The Ainu: The Hidden People of Japan

Who are the Ainu?

Who are the Ainu, sometimes called “the hidden people of Japan”? The Ainu live in Hokkaido and have been the subject of many academic studies because of their mysterious origins. In fact, the Ainu people, who are completely different from other Japanese both physically and linguistically, were the rulers of Hokkaido Island as recently as four centuries ago. Today, however, they are a tiny minority group that hunts and fishes and live exclusively in Hokkaido.

The Ainu probably came from the Southern Pacific area or perhaps from Siberia, but their exact place of origin remains a total mystery. For many years, they also inhabited northern Honshu island in Japan, but no longer do. However, the Ainu do occupy some parts of the Kuril Islands which are a part of modern-day Russia.

The best way to begin to understand the Ainu culture is to find out who the people are, where they live, what they look like, what they eat, and what the current state of their culture is. It is also quite informative to take a look at a traditional Ainu community and see how the people lived, what their religious beliefs were, and what special challenges they face today. Finally, we will discuss some helpful books and films that are an easy way to uncover a bit of the Ainu identity.

How Many Ainu People Are There?

As with all other facts related to the Ainu people, no one knows the exact number of their population. The Japanese government puts out an “official” statistical record that says there are 25,000 members of the Ainu community. In reality, intermarriage and immigration to other places have clouded the actual number of Ainu people, but most anthropologists think it is closer to 200,000.

In recent years, there has been so much intermarriage between Ainu and Japanese, and between Ainu and Russians/Chinese people that the original physical characteristics of the Ainu have begun to fade. This also makes it nearly impossible to say how many Ainu people there are, except to give an approximate number.

What Do Ainu People Look Like?

Tall and usually blue-eyed, pure-blood Ainu people also have light skin, deep-set, roundish eyes and are closely related to the hunter-gatherers from Japan’s Jomon era of 13,000 BCE to about 300 BCE. Most experts think the Ainu are probably from Mongolia regions originally. Nearly all modern-day Ainu have long, shoulder-length hair. Men usually do not shave after adulthood, and women have their lips tattooed as they reach their mid-teens.

What is the Main Diet of the Ainu?

In total contrast to the Japanese, Ainu are hunter-gatherers who never eat raw food of any kind. They cook everything, even the vegetables, fish, fox, rabbit, and larger animals they hunt, like bear and deer. Of course, with intermarriage and assimilation, there has been much change in Ainu dietary habits in the past 50 or so years. But Ainu who live in communities in Hokkaido that have not mixed much with Japanese people tend to stick to the traditional diet of cooked meats, fish and vegetables.

The Ainu Today

There has been somewhat of a resurgence of interest in Ainu culture in this century, which has led to a revitalization of the culture and original language of the Ainu people. In 1997, the Japanese government passed a law called “The Ainu Cultural Promotion Act” that has gone a long way toward preserving the Ainu culture.

Things like dictionaries of original Ainu language and cultural records are maintained with government funds and help make sure that the Ainu world will never disappear. Some experts have worked very hard to make oral histories of the Ainu by interviewing the oldest members of the community.

Since 1987, there have been Ainu language courses that anyone can take to learn the basics of the language. The courses also train instructors, many of whom work in Japanese universities teaching Ainu language to students all over the country.

Most of the revitalization of Ainu culture has originated with an organization called “The Ainu Association of Hokkaido.” There are radio shows, TV programs, online language lessons, a newspaper, and several retail centers where Ainu language is used, just to name a few of the cultural revitalization efforts in progress.

Tourists who wish to learn more about the Ainu culture can visit the official website of the Ainu Association of Hokkaido. The English language site offers a wealth of information about the Ainu and is a good guide for travelers who want to meet and speak with modern-day Ainu community members.

What was Life Like in a Traditional Ainu Community?

How the Ainu live: Most Ainu today live in modern houses, but a few traditional villages still exist. In olden times, people lived in groupings called kotans. Each kotan consisted of about two dozen thatched homes, each having a fire pit in the middle and ample venting in the roofs. By design, these tiny villages were designed so a scream would be heard throughout the community, but not so close that a fire would spread from home to home.

Likewise, the Ainu typically located their kotans near large bodies of water so they could fish whenever they needed to. Kotans were far enough into the woods that there was no fear of flooding even after long rains. Whenever hunting or fishing began to become difficult in a region, they’d simply pack up the kotan’s houses and move somewhere else. There was very little farming, gardening or agriculture.

Their unique clothing and food: Traditional Ainu clothing is seldom worn today except on special occasions. Modern Ainu people dress as the Japanese do in most cases. However, traditional Ainu dress included garments that were woven from tree bark, as well as undershirts and winter clothing that was primarily deerskin or fur. About one hundred years ago, the Ainu stopped using millet and replaced it with rice, but some members of the community still use millet and rice to make various porridge-like dishes.

Deer meat and salmon were the two staples of the Ainu diet in earlier times, but a special seasonal treat consisted of ice candy flavored with maple syrup. Another traditional practice was home education. Mothers and fathers taught the children daily-life skills like weaving, hunting, cooking, and construction.

Grandparents, on the other hand, took great pride in transmitting the oral culture by way of poetry and story recitations to the children. Even today, when Ainu people attend public Japanese schools, some of those old traditions survive, like older relatives reciting family histories and stories, villagers making maple ice candy together, and parents teaching children how to do crafts.

Ainu family life: In traditional Ainu families, the women were responsible for collecting wild berries and other plant foods, caring for young children, farming, sewing and preparing grains for meals. Men did most of the carving, fishing, and hunting of wild animals. Married people either lived apart from their parents or shared quarters with the husband’s family.

Midwives, shamans, and bards were considered very special occupations, and those jobs went to people by inheritance only. And humans weren’t the only “family members” of an Ainu group: dogs were given the important job of guarding food storage areas and also worked as hunters alongside the men of the village. Today, dogs still occupy a revered place among the Ainu, as companions and work assistants.

Do the Ainu Have Special Religious Beliefs?

For hundreds, perhaps thousands of years the Ainu people were animists who considered many components of nature to be God-filled. The earth, the sea, animals, trees and much else were thought to be associated with specific gods. Of all, the earth goddess was the most important, but there were also gods that watched overfishing, the sea, mountains and wild animals like bears.

There were no and still are not, community “priests” because the village leader was the one who performed any religious ceremonies, like praying, making special foods, and asking the gods to heal a sick community member. Like many Christians, Muslims, Jews, and other mainstream religious people, the Ainu believe in immortality.

In olden times, bears occupied a very special place in Ainu culture because it was thought that bears were a gift from God. Bear meat and bearskin were exceptionally important in Ainu life, so this belief makes perfect sense. Today, most Ainu people follow common Japanese religions like Buddhism and Shintoism, but a few Ainu people in northern Japan are members of the Russian Orthodox Church.

What is Daily Life Like for the Ainu People?

Modern life of the Japanese Ainu people is difficult. There are many reasons for this sad state of affairs, but there have been renewed efforts to revitalize the culture, help Ainu people get better jobs, and assist them with preserving their culture. When the Meiji Restoration began in the 1860s, the Japanese government forced the Ainu to give up their language and many unique cultural customs, including hunting and shamanistic religion.

Sadly, this policy continued for many years before the Japanese realized they had essentially erased an entire culture. There is still plenty of social and economic discrimination the Ainu face on a daily basis, but by the 1980s onward, special government efforts have helped the Ainu recover at least a small part of their cultural heritage.

Very few members of the Ainu communities know how to speak the language fluently. Most only know a few words and phrases. In fact, there aren’t that many who adhere to the old customs and religious beliefs either.

Oddly, modernization has brought about a new interest in all things Ainu, especially among non-Japanese people. Students in the U.S., UK, and elsewhere pursue academic studies centered on ancient indigenous cultures all over the world, and that includes the Ainu. Washington, D. C.’s Smithsonian museum put on a major exhibit of Ainu art in 1999, and many other world museums have done the same.

In Hokkaido, there are so-called villages of Ainu culture, but most of them are fabricated by the Japanese government in an effort to revive and preserve the ancient culture. Complete with shamanistic ceremonies and other indigenous festivals, these villages are populated by ethnic Ainu people who sometimes seem averse to being put on display in such a way.

Perhaps the most famous Ainu person in Japan is a performer named Mina Sakai. Sakai was the founder of a group called the “Rebels of Ainu Descent” who played music and dance to old Ainu tunes in order to educate the public about the culture. Among the several thousand Ainu who live in or near Tokyo, there is a group called “Rera no Kai” that works hard to preserve the Ainu ways of cooking, music, dance, and other cultural components.

Sadly, many school children of Ainu descent are taunted by their peers. Unfortunately, the Japanese word for dog (inu) sounds very similar to the word “Ainu,” and thus the kids are called “inu, inu, inu” by their Japanese classmates who should know better than to engage in such hurtful bullying.

By every economic and educational measure, Ainu people in Japanese society are behind, but efforts are being made to eliminate the discrimination and financial woes that plague the modern-day Ainu inhabitants of Japan.

Learn More about the Ainu

I found an informative and very interesting book about the daily life and customs of the Ainu. It’s called, “The Ainu: A Story of Japan’s Original People.”

The short, hardcover book is about one boy’s experiences growing up in an Ainu village in the 1930s in Hokkaido, the main region of Japan where the Ainu people reside.

In addition to the wonderful book mentioned above, “The Ainu: A Story of Japan’s Original People,” two other books about the nation’s indigenous inhabitants are listed below for those who wish to look deeper into the world of the Ainu.

Books:

“Our Land Was a Forest” by Kayano Shigeru is a thoughtful look at the entire Ainu culture from its ancient beginnings up to the modern battles against prejudice and discrimination.

The author was a key player in helping revive an almost lost culture. Not only did he help start many Ainu-language schools for children, but he also collected thousands of artifacts from indigenous people in Japan, worked with politicians to help the Ainu in all sorts of ways, wrote a complete dictionary of his people’s language for Japanese translators, and more.

The book is a memoir of his efforts and his extremely difficult early life. He worked as a general laborer, hunter, fisherman, and tradesman. He grew up in a mixed culture of Ainu and Japanese customs, and with a lot of Western influence as well. But readers will get a firm grasp on how difficult it was for him to revive his authentic cultural practices in a country that has forced his people to assimilate for more than a hundred years.

For those who want to hear the story of the Ainu from someone who has lived the hardship and toil of life in modern Japan as an indigenous person, this is a wonderful book to begin your education about the Ainu.

Another, quite different book, called “The Song the Owl God Sang: The collected Ainu legends of Chiri Yukie,” by Benjamin Peterson, is a significantly important collection of Ainu legends. Most of the stories are well known by Ainu enthusiasts but the translations are amazingly smooth and easy to read in this case.

There are dozens of footnotes that explain Ainu ideas and practices where the stories might be difficult to understand. For people who want to get a feeling for what the oral tradition is like, these are the stories that grandparents used to read to children before the modern era began to erase Ainu cultural practices. It is rare to find a decent translation of Ainu tales in English, but this book does a great job of delivering the goods. If you want to take a peek into authentic Ainu history and see what the legends are all about, this book is the ideal place to begin.

Films:

There have been at least 50 major and minor films about the Ainu, but the most recent, and one of the best, is called “Have You Heard about the Ainu?”, by Dr. Kinko Ito, a Japanese academic who resided in the U.S. Ito’s film is a documentary shot in the style of simple oral history. In 2014, he traveled to Hokkaido and lived with a large Ainu family. He interviewed the elders and asked hundreds of probing questions about their lives, early childhood memories, modern-day encounters with discrimination, and much else.

Dr. Ito’s intriguing film points out key facts about the Ainu language, the regions where the people live, and the impact of the Hokkaido Colonization Board in the 1800s. The Board nearly erased the Ainu altogether through a combination of forced assimilation and ethnic cleansing, according to Dr. Ito. Not only was their land taken away, but many of their common customs were outlawed, like hunting and shamanistic practices.

For anyone who wants to see the Ainu up close, this documentary film is an education in itself. Ito lets the elders speak for themselves about marriage, poverty, identity, fighting in WWII and dozens of other relevant topics. The most surprising thing about the documentary is its upbeat, positive ending.

After all the severe hardships the Ainu elders have survived and endured, they remain happy, and their outlook on life is strikingly positive. In conjunction with one or both of the above books, this film makes a deep impression on anyone who watches it.

Another filmed perspective of Ainu culture is called “Tokyo Ainu,” and was made to document the transplanted Ainu community in Tokyo. The film walks through the development of a rather unusual segment of modern Ainu history, the arrival of many community members who were trying to escape the problems of prejudice in Hokkaido. This group ended up in Tokyo and formed a cohesive unit in the 1980s, working hard to preserve the old ways and educate the local city dwellers about their culture.

Today, the group lives in Tokyo and its suburbs but stays in close contact. They promote all things Ainu, and in the film can be seen expressing their hopes, thoughts, feelings, and desires for the future. Their goal is to follow the Ainu way of life no matter where they live. The documentary offers a non-academic look at a unique group of Ainu fighting for their identity in one of the world’s largest cities. The stories are modern, relevant and uplifting.

Travel to Ainu Territory

There are lots of opportunities for travelers to visit Ainu communities, but you should be sensitive about the culture before going. The Ainu suffer from quite a bit of economic and ethnic discrimination in modern Japan, so a trip to Ainu country should be taken with care and consideration.

A smart first step is to contact the link given above for the Ainu Association of Hokkaido and tell them about your travel plans. Depending on your level of knowledge about the Ainu, you will be directed to one of many package tours. Those who are just beginning to learn about the culture might want to visit the museum and one of the Ainu villages, while academics and long-time students of Ainu history would desire a different itinerary.

The main thing to remember is that an excursion into the world of the Ainu should begin with a bit of study. Read books, watch films online, and visit websites about Ainu culture. There are plenty of free online resources for learning about the Ainu. Read about the history of the Ainu through books and films. Those mentioned above are a smart place to start your own journey into the world of Japan’s hidden people: the Ainu.

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