The Ainu People of Japan

The Ainu are indigenous people in Japan that primarily live in Hokkaido, Sakhalin, and the Kuril Island. The Ainu originally inhabited all four islands of Japan, but were eventually pushed back to those northern islands because of years of colonization from the Japanese people beginning in the 1st millennium CE. They were culturally and distinct from their Japanese neighbors until the second part of the 20th century where even their traditional language was gradually replaced by Japanese overtime. A language-revitalization movement in the 1980s initiated the formal instruction in Ainu in an attempt to bring back the language.

Ainu culture puts great emphasis on nature. They predominantly follow a hunter and gathering that is rooted on a bear’s hunting pattern (in one instance, where bear would eat fish, the local Ainu would eat the fish from that area as well). The bear also played a big role in their Animism religious beliefs: a bear cub would be captured and then raised as a member of the family until the time arrived for it be killed in a ritual; killing it after raising it this way was believed that its spirit would bless its adoptive family.

Despite years of racial discrimination of the Ainu from the Japanese (for reasons relating to the more “hairy” appearances of the Ainu with their prominent facial hair and their contrasting culture with the Japanese), Japan has taken recent measures to improve relations with the Ainu. In 1994, Kayano Shigeru became the first Ainu individual to be elected into the Japanese parliament, and she helped enact various reforms that protected the Ainu. Japan also reversed an 1899 order that racially labeled the Ainu by enacting a new order in 2008 that recognized the Ainu as indigenous people.

Additionally, various museums in Hokkaido aim to preserve the Ainu heritage and inform tourists about their culture and history. The Kawamaru Kaneto Ainu Museum (pictured bottom left) is one such place, where it exhibits various Ainu tools and even an Ainu hut made from bamboo grass. As for other examples, The Ainu Kotan (pictured bottom right) is a shopping street on the island that sells Ainu handicrafts, and the Ainu Folklore Museum along the Lake Kussharo shore highlights various aspects of Ainu life.