicting their lives and customs. This scroll begins by illustrating Ainu legends, then shows the people and houses, seal-catching, and finally the bear-killing ritual. This held particular interest, as it was fundamental to the spiritual beliefs of the Ainu culture. After the kill, the iomante ceremony was held to pray to the deceased bear's spirit, which is the scene depicted here. The bushy-haired Ainu men are seated on mats before an altar where the corpse is laid out. Around it are lacquer containers of offerings, and fish, clothing, and swords. Prayer sticks (inaw) are attached to the bear's head and to the fence.
Traditional Ainu beliefs meant that they never sculpted or painted human images, so scrolls like this by Japanese artists provide us with an invaluable record of a way of life that has now all but disappeared.