Ainu: The Secret History of Northern Japan’s Indigenous People
If you pick up any book on the history of the United States or Australia you are likely to find numerous chapters dedicated to promoting the culture and traditions of those countries’ indigenous peoples. The Aborigines of Australia and the Native Americans have certainly had a difficult past, and have often faced, and continue in some cases to face discrimination, prejudice and a lack of understanding from the ethnic majority.
To most outsiders, Japan would not seem to have such issues. Indeed, in a country that is 97% ethnically Japanese one could be forgiven for thinking that the claims of various right wing politicians down the years that Japan is “an entirely homogenous nation” are indeed true.
However, this is not the case. Whilst the ethnic origin of modern Japanese would appear to be a blend of Chinese, Korean and Mongolian traits, there is one group in Japan who have always been a bit different. I refer to the Ainu people of northern Japan.
The Ainu’s history has, sadly, been largely lost amidst the cultural assimilation of the last few hundred years. However, there are those, particularly in modern Hokkaido, who still fight to keep the traditions and culture of this unique people alive.
Upon seeing an Ainu for the first time, one could be forgiven for thinking this person wasn’t from Japan at all. Their tall frame, often stocky build, thick dark hair, and large, sunken European-type eyes give a look that seems far closer to Russian than it does Japanese.
However, the Ainu are unmistakably of Japan, and finally in 2008 the government did, at least partially, recognize this.
On June 6 2008, the main diet assembly of Japan passed a bipartisan, though non-binding, resolution recognizing the Ainu as “an indigenous people with a distinct language, religion and culture.”
The statement went further, 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.”
These days, although conditions are far better for the Ainu than before, it’s still a hard life. Many Ainu are reluctant to publicly acknowledge their heritage. As such, the actual number of Ainu still in Japan is estimated at anything from 25,000 to 200,000 depending on which source you consult. These days Ainu live almost exclusively in Hokkaido.
The Ainu have a rich and beautiful culture all of their own, and entirely different from Japanese. One of its most fascinating facets is the Ainu language.
The language of the Ainu is what linguistic experts term a “language isolate”. This means that the language is not derived from or connected to any other known language.
Attempts have been made by various academics down the years to link Ainu with Japanese, but to date no claims of a connection have been substantiated.
The Ainu language exists only in spoken form. These days, words and sentences are transcribed using either Roman characters, Japanese kana or Russian Cyrillic. The lack of a formal written language means a lot of the Ainu cultural and religious traditions live on only through being passed from one generation to another. Rather than being a limitation, many experts regard the lack of a written language as one of the Ainu’s great strengths, as it has imbued them with an amazing talent for storytelling.
Without a script, most stories and fables are committed to memory and then later retold at family and community social gatherings. Some of these storytelling styles, such as the “Uepeker” narrative style, can last hours or even days.
There are also several different dialects and accents within the language itself, to the point where, historically Ainu people from opposite ends of Hokkaido may not necessarily have understood each other clearly.
It is not only in language where the Ainu distinguish themselves from the rest of Japan. Their contemporary culture is also radically different.
For example, the Japanese taboos on tattoos and other forms of body art are well documented. However for the Ainu tattoos were often seen as signs of strength and beauty. Women would tattoo their mouths and in some cases their forearms too. A traditional Ainu dress was a one-piece robe, spun from the bark of an elm tree. The straight-lined, colourful patterns bare a passing resemblance to those of some Native American tribes. Today, robes woven in this traditional style can fetch a very high price.
The diet of the Ainu people is also quite different from other Japanese. Unlike Japanese, the Ainu don’t eat raw fish or meat in any form. Alongside conventional Japanese fare such as ox and horse, you will also find dishes such as bear, fox, badger and wolf meat.
Ainu religion holds the belief that everything has its own spirit or god to which one can pray and make offerings. This is particularly prevalent in their hunting culture. Prior to eating any meat, they will perform a ritual with the intention of “sending back” the spirit of the animal they are about to eat. Ainu also believe in an afterlife and believe that upon death their immortal spirits will join the “Kamui Mosir” (land of gods)
If you are interested in learning more about the Ainu and their culture, then I recommend a visit to the Hokkaido University Centre for Ainu and Indigenous Studies, which has numerous museum displays and literature on the Ainu history and culture.
You may also wish to visit the Hidaka region of southeast Hokkaido, which is home to almost half of all the ethnic Ainu remaining in Japan. Many villages such as Nibutani, remain vibrant cultural centres to this day.
If you’re in Tokyo, you may also want to look up the Tokyo Ainu. These Tokyo residents can trace their lineage back to the original Ainu of Hokkaido, and have worked hard to establish a vibrant cultural scene in Tokyo.
Japan is a beautiful country, with wonders too numerate to even attempt to count. One of those wonders is the Ainu. Be sure to look them up next time you visit.