The Ainu

Japan, like any other nation, is an ocean of diversity, home to multiple minority groups. One of these groups is Japan’s indigenous people, or the Ainu. Don’t be surprised if you haven’t heard of the Ainu. In fact, many Japanese themselves are unaware of the existence of their own country’s indigenous people.

But why? For hundreds of years, the Ainu have been either ignored, discriminated against, or forced to assimilate with mainstream Japanese culture. Obviously, none of these circumstances are favorable for propagating cultural stability or awareness. And unfortunately, this has led the Ainu language and culture to the brink of extinction.

However, with the government’s (long awaited) official recognition of the Ainu as Japan’s indigenous people in 2008, it appears that there has been a revival of Ainu pride among the few Ainu that remain, as they desperately try to preserve what culture they have left.


The Origins of the Ainu

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

Historically, they spoke Ainu and related varieties, though today very few can do so. Most of those who identify themselves as Ainu still live in this same region, though the exact number of living Ainu is unknown. This is due to confusion over mixed heritages and to ethnic issues in Japan resulting in those with Ainu backgrounds hiding their identities. Intermarriage with Japanese has blurred the concept of a pure Ainu ethnic group. Official estimates of the population are of around 25,000, while the unofficial number is upward of 200,000 people.


One Ainu myth claims that “They lived in this place a hundred thousand years before the Children of the Sun came.” It’s interesting that this myth seems consistent with the theory of the Ainu descending from Jomon-jin. More recent research suggests that the historical Ainu culture could have come about through the merging of the Okhotsk culture and the Sastumon, a Jomon group very similar to the Ainu.

In 1899 the Japanese government passed an act labeling 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. Also at this time, the Ainu were granted automatic Japanese citizenship, effectively denying them the status of an indigenous group.

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.  In addition to this, the land the Ainu lived on was distributed to the Wajin who had decided to move to Hokkaido, who had been encouraged by the Japanese government of the Meiji era to take advantage of the island’s abundance of 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.  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.  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.

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

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; Emishi (Ebisu) and Ezo [endzo] (Yezo) (both 蝦夷) are Japanese terms, which are believed to derive from another word for “human”, which otherwise survived in Sakhalin Ainu as enciw or enju. Today, many Ainu dislike the term Ainu because it had once been used with derogatory nuance, and prefer to identify themselves as Utari (comrade in the Ainu language). Official documents use both names.

Official recognition in Japan

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.”


Physically, the Ainu stand out distinctly from the Japanese as a separate ethnic group. Ainu people tend to have light skin, a stout frame, deep-set eyes with a European shape, and thick, wavy hair. Full-blooded Ainu may have even had blue eyes or brown hair. In the past, the Ainu were proposed to be of Caucasian decent, given their appearance, but recently it has been proved through dental morphology and fingerprinting that the Ainu are in fact Mongoloid, not Caucasoid.


Ainu Culture

Ainu Culture

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.


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.[citation needed] 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.

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.


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.


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, whose English names include “water-flag”); 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. 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.


As hunter-gatherers, the Ainu lived off of the land. Common foods included deer, bear, rabbit, fox, salmon, root vegetables, and much more. Unlike the Japanese, the Ainu always cooked their food, never eating anything raw. Common hunting weapons included poisoned spears and bow and arrows.

Ainu Peopl with bear


One way that the Ainu were similar to the Japanese is in the way of religion. The Ainu, just like the Japanese people, were animists and believed that all things are inhabited by spirits known askamuy. While there are many gods in Ainu belief, one of the most important is known as Kim-un Kamuy, or the god of bears and the mountains. All animals are thought to be the manifestations of gods on Earth in Ainu culture, however, the bear is believed to be the head of gods and is therefore known as kamuy, or “God.”

Ainu Ceremony

The Ainu Language: Something Unique

The indigenous language of Japan is, much like the Ainu people, of unknown origins. 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 he 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, orYukar, the language of which is mutually understood by all Ainu groups and is known as Classical Ainu.

Here is an example of a Yukar, or epic story, using Classical Ainu:

In the past, there have been many attempts to place Ainu and Japanese in the same language group, but such claims have been shot down again and again. As of now, there is no widely accepted theory regarding the relationship of Ainu to any other language and it is therefore known as a language isolate.

If you look closely at Japanese and Ainu, it is tempting to conclude the two languages are related, however, there are four features of Ainu that mark it as distinctly different from Japanese:

  1. Person is marked on predicates (person is expressed in predicates)
  2. Ainu is a polysynthetic language (ideas my be expressed through “sentence words”)
  3. There are no verbal inflections (verbs are not changed to express tense)
  4. There are verbal suffixes for plurals (plural forms are expressed in verbs)

One of the most prominent features of Ainu is the fact that it is a polysynthetic language. In other words, Ainu is a language in which main ideas are expressed through words composed of smaller word parts with individual meanings, also known as “sentence words”. A basic example of this would be the Ainu word ku-pirka, meaning “I am good.” A more extreme example would be the Yupik word tuntussuqatarniksaitengqiggtuq which means “He had not yet said again that he was going to hunt reindeer.” Interestingly enough, the polysyntheitic nature of Ainu is very similar to the languages of many North American indigenous groups.

So what does Ainu sound like? To the untrained ear, Ainu might sound a lot like Japanese. Just like Japanese, the Ainu language is an SOV (subject, object, verb) language using the five vowels a, i, u, e, ando. However, Ainu only has twelve consonants, excluding d, b, g from Japanese, and vowels are never elongated. In fact, Ainu does not differentiate between several consonants, such as b and p, and in this way it is more similar to Korean.  Another way in which Ainu is significantly different from modern Japanese is that it avoids vowel sequences. In order to avoid vowels “touching,” semi-vowels such as yor w are inserted between them. Sometimes vowels are even pronounced more like consonants, such as in the word Ainu where the “a” is pronounced with a glottal stop.

If you want to hear recordings of the Ainu language or learn some for yourself, check out this great Ainu talking dictionary.

Revitalizing Indigenous Ainu Spirit

Ainu Performers

For nearly 100 years the Ainu people lived in Japan under a policy of extinction by assimilation. They were forbidden by the Japanese government to practice Ainu customs or even speak their own language in hopes that the Ainu would vanish from the face of the planet, but did they succeed? With so few Ainu speakers left and many Ainu denying their own heritage to avoid discrimination, you might say so, but things seem to be looking up lately for Japan’s indigenous people.

The year 1994 marked a great turning point for the Ainu people, as the first ever Ainu, Shigeru Kayano, entered the Japanese diet. Shigeru dedicated his life to promoting the well-being and awareness of the Ainu people. It was thanks to him as well as other supporters that the law forbidding Ainu culture was lifted in 1997. Since then, government funding and cultural freedom has allowed the Ainu people to start regaining and preserving their precious way of life through Ainu language courses, radio stations, and public performances.

Below is a woman playing the tonkori, a traditional Ainu instrument:

Still more recent landmarks in Ainu history include the official recognition of the Ainu as the indigenous people of Japan in 2008 and the formation of the Ainu political party in 2012. It seems that while there is still some discrimination of the Ainu people, those who rejected their heritage before are beginning to admit it openly or even embrace their identity with pride.  A great example of this is the band known as The Ainu Rebels. This band is a group of proud young Ainu who have mixed hip-hop and traditional Ainu music…

Although the Ainu culture is on the brink of extinction, it seems that more and more effort is going into bringing it back to life. These days, young Ainu such as The Ainu Rebels are doing their best to create a new identity for their people and a Japan more open to minorities


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. The planned location for one of the dams was across the valley floor close to Nibutani village, the home of a large community of Ainu people and an important center of Ainu culture and history. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. A later action seeking restoration of Ainu assets held in trust by the Japanese Government was dismissed in 2008.

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