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A Brief History and culture of the Ainu People in Japan

"Ainu" means "human". The Ainu people, are an indigenous ethnic group of people who live in Hokkaido, Japan today as well as in parts of Russia (the Kuril Islands and Sakhalin), who regard things useful to them or beyond their control as "kamuy" (gods).

Ainu People History

The Ainu are thought to be remnants of the Jomon-jin, southern Mongloids, or the hunter-gathers who inhabited Japan during the Jomon Period (14,500 BC – 300 AD and perhaps even before), and settled in the Northern part of Japan. Groundbreaking genetic mapping studies by Cavalli-Sforza have shown a sharp gradient in gene frequencies centered in the area around the Sea of Japan, suggesting that the area was a center of expansion for the ancestral Jomon-Ainu populations. This expansion of populations is thought to be the third most important genetic movement in Eurasia (after the “Great expansion” from the African continent, to Arabia and adjacent parts of the Middle East, as well as to the northern regions of Eurasia, (particularly Siberia from regions to the south). 

The presence of Y1 lineages (Y is restricted to Northeast Asians and Ainu) among the Ainu also points to the migration route, from Siberian populations to the northernmost populations of the Japanese islands (fitting well with the archaeological record). Genetic testing indicts that the Jomon pioneer settlers may have entered even earlier, perhaps 30,000 years at a time when the Yellow Sea had fallen dry and was more like a large lake, but that the populations became bottle-necked toward the Last Glacial Maximum.

The Ainu are thought to be connected to ancestry that might be in common with those of Native Americans, a connection supported by the detection of the common presence of Haplogroup X in both populations. It has also been noted that the Ainu of today are not pure descendants of the Jomon, but rather from the Jomon-Yayoi mixture of the Satsumon/Emishi people. The Emishi were Jomon descendants with Yayoi assimilated cultural traits. It is believed from place names in Tohoku that the Emishi spoke the Ainu language as well. As the Yayoi people pushed north, it is thought that the Emishi people advanced on Hokkaido, infusing the Jomon culture in Hokkaido with an agrarian society and with metal-using traits from the Yayoi culture. Citing Gary Crawford, Paula Nielsen writes in “Origins of the Ainu People of Northern Japan” that “the Satsumon culture recently discovered in Hokkaido was descended from the Tohoku Emishi of northeastern Honshu who migrated to Hokkaido, bringing a fused culture of the Middle Yayoi, along with the ancient physical traits of the Jomon”.

Interestingly certain "schools of thought" have described the Ainu people as "tending to have light skin, a stout frame, deep-set eyes with a European shape, and thick, wavy hair". The false narrative has stated that full-blooded Ainu may have even had blue eyes or brown hair, which has, in the past, led Western historians to claim the Ainu were of Caucasian decent, but recently it has been proved through dental morphology and fingerprinting that the Ainu are in fact Mongoloid, not Caucasoid. If anything, they are darker in complexion and their traditions and cultural practices borrow more from African and Native-Americans practices than anywhere else.

Many archeologists consider the Ainu to be the last living descendants of the Jomon people, who lived throughout Japan from as early as 13,000 years ago. The Jomon are known for their elaborate earthenware, which they often decorated with cord (rope) impressions, and for their stone tools, pit-house villages, and, by 1500 B.C., elaborate cemeteries marked by stone circles or high earth embankments. To a large degree, the Jomon relied on hunting, fishing, and collecting plants and shellfish for their subsistence.

The history of the Ainu is basically a history of migration and Japanese internal colonization. Hokkaido, the Northern island of Japan where the Ainu inhabited, is full of natural resources based on rich river systems, and ecause of this fact and their location, the land of the Ainu had been a target of both Japanese and Russian's interests, making the the Ainu a target of extermination in order for them to obtain the flourished land. The culture of the Ainu was considered as barbaric and primitive because of their traditional customs such as hunting bears, ritual killing of animals, and the tattooing of lips, hands and arms as an initiation of girls reaching puberty. 

Notable dates in Ainu history include the 1457 Battle of Kosyamain, the 1669 Battle of Syaksyain, and the 1789 Battle of Kunashiri-Menasi during which the Japanese eventually succeeded in integrating the Northern island by defeating the Ainu.

In 1869 the mass immigration of Japanese to Hokkaido started with the encouragement of the new western ideal government to develop the Hokkaido, as well as the Sakhalin and Kuril regions which had come under control of Russia. The national homogeneity for which Japan is well known propelled the mainstream Japanese to colonize the land of the Ainu by defining themselves as superior than the Ainu and denying them their identity completely. As Japanese saw the Ainu as primitive, the law to convert the Ainu to Japanese was passed as a new wave of Japanese politics in late 19th century. The prohibition of traditional customs and enforcing of Japanese culture increased their poverty, isolation and lack of education. As waves of Japanese settlers began crowding out Ainu communities on Honshu island and pushing them northwards they had to undergo harsh discrimination and tried to hide their entity from the rest of society by Intermarrying with other Japanese tribes, producing generations of half-castes in order to survive. Japanese people called the northern island of Hokkaido “Ezochi” which means “Land of the Ainu”, and Ainu land was redistributed to Japanese farmers.

In 1871 with the enactment of forced registration, the prohibition of their traditional way of living and enforcement of the use of Japanese language became the norm and in 1889 their traditional hunting of deer was prohibited. 

By 1899 the Meiji government’s assimilation policies resulted in the ban of the Ainu language and Ainu children being given Japanese names and put into Japanese schools. The Japanese government subsequently passed the Hokkaido Aborigine Protection Act which labelled the Ainu “former Aborigines”, making them powerless under law and ostensibly declaring that the Ainu had been integrated into the Japanese population. The act, together with its various assimilation policies, had the drastic effect of eroding Ainu identity and traditions. As a result of these policies, many Ainu people suffered discrimination and became ashamed of their language and culture. The act continued for a hundred years.

Not content with being perpetually sidelined, the first Ainu organizations, notably the "Ainu Kyokai", was established in 1930 by young leaders, such as Hokuto Iboshi, Yukie Chiri and Torazo Ega at the Hokkaido Ainu Convention in Shizunai, Hokkaido. In 1946, the Hokkaido Ainu Association was established primarily to provide higher education and collaborate in the construction of social welfare facilities. This sin turn, influenced by world movements in civil and human rights, led to even further demands to reclaim their identity between the 1960's-1970's. The "Ainu Kyokai" evolved into "Utari Kyokai" in 1961 because the word, 'Ainu' reminded many of them of their repressive history of discrimination. 

In 1984, the Hokkaido Utari Association resolved that the Government should enact the New Ainu Law (tentative name), a new law which replaces the current "Hokkaido Aborigine Protection Act." Since then, the association has been conducting an active campaign to demand that the national government enact the New Ainu Law as soon as possible. Furthermore, these days, various activities are being vigorously promoted to revive the Ainu language and to preserve and maintain Ainu culture, such as traditional dancing and various ceremonies. Ainu language classes are being held in various parts of Hokkaido. Moreover, associations to preserve traditional dancing have been organized to revive and conduct ceremonies such as iyomante and chipsanke.


In 1994 Shigeru Kayano, a politician, was elected as the first Ainu to enter the Upper House Diet, and by 1997 the 'Act on the Encouragement of Ainu Culture and the Diffusion and Enlightenment of Knowledge on Ainu Tradition' was passed. It emphasized support for Ainu culture but failed to achieive significant gains in the human rights issue. 

The 1899 act was finally officially reversed on June 6th, 2008, when the Japanese government adopted a resolution that, for the first time, formally recognised the Ainu as “an indigenous people who have their own language, religion and culture”. 

Today only small numbers of Ainu remain, though they still constitute one of Japan’s most marginalised groups, which unfortunately, has led the Ainu language and culture approaching the brink of extinction. The Ainu are thought to number around 25,000 (official sources) while unofficially, they are believed to number around 200,000 or more since many Ainu have intermarried and many more still do not disclose their roots out of fear of discrimination. The population rapidly decreased between 1822 and 1873 as about 7000 Ainu died over that 50 year period. The reason behind the rapid decrease of the population is thought to be the spread of epidemics, such as small pox, measles, cholera and tuberculosis beside the enforcement of Japanese culture and labor. Parallel to the uprising movement in 1960's, the Ainu population also has increased about 6000 subsequently stabilizing.

With the restrictions placed on the use of the language in 1899, Ainu speakers have all but disappeared. Today the language is said to have less than 15 "native" speakers, all of which are above the age of 60, making Ainu a "critically endangered" language. Originally, the Ainu language had three main dialects: Hokkaido, Sakhalin, and Kuril. However, the Hokkaido dialect is the only one that survives today.

One interesting point about Ainu is that it does not have a written form. The language has lived by being passed down from parent to child for countless years and has historically been transcribed using Japanese kana. The lack of a writing system has of course hindered the ability of the Ainu to preserve their language after it was banned, and the use of Japanese kana has even influenced some Ainu pronunciations. Even so, the language has been able to live in the tradition of Ainu story telling, or 'Yukar', the language of which is mutually understood by all Ainu groups and is known as Classical Ainu.

Ainu People Culture 

In daily life, they pray to and performed various ceremonies for these 'gods', which include "nature" gods such as of fire, water, wind and thunder; "animal" gods, such as of bears, foxes, spotted owls and gram-puses; "plant" gods, such as of aconite, mush-room and mugwort; "object" gods, such as of boats and pots; and gods which protect houses, gods of mountains and gods of lakes. The word "Ainu" refers to the opposite of these gods. In their Yukar Upopo (Ainu Legends) is told, “The Ainu lived in this place a hundred thousand years before the Children of the Sun came”.

Traditionally, the Ainu sacrificed bears in order to release the 'kamuy' within them to the spirit world. One tradition, called 'lotame', involves the raising of a young bear cub as if it were an Ainu child and then sacrificing once it has come of age. The 'iyomante' ceremony involves cleansing the bear during this sacrifice. The Ainu are very proficient in elaborate woven fabric, called "Attush" which is reminiscent of the Yoruba Aso-Oke. They fashioned moccasins out of fish scales and expertly carved canoes and tools alike.

The Ainu people had various types of marriage. A child was promised in marriage by arrangement between his or her parents and the parents of his or her betrothed or by a go-between. When the betrothed reached a marriageable age, they were told who their spouse was to be. There were also marriages based on mutual consent of both sexes.In some areas, when a daughter reached a marriageable age, her parents let her live in a small room called tunpu annexed to the southern wall of her house.The parents chose her spouse from men who visited her.

The age of marriage was 17 to 18 years of age for men and 15 to 16 years of age for women, who were tattooed. At these ages, both sexes were regarded as adults.

When a man proposed to a woman, he visited her house, ate half a full bowl of rice handed to him by her, and returned the rest to her. If the woman ate the rest, she accepted his proposal. If she did not and put it beside her, she rejected his proposal. When a man became engaged to a woman or they learned that their engagement had been arranged, they exchanged gifts. He sent her a small engraved knife, a workbox, a spool, and other gifts. She sent him embroidered clothes, coverings for the back of the hand, leggings and other handmade clothes.

Chishima Ainu working
The worn-out fabric of old clothing was used for baby clothes because soft cloth was good for the skin of babies and worn-out material protected babies from gods of illness and demons due to these gods' abhorrence of dirty things. Before a baby was breast-fed, they were given a decoction of the endodermis of alder and the roots of butterburs to discharge impurities. Children were raised almost naked until about the ages of four to five. Even when they wore clothes, they did not wear belts and left the front of their clothes open. Subsequently, they wore bark clothes without patterns, such as attush, until coming of age.

Newborn babies were named ayay (a baby's crying), shipo, poyshi (small excrement), and shion (old excrement). Children were called by these "temporary" names until the ages of two to three. They were not given permanent names when they were born. Their tentative names had a portion meaning "excrement" or "old things" to ward off the demon of ill-health. Some children were named based on their behaviour or habits. Other children were named after impressive events or after parents' wishes for the future of the children. When children were named, they were never given the same names as others.

Men wore loincloths and had their hair dressed properly for the first time at age 15–16. Women were also considered adults at the age of 15–16. They wore underclothes called mour and had their hair dressed properly and wound waistcloths called raunkut and ponkut around their bodies. When women reached age 12–13, the lips, hands and arms were tattooed. When they reached age 15–16, their tattoos were completed. Thus were they qualified for marriage.