When many people think of Japan, they think of a largely ethnically homogenous nation; while it’s a land of diverse styles, an insular history and sometimes restrictive culture presents a strong image of the people of Japan as being all (or nearly all) very similar. It may come as a surprise to learn that in spite of being a relatively small country, Japan has several distinct ethnic subgroups, including an indigenous culture known as the Ainu.
While efforts have historically been made to assimilate all of the inhabitants of the various Japanese islands into one culture, the Ainu have fought long and hard to maintain their identities and be recognized as a legitimate culture alongside “mainstream” Japanese culture. Although at one point the Ainu were nearly driven to cultural (and in a real sense, literal) extinction, more recent years have seen the Japanese government start to embrace the indigenous culture, though there’s still a long way to go. Let’s take a look at this fascinating and proud culture.
10. Japan only officially recognized the Ainu last year
A law passed in April 2019 and enacted the following August finally recognized the Ainu formally as an indigenous Japanese culture, after decades of the Ainu fighting for formal recognition. Activists in the Ainu community have criticized the law as not going far enough, and not representing the stated desires of the Ainu people, but for the first time since Japan enacted assimilationist and “modernization” policies in the late 19th century (more on that later), the government took a step towards bringing a measure of parity to the Ainu. According to Japan Times:
“Under the new law, the government will establish an Ainu policy promotion headquarters and formulate basic guidelines based on which local municipalities will draw up their own plans to promote Ainu culture, industry and tourism. The central government will then provide subsidies for the projects.
The law also simplifies procedures for Ainu people to obtain permission from authorities to conduct traditional salmon fishing in rivers and collect timber and other items in national forests for their rituals.”
9. Ainu origins are difficult to trace
The long history of Japan makes it very difficult in general for outsiders to understand the ethnic makeups of what has become a largely homogenous culture — with that said, however, tracing the origins of the Ainu people is especially difficult. Recent archaeological and DNA research suggests that the Ainu, unlike the groups that would go on to become what most people consider to be ethnically Japanese, descend from a merger of three cultures: Jomon, Okhotsk, and Satsumon.
Evidence suggests that the early Ainu had contact with the Mongols and Chinese prior to active, sustained contact with the ethnic Japanese that form the majority in the country today. As Japan conquered Hokkaido and brought it under control, a program of assimilation further uprooted Ainu people from their collective past; it’s hard to know where you came from if the people responsible for maintaining that information are imprisoned or otherwise removed from the community, and if the people who need that information are kept from receiving it. Studies of mitochondrial DNA, tracing back through known prehistoric groups, suggest that the Ainu have links to Eurasia — and even up into Russia and the arctic region — in their distant past.
8. Ainu culture is very different from Japanese culture
Ainu customs, practices, religion, and more all differ very strongly from mainstream Japanese culture; although assimilation efforts attempted to push the Ainu into farming, the culture is traditionally one of hunting and gathering. Anthony Bourdain visited the Shiraoi Ainu in an episode of his long-running travel program No Reservations, and captured some of the distinctive characteristics of the culture, including food preservation and preparation techniques, dress, and more.
Traditional Ainu clothing and standards of personal grooming set them immediately apart: Ainu men who follow the culture’s customs fully don’t shave after a certain age, maintaining beards, while Ainu women traditionally tattooed their mouths and sometimes their hands and forearms — in contrast with Japanese standards, where tattoos are traditionally a mark of belonging to the Yakuza or other organized crime syndicate, and a clean shave is considered appropriate for all men. After tattooing was banned, this largely fell out of favor, but there are some who still practice the art. The Ainu have long been a hunter-gatherer society, with an emphasis on fishing; traditional methods of food preservation include smoking and drying, particularly salmon. Even the Ainu religion is markedly different from mainstream Japanese culture.
7. Ainu spiritual beliefs go back hundreds of years
In contrast to Japanese religious practices like Shinto and Buddhism, the Ainu traditionally adhere to an animist spirituality, which asserts that everything in nature has a spirit. Two spirits are regarded as especially important in Ainu religious beliefs: Kim-un Kamuy, the god of bears and mountains, Kamuy Fuchi, the goddess of the hearth, and Repun Kamuy, god of the sea, fishing, and marine animals.
A result of these beliefs is that the Ainu culture emphasizes only taking as much of a given necessity as is needed for life, and giving thanks to the spirit of animals they eat, as well as performing ceremonies to “send back” the spirits of killed animals. The importance of Kim-un Kamuy appears in the bear-worship aspects of Ainu culture — a facet that is shared with several other indigenous peoples around the world. Some Ainu converted to Shinto or Buddhism during the assimilation drive, and some of the northernmost Ainu were converted by the Russian Orthodox Church, but many of the remaining Ainu still embrace and uphold traditional beliefs and practices.
6. The Ainu aren’t only in Japan
While Japan has recently recognized the Ainu as a distinct, indigenous ethnic group within the country, the Ainu have ties to other territories outside of Japan as well. The Japanese government estimates only about 24,000 Ainu people in Hokkaido and some 10,000 in Tokyo, but given the assimilation of the ethnic group and some intermarriages, there could be as many as 200,000 Ainu altogether in Japan.
One possibly surprising home for the Ainu outside of the archipelago is Russia. A group of Kuril Ainu relocated to Kamchatka in the late 19th century after Russia ceded the Kuril islands to Japan in a treaty. Since then, populations have wavered — and there is some uncertainty on the numbers, considering that a great deal of intermarriage has occurred in the intervening time — but as of a 2010 census, there were over 100 Ainu in Russia. Less official surveys place the number between 205 and upwards — most of the 888 Japanese who lived in Russian territory in the 2010 census had mixed Japanese-Ainu ancestry — but it’s hard to truly know, because of Soviet-era laws banning the documentation of Ainu people.
5. Ainu children traditionally don’t get “real” names until 2 or 3 years old
While, again, practices can vary amongst modern Ainu — especially those who have assimilated more into Japanese culture — newborns in traditional Ainu culture are only given temporary names, and the nature of those names is not generally very complimentary.
In order to deter spirits associated with bad health and misfortune, temporary names given to babies include such as “ayay” (the onomatopoeia for infant crying), “shipo”, “poyshi” (small excrement), “shion” (old excrement) and so on; “old” is a common portion of the name, to fool the bad spirits. When the child reaches two or three years old, they are given a permanent name — generally based on their behavior, habits, or wishes that the parents have for the child’s future.
4. The Ainu language is in danger of going extinct
As mentioned before, from the late 19th through most of the 20th century, the Japanese government attempted to force the Ainu to assimilate into mainstream Japanese culture. One method of doing this was to effectively ban the Ainu language by sending children to schools where they were only permitted to learn Japanese. A foreseeable result of this is the eventual loss of the language–along with the oral histories of many Ainu groups — over time.
UNESCO classifies the Ainu language as endangered, with several of the documented dialects already extinct. In 1997 the Japanese government passed the Ainu Cultural Promotion Act, which allowed for the development of Ainu language courses. Other efforts have included the development of a written version of Ainu using a specialized katakana for the purpose of writing dictionaries and other resources, as well as radio programming in Ainu.
Unfortunately, the number of people for whom Ainu dialects are a first language continues to shrink, even as more people have been working to learn it as a second language. While estimates vary, the consensus is that there are fewer than 100 people who speak Ainu as a first language, and possibly fewer than 50. To this day, in spite of more recent laws aimed at preserving Ainu culture, Hokkaido schools do not offer schooling in Ainu — there are still only optional classes available for people to take throughout the country.
3. Ainu traditionally hunted with custom-poisoned spears and arrows
While methods have updated somewhat in recent times, traditionally the Ainu hunted from late autumn to early summer — the rest of the year, fishing and plant gathering were the order of the day. The animals that the Ainu hunt include bears, Ezo deer, rabbit, fox, raccoon dog, and various birds including sea eagles. Of course, some of these targets are dangerous indeed to the people hunting them; so the Ainu developed useful poison to coat the tips of their spears and arrows.
Many indigenous groups have similar practices; taking poisonous substances, generally from plants, and putting them to use to make hunting easier or more efficient. The Ainu’s poison of choice is called surku, and is brewed up from aconite plants native to the areas where the Ainu live. According to a 1901 article on the hunting practices of the Ainu, “The roots were dug up in the spring and peeled and put in the sun to dry. When this had been thoroughly done, the men ground and mashed them into pulp between two stones. They then soaked some tobacco and capsicums in water, and moistened the pulp with the liquor, adding thereto a little foxes’ gall. It was then again put to dry, and by and by rewetted with the liquor; but this time some of the hunters first pulverised it, and then added a poisonous kind of spider thereto. Some of them, it is said, used to bury the poison in the earth for a few days, but others did not do so.” Different families used different recipes and combinations, passing down the tradition from one generation to another.
2.. The Ainu have faced historically terrible discrimination
Indigenous peoples around the world have long faced horrible treatment from colonization and invasion, and the Ainu are no different. For a long time, mainstream Japanese traded with the Ainu for a variety of goods; but once the Japanese government began the process of modernizing the country, they regarded the Ainu (along with many other indigenous groups) as an embarrassment. The result of this was that it became increasingly difficult for the Ainu to maintain their culture on multiple fronts: the Ainu were banned from their traditional hunting and fishing practices and forcefully enlisted in agricultural labor, their children were taken to schools farther away where they would only be allowed to learn Japanese, and Hokkaido was taken over by the Japanese government, annexed and brought into the broader country.
Even Ainu names were effectively banned, with Japan forcing the Ainu to adopt Japanese names. The perception of Ainu — who were largely assimilated into society as low-class laborers — as dirty, lazy, and backwards or primitive continues in spite of efforts to increase respect and dignity for the indigenous groups. The Ainu community in Hokkaido in 1993 received welfare payments at a 2.3 times higher rate, had an 8.9% lower enrollment rate from junior high school to high school and a 15.7% lower enrollment into college from high school than that of Hokkaido as a whole — and as of 2009 the gap hasn’t appreciably closed.
1. The Ainu people were nearly wiped out in the 19th and 20th centuries
In light of the horrible discrimination that the Ainu faced, it makes sense that the indigenous cultures found it very difficult to sustain themselves. Even before the efforts at assimilating the Ainu into Japanese culture, the government insisted that there were very few Ainu; and they weren’t entirely wrong. The population of Ainu people has always been smaller than Wajin Japanese, and assimilation efforts only cut deeper and deeper into the numbers. Studies suggest that a large number of mainland Japanese people have Ainu ancestors, but many don’t know — precisely because of the efforts on the part of the Japanese government to stamp out the Ainu culture.
During the Edo period, the Ainu were numbered at 26,800 in Hokkaido alone, with other censuses capturing smaller groups in Russian territories and other islands. At varying points in history there have been up to approximately 80,000 Ainu living in Japan; but through the efforts following the conquest of Hokkaido and other territories, cultural ties were cut and many Ainu also died from infectious disease–much as has happened with indigenous cultures in the Americas and around the world. Several subgroups of Ainu are effectively extinct: the Tohoku Ainu in the 17th century, Northern Kuril Ainu in the 20th century, Southern Kuril Ainu in 1973, and in Russia the Kamchatka Ainu in the 18th century and the Amur Valley Ainu in the 20th century. The Sakhalin Ainu were down to 100 members in the last official count in 1949. As of now the major population centers for Ainu people are in Hokkaido and — strangely enough — Tokyo.
Japan’s Ainu people are not merely a historical curiosity, although efforts on the part of the past Japanese government to erase the indigenous culture nearly succeeded. While many consider Japan to be almost entirely ethnically homogenous, there are a number of indigenous cultures that have lived on the archipelago and continue to have descendants — both known and unknown — in contemporary Japanese society. The Ainu have fought long and hard to receive proper recognition of their status as a distinct culture, and to protect their history and traditions. While the Ainu may never be large in numbers, their unique culture will continue to intrigue and interest people from around the world.