Ainu people

For the ethnic group of western China, see Äynu people.

Group of Ainu people, 1902 photograph
Total population
(The official Japanese government estimate is 25,000, although this number has been disputed with unofficial estimates of upwards of 200,000.[1]
109 (Russian Census of 2010)[2])
Regions with significant populations
 Japan 25,000–200,000


 Kamchatka Krai: 94–900[3]
Historically Ainu and other Ainu languages; today, most Ainu speak Japanese or Russian.[4]
Animism, Buddhism, Russian Orthodox Christianity, Atheism
Related ethnic groups
Kamchadal, Ryukyuan people,[5]Yamato people

The Ainu or the Aynu (Ainu アィヌ Aynu; Japanese: アイヌ Ainu; Russian: Айны Ajny), in the historical Japanese texts Ezo/Emishi/Ebisu (蝦夷) or Ainu (アイヌ) are an indigenous people of Japan (Hokkaido, and formerly northeastern Honshu) and Russia (Sakhalin, the Kuril Islands and formerly the Kamchatka Peninsula).[6]

Many Ainu today have been completely assimilated into Japanese identity. The official number of the Ainu is 25,000, but unofficially is estimated at 200,000, (a fifth of a million), due to the fact that many Ainu have been so completely assimilated into Japanese society as to have no knowledge of their ancestry.


A group of Ainu people (between 1863 and early 1870s)


Recent research suggests that Ainu culture originated in a merger of the Okhotsk and Satsumon cultures.[7] In 1264, Ainu invaded the land of Nivkh people controlled by the Yuan Dynasty of Mongolia, resulting in battles between Ainu and the Chinese.[8] Active contact between the Wajin (the ethnically Japanese) and the Ainu of Ezochi (now known as Hokkaido) began in the 13th century.[9] The Ainu formed a society of hunter-gatherers, living mainly by hunting and fishing, and the people followed a religion based on natural phenomena.[10]

During the Muromachi period (1336–1573), the disputes between Japanese and Ainu eventually developed into a war. Takeda Nobuhiro killed the Ainu leader, Koshamain. Many Ainu were subject to Japanese rule which led to violent Ainu revolt such as Koshamain's Revolt (ja:コシャマインの戦い) in 1456.

During the Edo period (1601–1868) the Ainu, who controlled the northern island that is now called Hokkaido,became increasingly involved in trade with Japanese. The Tokugawa bakufu (feudal government) granted the Matsumae clan exclusive rights to trade with the Ainu in the northern part of the island. Later the Matsumae began to lease out trading rights to Japanese merchants, and contact between Japanese and Ainu became more extensive. Throughout this period Ainu became increasingly dependent on goods imported by the Japanese, and suffered from epidemic diseases such as smallpox.[11] Although the increased contact brought by trade between the Japanese and the Ainu contributed to increased mutual understanding, sometimes it led to conflict, occasionally intensifying into violent Ainu revolts, of which the most important was Shakushain's Revolt (1669–1672), an Ainu rebellion against Japanese authority. Another large-scale revolt by Ainu against Japanese rule was the Menashi-Kunashir Battle in 1789.

Meiji Restoration and later

In the 18th century there were 80,000 Ainu.[12] In 1868 there were about 15,000 Ainu in Hokkaido, 2000 in Sakhalin, and around 100 in the Kuril islands.[13]

Metropolitan magazine reported, "Many Ainu were forced to work, essentially as slaves, for Wajin (ethnic Japanese), resulting in the breakup of families and the introduction of smallpox, measles, cholera and tuberculosis into their community. In 1869, the new Meiji government renamed Ezo as Hokkaido and unilaterally incorporated it into Japan. It banned the Ainu language, took Ainu land away, and prohibited salmon fishing and deer hunting."

The beginning of the Meiji Restoration in 1868 proved a turning point for Ainu culture. The Japanese government introduced a variety of social, political and economic reforms in hope of modernizing the country in the Western style. One innovation involved the annexation of Hokkaido. Sjöberg quotes Baba's (1980) account of the Japanese government's reasoning:[11]

" … The development of Japan's large northern island had several objectives: First, it was seen as a means to defend Japan from a rapidly developing and expansionist Russia. Second … it offered a solution to the unemployment for the former samurai class … Finally, development promised to yield the needed natural resources for a growing capitalist economy."[14]

In 1899 the Japanese government passed an act labelling the Ainu as "former aborigines", with the idea they would assimilate—this resulted in the Japanese government taking the land where the Ainu people lived and placing it from then on under Japanese control.[15] Also at this time, the Ainu were granted automatic Japanese citizenship, effectively denying them the status of an indigenous group.

Ainu bear sacrifice. Japanese scroll painting, c.1870.

The Ainu were becoming increasingly marginalized on their own land—over a period of only 36 years, the Ainu went from being a relatively isolated group of people to having their land, language, religion and customs assimilated into those of the Japanese.[16] In addition to this, the land the Ainu lived on was distributed to the Wajin who had decided to move to Hokkaido, encouraged by the Japanese government of the Meiji era to take advantage of the island’s abundant natural resources, and to create and maintain farms in the model of Western industrial agriculture. While at the time the process was openly referred to as colonization ("takushoku" 拓殖), the notion was later reframed by Japanese elites to the currently common usage "kaitaku" (開拓), which instead conveys a sense of opening up or reclamation of the Ainu lands.[17] As well as this, factories such as flour mills and beer breweries and mining practices resulted in the creation of infrastructure such as roads and railway lines, during a development period that lasted until 1904.[18] During this time the Ainu were forced to learn Japanese, required to adopt Japanese names, and ordered to cease religious practices such as animal sacrifice and the custom of tattooing.[19]

The 1899 act mentioned above was replaced in 1997—until then the government had stated there were no ethnic minority groups.[7] It was not until June 6, 2008, that Japan formally recognised the Ainu as an indigenous group (see Official Recognition, below).[7]

The Oki Dub Ainu Band, led by the Ainu Japanese musician Oki, in Germany in 2007.

Intermarriage between Japanese and Ainu was actively promoted by the Ainu to lessen the chances of discrimination against their offspring. As a result, many Ainu are indistinguishable from their Japanese neighbors, but some Ainu-Japanese are interested in traditional Ainu culture. For example, Oki, born as a child of an Ainu father and a Japanese mother, became a musician who plays the traditional Ainu instrument tonkori.[20] There are also many small towns in the southeastern or Hidaka region where ethnic Ainu live such as in Nibutani (Ainu: Niputay). Many live in Sambutsu especially, on the eastern coast. In 1966 the number of "pure" Ainu was about 300 (Honna, Tajima, and Minamoto, 2000).

Their most widely known ethnonym is derived from the word ainu, which means "human" (particularly as opposed to kamui, divine beings), basically neither ethnicity nor the name of a race, in the Hokkaido dialects of the Ainu language. Ainu is the word Ainu identify themselves as from their first male ancestor Aioina; Ainu means human in the Ainu language. Ainu also identify themselves as Utari (comrade in the Ainu language). Official documents use both names.

Official recognition in Japan

Map of Ainu in Hokkaido

On June 6, 2008, the Japanese Diet passed a bipartisan, non-binding resolution calling upon the government to recognize the Ainu people as indigenous to Japan, and urging an end to discrimination against the group. The resolution recognised the Ainu people as "an indigenous people with a distinct language, religion and culture". The government immediately followed with a statement acknowledging its recognition, stating, "The government would like to solemnly accept the historical fact that many Ainu were discriminated against and forced into poverty with the advancement of modernization, despite being legally equal to (Japanese) people."[16][21]

Official recognition in Russia

Main article: Ainu in Russia

As a result of the Treaty of Saint Petersburg (1875), the Kuril Islands – along with their Ainu inhabitants – came under Japanese administration. A total of 83 North Kuril Ainu arrived in Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky on September 18, 1877, after they decided to remain under Russian rule. They refused the offer by Russian officials to move to new reservations in the Commander Islands. Finally a deal was reached in 1881 and the Ainu decided to settle in the village of Yavin. In March 1881, the group left Petropavlovsk and started the journey towards Yavin on foot. Four months later they arrived at their new homes. Another village, Golygino, was founded later. Under Soviet rule, both the villages were forced to disband and residents were moved to the Russian-dominated Zaporozhye rural settlement in Ust-Bolsheretsky Raion.[22] As a result of intermarriage, the three ethnic groups assimilated to form the Kamchadal community. In 1953, K. Omelchenko, the minister for the protection of military and state secrets in the USSR, banned the press from publishing any more information on the Ainu living in the USSR. This order was revoked after two decades.[23]

Ainu hunters, 19th century

As of 2015, the North Kuril Ainu of Zaporozhye form the largest Ainu subgroup in Russia. The Nakamura clan (South Kuril Ainu on their paternal side), the smallest group, numbers just 6 people residing in Petropavlovsk. On Sakhalin island, a few dozen people identify themselves as Sakhalin Ainu, but many more with partial Ainu ancestry do not acknowledge it. Most of the 888 Japanese people living in Russia (2010 Census) are of mixed Japanese-Ainu ancestry, although they do not acknowledge it (full Japanese ancestry gives them the right of visa-free entry to Japan[24]). Similarly, no one identifies themselves as Amur Valley Ainu, although people with partial descent live in Khabarovsk. There is no evidence of living descendants of the Kamchatka Ainu.

In the 2010 Census of Russia, close to 100 people tried to register themselves as ethnic Ainu in the village, but the governing council of Kamchatka Krai rejected their claim and enrolled them as ethnic Kamchadal.[25][26] In 2011, the leader of the Ainu community in Kamchatka, Alexei Vladimirovich Nakamura, requested that Vladimir Ilyukhin (Governor of Kamchatka) and Boris Nevzorov (Chairman of the State Duma) include the Ainu in the central list of the Indigenous small-numbered peoples of the North, Siberia and the Far East. This request was also turned down.[27]

Ethnic Ainu living in Sakhalin Oblast and Khabarovsk Krai are not organized politically. According to Alexei Nakamura, as of 2012 only 205 Ainu live in Russia (up from just 12 people who self-identified as Ainu in 2008) and they along with the Kurile Kamchadals (Itelmen of Kuril islands) are fighting for official recognition.[28][29] Since the Ainu are not recognized in the official list of the peoples living in Russia, they are counted as people without nationality or as ethnic Russians or Kamchadal.[30]

The Ainu have emphasized that they were the natives of the Kuril islands and that the Japanese and Russians were both invaders.[31] In 2004, the small Ainu community living in Russia in Kamchatka Krai wrote a letter to Vladimir Putin, urging him to reconsider any move to award the Southern Kuril Islands to Japan. In the letter they blamed both the Japanese, the Tsarist Russians and the Soviets for crimes against the Ainu such as killings and assimilation, and also urged him to recognize the Japanese genocide against the Ainu people, which was turned down by Putin.[32]

As of 2012 both the Kurile Ainu and Kurile Kamchadal ethnic groups lack the fishing and hunting rights which the Russian government grants to the indigenous tribal communities of the far north.[33][34]


Ainu man, circa 1880.
John Batchelor took a picture of this Ainu man who Batchelor said had body hair completely covering his body.

The Ainu have often been considered to descend from the Jōmon people, who lived in Japan from the Jōmon period.[35] One of their Yukar Upopo, or legends, tells that "The Ainu lived in this place a hundred thousand years before the Children of the Sun came".[36]

Recent research suggests that the historical Ainu culture originated in a merger of the Okhotsk culture with the Satsumon, one of the ancient archaeological cultures that are considered to have derived from the Jōmon period cultures of the Japanese Archipelago.[37][38] Their economy was based on farming, as well as hunting, fishing and gathering.[39]

Full-blooded Ainu, compared to people of Yamato descent, often have lighter skin and more body hair.[40] Many early investigators proposed a Caucasian ancestry,[41] although recent DNA tests have not shown any genetic similarity with modern Europeans. Cavalli-Sforza places the Ainu in his “Northeast and East Asian" genetic cluster.[42]

Anthropologist Joseph Powell of the University of New Mexico wrote "...we follow Brace and Hunt (1990) and Turner (1990) in viewing the Ainu as a southeast Asian population derived from early Jomon peoples of Japan, who have their closest biological affinity with south Asians rather than western Eurasia peoples".[43]

Ainu men often have heavy beards.
Ainu woman with mouth tattoos and live bear

Mark J. Hudson, Professor of Anthropology at Nishikyushu University, Kanzaki, Saga, Japan, said Japan was settled by a "Proto-Mongoloid" population in the Pleistocene who became the Jōmon and their features can be seen in the Ainu and Okinawan people.[44]

In 1893, Anthropologist Arnold Henry Savage Landor described the Ainu as having deep-set eyes and an eye shape typical of Europeans, with a large and prominent browridge, large ears, hairy and prone to baldness, slightly flattened hook nose with large and broad nostrils, prominent cheek bones, large mouth and thick lips and a long region from nose to mouth and small chin region.[45]

Omoto has also shown that the Ainu are Mongoloid, and not Caucasoid, on the basis of fingerprints and dental morphology.[46]

Turner found remains of Jōmon people of Japan to belong to Sundadont pattern similar with the Southern Mongoloid living populations of Taiwanese aborigines, Filipinos, Indonesians, Thais, Borneans, Laotians, and Malaysians.

Distribution of sinodonts and sundadonts in Asia, shown by yellow and red. Also shown are australoids, indicated by A, and negritos, indicated by N.[47]

Ainu men have abundant, wavy hair and often have long beards.[48] The book of "Ainu life and legends" by author Kyōsuke Kindaichi (published by the Japanese Tourist Board in 1942) contains the physical description of Ainu: "Many have wavy hair, but some straight black hair. Very few of them have wavy brownish hair. Their skins are generally reported to be light brown. But this is due to the fact that they labor on the sea and in briny winds all day. Old people who have long desisted from their outdoor work are often found to be as white as western men. The Ainu have broad faces, beetling eyebrows, and large sunken eyes, which are generally horizontal and of the so-called European type. Eyes of the Mongolian type are hardly found among them."

1843 illustration of Ainu

Genetic testing has shown them to belong mainly to Y-haplogroup D-M55.[49] Y-DNA haplogroup D2 is found frequently throughout the Japanese Archipelago including Okinawa. The only places outside Japan in which Y-haplogroup D is common are Tibet in China and the Andaman Islands in the Indian Ocean.[50]

1862 illustration of Ainu (left) and Nivkhs

In a study by Tajima et al. (2004), two out of a sample of sixteen (or 12.5%) Ainu men have been found to belong to Haplogroup C-M217, which is the most common Y-chromosome haplogroup among the indigenous populations of Siberia and Mongolia.[49] Hammer et al. (2006) have tested a sample of four Ainu men and have found that one of them belongs to haplogroup C-M217.[51] Some researchers have speculated that this minority of Haplogroup C-M217 carriers among the Ainu may reflect a certain degree of unidirectional genetic influence from the Nivkhs, a traditionally nomadic people of northern Sakhalin and the adjacent mainland, with whom the Ainu have long-standing cultural interactions.[49]

Based on analysis of one sample of 51 modern Ainus, their mtDNA lineages have been reported to consist mainly of haplogroup Y (11/51 = 21.6% according to Tanaka et al. 2004, or 10/51 = 19.6% according to Adachi et al. 2009, who have cited Tajima et al. 2004), haplogroup D (9/51 = 17.6%, particularly D4(xD1)), haplogroup M7a (8/51 = 15.7%), and haplogroup G1 (8/51 = 15.7%).[49][52][53] Other mtDNA haplogroups detected in this sample include A (2/51), M7b2 (2/51), N9b (1/51), B4f (1/51), F1b (1/51), and M9a (1/51). Most of the remaining individuals in this sample have been classified definitively only as belonging to macro-haplogroup M.[52] According to Sato et al. (2009), who have studied the mtDNA of the same sample of modern Ainus (n=51), the major haplogroups of the Ainu are N9 (14/51 = 27.5%, including 10/51 Y and 4/51 N9(xY)), D (12/51 = 23.5%, including 8/51 D(xD5) and 4/51 D5), M7 (10/51 = 19.6%), and G (10/51 = 19.6%, including 8/51 G1 and 2/51 G2); the minor haplogroups are A (2/51), B (1/51), F (1/51), and M(xM7, M8, CZ, D, G) (1/51).[54] Studies published in 2004 and 2007 show the combined frequency of M7a and N9b were observed in Jomons and which are believed by some to be Jomon maternal contribution at 28% in Okinawans (7/50 M7a1, 6/50 M7a(xM7a1), 1/50 N9b), 17.6% in Ainus (8/51 M7a(xM7a1), 1/51 N9b), and from 10% (97/1312 M7a(xM7a1), 1/1312 M7a1, 28/1312 N9b) to 17% (15/100 M7a1, 2/100 M7a(xM7a1)) in mainstream Japanese.[55][56]

A recent reevaluation of cranial traits suggests that the Ainu resemble the Okhotsk more than they do the Jōmon.[57] This agrees with the reference to the Ainu being a merger of Okhotsk and Satsumon referenced above.


Historical expanse of Ainu

The Ainu were distributed in the northern and central islands of Japan, from Sakhalin island in the north to the Kuril Islands and the island of Hokkaido and Northern Honshū, although some investigators place their former range as throughout Honshū. Others place them as far north as the southern tip of the Kamchatka Peninsula in what is now Cape Lopatka.[6] The island of Hokkaido was known to the Ainu as Ainu Moshir, and was formally annexed by the Japanese at the late date of 1868, partly as a means of preventing the intrusion of the Russians, and partly for imperialist reasons.

A group of Sakhalin Ainu c. 1903

According to the Russian Empire Census of 1897, 1,446 persons in the Russian Empire reported Ainu language as their mother tongue, 1,434 of them in Sakhalin Island.[58]

The southern half of Sakhalin was acquired by Japan as a result of the Russo-Japanese War of 1904–05, but at the end of World War II in 1945, the Soviets declared war on Japan and took possession of the Kuril islands and southern Sakhalin. The Ainu population, as previously Japanese subjects, were "repatriated" to Japan.

During Tsarist times, the Ainu living in Russia were forbidden from identifying themselves as such, since Imperial Japanese officials claimed that all the regions inhabited by the Ainu in the past or present belonged to Japan. The terms "Kurile", "Kamchatka Kurile", etc., were used to identify the ethnic group. During Soviet times, people with Ainu surnames were sent to gulags and labor camps, as they were often mistaken for Japanese. As a result, large numbers of Ainu changed their surnames to Slavic ones. After World War II, most of the Ainu living in Sakhalin were deported to Japan. Of the 1,159 Ainu, only around 100 remained in Russia. Of those who remained, only the elderly were full-blooded Ainu. Others were either mixed race or married to ethnic Russians. The last of the Ainu households disappeared in the late 1960s, when Yamanaka Kitaro killed himself after the death of his wife. The couple was childless.[59] To eradicate Ainu identity, Soviet authorities removed the ethnic group from the list of nationalities which could be mentioned in a Soviet passport. Due to this, children born after 1945 were not able to identify themselves as Ainu. The last known deportation of Ainu to Japan occurred in 1982, when Keizo Nakamura, a full blooded Northern Kuril Ainu, was deported to Hokkaido after serving 15 years' hard labor in the province of Magadan. His wife, Tamara Timofeevna Pikhteevoi, was of mixed Sakhalin Ainu and Gilyak ancestry. After the arrest of Keizo in 1967, Tamara and her son Alexei Nakamura were expelled from Kamchatka Krai and sent to the island of Sakhalin, to live in the city of Tomari.

Ainus on a Matsumae border customs, 18th century

Unlike the other Ainu clans currently living in Russia, there is considerable doubt whether the Nakamura clan of Kamchatka should be identified as Northern Kuril Ainu, Southern Kuril Ainu or as Kamchatka Ainu. This is due to the fact that the clan originally immigrated to Kamchatka from Kunashir in 1789. The Ainu of Kunashir are South Kuril Ainu. They settled down near Kurile Lake, which was inhabited by the Kamchatka Ainu and North Kuril Ainu. In 1929 the Ainu of Kurile Lake fled to the island of Paramushir after an armed conflict with the Soviet authorities. At that time, Paramushir was under Japanese rule. During the Invasion of the Kuril Islands, Akira Nakamura (b. 1897) was captured by the Soviet army and his elder son Takeshi Nakamura (1925–45) was killed in the battle. Akira's only surviving son, Keizo (b. 1927), was taken prisoner and joined the Soviet Army after his capture. After the war, Keizo went to Korsakov to work in the local harbor. In 1963 he married Tamara Pikhtivoi, a member of the Sakhalin Ainu tribe. Their only child Alexei was born in 1964. The descendants of Tamara and Alexei are found in Kamchatka and Sakhalin.

In 1979 the USSR removed the term "Ainu" from the list of living ethnic groups of Russia, an act by which the government proclaimed that the Ainu as an ethnic group were extinct in its territory. According to the 2002 Russian Federation census, no respondents gave the ethnonym Ainu in boxes 7 or 9.2 in the K-1 form of the census,[60][61][62] though some still might exist. During the 2010 Census of Russia, the authorities rejected the claim from a group of mostly mixed race Ainu living in Kamchatka that they were not extinct.

The only Ainu speakers remaining (besides perhaps a few partial speakers) live solely in Japan. There, they are concentrated primarily on the southern and eastern coasts of the island of Hokkaido.

Due to intermarriage with the Japanese and ongoing absorption into the predominant culture, there are no truly Ainu settlements existing in Japan today. The town of Nibutani (Ainu: Niputay) in Hidaka area (Hokkaido prefecture) has a number of Ainu households and a visit to some of the Ainu owned craft shops close to the Ainu museums (there are two of them in Nibutani) is an opportunity to interact with the Ainu people. Many "authentic Ainu villages" advertised in Hokkaido such as Akan and Shiraoi are tourist attractions and provide an opportunity to see and meet Ainu people.


Main article: Ainu languages

Today, it is estimated that fewer than 100 speakers of the language remain,[63] while other research places the number at fewer than 15 speakers. The language has been classified as “endangered”.[64] As a result of this the study of the Ainu language is limited and is based largely on historical research.

Although there have been attempts to show that the Ainu language and the Japanese language are related, modern scholars have rejected that the relationship goes beyond contact, such as the mutual borrowing of words between Japanese and Ainu. In fact, no attempt to show a relationship with Ainu to any other language has gained wide acceptance, and Ainu is currently considered to be a language isolate.[65]

Words used as prepositions in English (such as to, from, by, in, and at) are postpositional in Ainu; they come after the word that they modify. A single sentence in Ainu can be made up of many added or agglutinated sounds or affixes that represent nouns or ideas.

The Ainu language has had no system of writing, and has historically been transliterated by the Japanese kana or Russian Cyrillic. Today, it is typically written in either katakana or Latin alphabet. The unwieldy nature of the Japanese kana with its inability to accurately represent coda consonants has contributed to the degradation of the original Ainu. For example, some words, such as Kor (meaning "to hold"), are now pronounced with a terminal vowel sound, as in Koro.

Many of the Ainu dialects, even from one end of Hokkaido to the other, were not mutually intelligible; however, the classic Ainu language of the Yukar, or Ainu epic stories, was understood by all. Without a writing system, the Ainu were masters of narration, with the Yukar and other forms of narration such as the Uepeker (Uwepeker) tales, being committed to memory and related at gatherings, often lasting many hours or even days.[66]


Main articles: Ainu cuisine, Ainu music, and Yukar
Woman playing a tonkori
Ainu ceremonial dress. British Museum.

Traditional Ainu culture was quite different from Japanese culture. Never shaving after a certain age, the men had full beards and moustaches. Men and women alike cut their hair level with the shoulders at the sides of the head, trimmed semicircularly behind. The women tattooed their mouths, and sometimes the forearms. The mouth tattoos were started at a young age with a small spot on the upper lip, gradually increasing with size. The soot deposited on a pot hung over a fire of birch bark was used for color. Their traditional dress was a robe spun from the inner bark of the elm tree, called attusi or attush. Various styles were made, and consisted generally of a simple short robe with straight sleeves, which was folded around the body, and tied with a band about the waist. The sleeves ended at the wrist or forearm and the length generally was to the calves. Women also wore an undergarment of Japanese cloth.[67]

Modern craftswomen weave and embroider traditional garments that command very high prices. In winter the skins of animals were worn, with leggings of deerskin and in Sakhalin, boots were made from the skin of dogs or salmon.[68] Both sexes are fond of earrings, which are said to have been made of grapevine in former times, as also are bead necklaces called tamasay, which the women prized highly.[67]

Their traditional cuisine consists of the flesh of bear, fox, wolf, badger, ox, or horse, as well as fish, fowl, millet, vegetables, herbs, and roots. They never ate raw fish or flesh; it was always boiled or roasted.[67]

Their traditional habitations were reed-thatched huts, the largest 20 ft (6 m) square, without partitions and having a fireplace in the center. There was no chimney, only a hole at the angle of the roof; there was one window on the eastern side and there were two doors. The house of the village head was used as a public meeting place when one was needed.[67]

Instead of using furniture, they sat on the floor, which was covered with two layers of mats, one of rush, the other of a water plant with long sword shaped leaves (Iris pseudacorus; and for beds they spread planks, hanging mats around them on poles, and employing skins for coverlets. The men used chopsticks when eating; the women had wooden spoons.[67] Ainu cuisine is not commonly eaten outside Ainu communities; there are only a few Ainu-run restaurants in Japan, all located in Tokyo or Hokkaido, serving primarily Japanese fare.

The functions of judgeship were not entrusted to chiefs; an indefinite number of a community's members sat in judgment upon its criminals. Capital punishment did not exist, nor did the community resort to imprisonment. Beating was considered a sufficient and final penalty. However, in the case of murder, the nose and ears of the culprit were cut off or the tendons of his feet severed.[67]


Bear hunting, 19th century

The Ainu hunted from late autumn to early summer. The reasons for this were, among others, that in late autumn, plant gathering, salmon fishing and other activities of securing food came to an end, and hunters readily found game in fields and mountains in which plants had withered. A village possessed a hunting ground of its own or several villages used a joint hunting territory (iwor). Heavy penalties were imposed on any outsiders trespassing on such hunting grounds or joint hunting territory. The Ainu hunted bear, Ezo deer (a subspecies of sika deer), rabbit, fox, raccoon dog, and other animals. Ezo deer were a particularly important food resource for the Ainu as were salmon. They also hunted sea eagles such as white-tailed sea eagles, raven and other birds. The Ainu hunted eagles to obtain their tail feathers, which they used in trade with the Japanese. The Ainu hunted with arrows and spears with poison-coated points. They obtained the poison, called surku, from the roots and stalks of aconites. The recipe for this poison was a household secret that differed from family to family. They enhanced the poison with mixtures of roots and stalks of dog's bane, boiled juice of Mekuragumo, Matsumomushi, tobacco, and other ingredients. They also used stingray stingers or skin covering stingers. They hunted in groups with dogs. Before the Ainu went hunting, for animals like bear in particular, they prayed to the god of fire and the house guardian god to convey their wishes for a large catch, and safe hunting to the god of mountains.

The Ainu usually hunted bear during the time of the spring thaw. At that time bears were weak because they had not fed at all during long hibernation. Ainu hunters caught hibernating bears or bears that had just left hibernation dens. When they hunted bear in summer, they used a spring trap loaded with an arrow, called an amappo. The Ainu usually used arrows to hunt deer. Also, they drove deer into a river or sea and shot them with arrows. For a large catch, a whole village would drive a herd of deer off a cliff and club them to death.


Further information: Ainu creation myth and Koshintō
Ainu traditional ceremony, circa 1930

The Ainu are traditionally animists, believing that everything in nature has a kamuy (spirit or god) on the inside. The most important include Kamuy Fuchi, goddess of the hearth, Kim-un Kamuy, god of bears and mountains, and Repun Kamuy, god of the sea, fishing, and marine animals.

The Ainu have no priests by profession; instead the village chief performs whatever religious ceremonies are necessary. Ceremonies are confined to making libations of sake, uttering prayers, and offering willow sticks with wooden shavings attached to them.[67] These sticks are called inaw (singular) and nusa (plural).

They are placed on an altar used to "send back" the spirits of killed animals. Ainu ceremonies for sending back bears are called Iyomante. The Ainu people give thanks to the gods before eating and pray to the deity of fire in time of sickness. They believe their spirits are immortal, and that their spirits will be rewarded hereafter by ascending to kamuy mosir (Land of the Gods).[67]

The Ainu are part of a larger collective of indigenous people who practice "arctolatry" or bear worship. The Ainu believe the bear is very special because they think the bear is Kim-un Kamuy's way of delivering the gift of bear hide and meat to humans.

Ainu assimilated into mainstream Japanese society have adopted Buddhism with Shinto influences, while some northern Ainu are members of the Russian Orthodox Church.


Men wore a crown called "sapanpe" for important ceremonies. Sapanpe was made from wood fiber with bundles of partially shaved wood. This crown had wooden figures of animal gods and other ornaments on its center. Men carried an emush (sword) secured by an "emush at" strap to their shoulders.

Women wore matanpushi, embroidered headbands, and ninkari, earrings. Ninkari was a metal ring with a ball. Women wore it through a hole in the ear. Matanpushi and ninkari were originally worn by men. However, women wear them now. Furthermore, aprons called maidari now are a part of women's formal clothes. However, some old documents say that men wore maidari.[69] Women sometimes wore a bracelet called tekunkani.[70]

Women wore a necklace called rekutunpe, a long, narrow strip of cloth with metal plaques.[69] They wore a necklace that reached the breast called a tamasay or shitoki, usually made from glass balls. Some glass balls came from trade with the Asian continent. The Ainu also obtained glass balls secretly made by the Matsumae Clan.


Ainu houses (from Popular Science Monthly Volume 33, 1888)
Plan of an Ainu house
The family would gather around the fireplace

A village is called a kotan in the Ainu language. Kotan were located in river basins and seashores where food was readily available, particularly in the basins of rivers through which salmon went upstream. A village consisted basically of a paternal clan. The average number of families was four to seven, rarely reaching more than ten. In the early modern times, the Ainu people were forced to labor at the fishing grounds of the Japanese. Ainu kotan were also forced to move near fishing grounds so that the Japanese could secure a labor force. When the Japanese moved to other fishing grounds, Ainu kotan were also forced to accompany them. As a result, the traditional kotan disappeared and large villages of several dozen families were formed around the fishing grounds.

Cise or cisey (houses) in a kotan were made of cogon grasses, bamboo grass, barks, etc. The length lay east to west or parallel to a river. A house was about seven meters by five with an entrance at the west end that also served as a storeroom. The house had three windows, including the "rorun-puyar," a window located on the side facing the entrance (at the east side), through which gods entered and left and ceremonial tools were taken in and out. The Ainu have regarded this window as sacred and have been told never to look in through it. A house had a fireplace near the entrance. The husband and wife sat on the fireplace's left side (called shiso) . Children and guests sat facing them on the fireplace's right side (called harkiso). The house had a platform for valuables called iyoykir behind the shiso. The Ainu placed shintoko (hokai) and ikayop (quivers) there.

Outbuildings included separate lavatories for men called ashinru and for women called menokoru, a pu (storehouse) for food, a "heper set" (cage for young bear), and drying-racks for fish and wild plants. An altar (nusasan) faced the east side of the house (rorunpuyar). The Ainu held such ceremonies there as Iyomante, a ceremony to send the spirit of a bear to the gods.

Life of Ainu

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. According to some books, many yomeiri marriages, in which a bride went to the house of a bridegroom with her belongings to become a member of his family, were conducted in the old days.

For a yomeiri marriage, a man and his father would bring betrothal gifts to the house of a woman, including a sword, a treasured sword, an ornamental quiver, a sword guard, and a woven basket (hokai). If the man and woman agreed to marry, the man and his father would bring her to their house or the man would stay at her house for a while and then bring her to his house. At the wedding ceremony, participants prayed to the god of fire. Bride and bridegroom respectively ate half of the rice served in a bowl, and other participants were entertained.

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, he/she was 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), 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 behavior 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, 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.


Ainu cultural promotion center and museum, in Sapporo (Sapporo Pirka Kotan)

Most Hokkaido Ainu and some other Ainu are members of an umbrella group called the Hokkaido Utari Association. It was originally controlled by the government to speed Ainu assimilation and integration into the Japanese nation-state. It now is run exclusively by Ainu and operates mostly independently of the government.

Other key institutions include The Foundation for Research and Promotion of Ainu Culture (FRPAC), set up by the Japanese government after enactment of the Ainu Culture Law in 1997, the Hokkaido University Center for Ainu and Indigenous Studies[71] established in 2007, as well as museums and cultural centers. Ainu people living in Tokyo have also developed a vibrant political and cultural community.[72][73]

Current affairs


On March 27, 1997, the Sapporo District Court decided a landmark case that, for the first time in Japanese history, recognized the right of the Ainu people to enjoy their distinct culture and traditions. The case arose because of a 1978 government plan to build two dams in the Saru River watershed in southern Hokkaido. The dams were part of a series of development projects under the Second National Development Plan that were intended to industrialize the north of Japan.[74] The planned location for one of the dams was across the valley floor close to Nibutani village,[75] the home of a large community of Ainu people and an important center of Ainu culture and history.[76] In the early 1980s when the government commenced construction on the dam, two Ainu landowners refused to agree to the expropriation of their land. These landowners were Kaizawa Tadashi and Kayano Shigeru—well-known and important leaders in the Ainu community.[77] After Kaizawa and Kayano declined to sell their land, the Hokkaido Development Bureau applied for and was subsequently granted a Project Authorization, which required the men to vacate their land. When their appeal of the Authorization was denied, Kayano and Kaizawa's son Koichii (Kaizawa died in 1992), filed suit against the Hokkaido Development Bureau.

The final decision denied the relief sought by the plaintiffs for pragmatic reasons—the dam was already standing—but the decision was nonetheless heralded as a landmark victory for the Ainu people. In short, nearly all of the plaintiffs' claims were recognized. Moreover, the decision marked the first time Japanese case law acknowledged the Ainu as an indigenous people and contemplated the responsibility of the Japanese nation to the indigenous people within its borders.[78] The decision included broad fact-finding that underscored the long history of the oppression of the Ainu people by Japan's majority, referred to as Wajin in the case and discussions about the case.[79] The legal roots of the decision can be found in Article 13 of Japan's Constitution, which protects the rights of the individual, and in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.[80][81] The decision was issued on March 27, 1997, and because of the broad implications for Ainu rights, the plaintiffs decided not to appeal the decision, which became final two weeks later. After the decision was issued, on May 8, 1997, the Diet passed the Ainu Culture Law and repealed the Ainu Protection Act—the 1899 law that had been the vehicle of Ainu oppression for almost one hundred years.[82] [83] While the Ainu Culture Law has been widely criticized for its shortcomings, the shift that it represents in Japan's view of the Ainu people is a testament to the importance of the Nibutani decision. In 2007 the 'Cultural Landscape along the Sarugawa River resulting from Ainu Tradition and Modern Settlement' was designated an Important Cultural Landscape.[84] A later action seeking restoration of Ainu assets held in trust by the Japanese Government was dismissed in 2008.[85]

Governmental advisory boards

Much national policy in Japan has been developed out of the action of governmental advisory boards, known as shingikai (審議会) in Japanese. One such committee operated in the late 1990s,[86] and its work resulted in the 1997 Ainu Culture Law.[82] This panel's circumstances were criticized for including not even a single Ainu person among its members.[86]

More recently, a panel was established in 2006, which notably was the first time an Ainu person was included. It completed its work in 2008 issuing a major report that included an extensive historical record and called for substantial government policy changes towards the Ainu.

Formation of Ainu political party

The Ainu Party (アイヌ民族党 Ainu minzoku tō) was founded on January 21, 2012,[87] after a group of Ainu activists in Hokkaido announced the formation of a political party for the Ainu on October 30, 2011. The Ainu Association of Hokkaido reported that Kayano Shiro, the son of the former Ainu leader Kayano Shigeru, will head the party. Their aim is to contribute to the realization of a multicultural and multiethnic society in Japan, along with rights for the Ainu.[88][89]

Standard of Living

The Ainu have historically suffered from economic and social discrimination throughout Japan that continues to this day. The Japanese Government as well as people since contact with the Ainu, have in large part regarded them as a dirty, backwards and a primitive people.[90] The majority of Ainu were forced to be petty laborers during the Meji Restoration, which saw the introduction of Hokkaido into the Japanese Empire and the privatization of traditional Ainu lands.[91] The Japanese government during the 19th and 20th centuries denied the rights of the Ainu to their traditional cultural practices, most notably the right to speak their language, as well as their right to hunt and gather.[92] These policies were designed to fully integrate the Ainu into Japanese society with the cost of erasing Ainu culture and identity. The Ainu’s position as manual laborers and their forced integration into larger Japanese society have led to discriminatory practices by the Japanese government that can still be felt today.[93] This discrimination and negative stereotypes assigned to the Ainu have manifested in the Ainu’s lower levels of education, income levels and participation in the economy as compared to their ethnically Japanese counterparts. The Ainu community in Hokkaido in 1993 received welfare payments at a 2.3 times higher rate, had a 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.[91] The Japanese government has been lobbied by activists to research the Ainu’s standard of living nationwide due to this noticeable and growing gap. The Japanese government will provide ¥7 million beginning in 2015, to conduct surveys nationwide on this matter.[94]


See also: Ainu in Russia
People wearing traditional Ainu clothes in Hokkaido
Sakhalin Ainu men, photographed by Bronisław Piłsudski.
Kuril Ainu people in front of the traditional dwelling.

In popular culture

The Ainu are a playable nation in the grand strategy game Europa Universalis IV.

Nakoruru and her younger sister Rimururu, playable characters in the fighting game series Samurai Showdown, are Ainu.

The character Horohoro and his sister Pirika, from the manga Shaman King, are Ainu.

Satoru Noda is currently penning a manga based on Ainu culture called Golden Kamuy.

The 2013 Japanese film Unforgiven set in Meiji-era Hokkaido prominently features the Ainu culture.

See also

Ainu culture

Ethnic groups in Japan


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References and further reading

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