The ancient Ainu people from the north of Japan largely lost their language, traditions and land, due to Western-style modernization in the 19th century. Robbed of their identity by the march of history, the Ainu were forced into an almost secret life. Unacknowledged by the Japanese government and marginalized by their fellow citizens, the sidelined Ainu population assimilated into society as much as they could. But official recognition has now seen a resurgence of interest in the once-forgotten indigenous people. Indeed, Ainu culture is currently experiencing a renaissance – and it has revealed a fascinating world.
Today, Japan is considered to be one of the most ethnically homogeneous nations on earth. However, that – of course – was not always the case. In fact, the Land of the Rising Sun has had an indigenous population, known as the Ainu, since prehistory. And even though there are just thousands of pure Ainu remaining today, the people once thrived on what is now Hokkaido, the northernmost of Japan’s islands.
Back in the 13th century, the Wajin people – the native settlers of mainland Japan – traveled to Hokkaido, where they began a turbulent trading relationship with the Ainu. And, before long, hostilities between the two groups escalated into all-out war. Eventually, the indigenous communities in south Hokkaido found themselves under the jurisdiction of the Japanese.