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.
However, despite the difficult conditions, the Ainu maintained a degree of autonomy in the north of the island. But during the Meiji Restoration, which began in 1868, all this was to change. Hoping to modernize the country and make it more Western, the Japanese authorities launched a series of reform initiatives – one of which involved taking over the Ainu lands.
In 1899, the ironically titled Ainu Protection Act was passed by the Japanese government. These laws collectively forced the Ainu to give up their territories and effectively become citizens of Japan. Moreover, the indigenous people were required to abandon their language, religion and customs in the hope that they would become more like the Wajin. And, for a long time, the tactic seemed to have worked.
Originally, the Ainu were said to have paler skin than the Wajin, with wavy hair that was often red or blond. However, after they were forced to give up their culture, Hokkaido’s native inhabitants often intermarried with the mainlanders, hoping that their children might not face the same discrimination they had experienced.
As a result, over the course of just a few generations, many Ainu lost most of their distinctive characteristics. In fact, these days, it is difficult to tell some of the people apart from those of Wajin descent. Nevertheless, it is thought that there could be as many as 200,000 Ainu living in Japan today – although many of them may be completely unaware of their heritage.
As the Ainu have assimilated into wider Japanese culture, many of their fascinating practices have almost been lost. For example, it has been estimated that less than 100 people now speak Ainu – an endangered language which is unlike any other in the world. With no written form, it has been passed down orally through the generations.
Historically, the Ainu’s culture and traditions have differed significantly from those of mainstream Japan. For example, Ainu men were known to stop shaving once they reached a certain age, displaying full facial hair from then on. Meanwhile, women’s maturity was marked by a tattoo in the mouth region which grew in size as they progressed towards adulthood.
Back when the Ainu were more numerous, they lived in villages known as kotan, located close to shores or rivers where food was abundant. These simple settlements contained small, paternalistic communities where between four and seven families lived together in houses made from grasses and tree bark.
Interestingly, Ainu babies did not receive names for the first two to three years of their lives. Instead, they were referred to using startlingly descriptive words such as “ayay,” which means crying, or “shipo, poyshi,” meaning small excrement. At the same time, infants were literally dressed in rags, as it was felt that the worn-out clothing would put off any ill-meaning gods.
Religiously, the Ainu were animists who believed that creatures, objects and places were imbued with natural spirits. And perhaps one of the Ainu’s most interesting and controversial traditions was the practice of Iyomante, or bear sacrifice. Apparently, this involved capturing a wild bear cub and raising it in much the same fashion as an Ainu child for as long as two years. But this is where the similarity in upbringing between critter and kid came to a brutal end.
Believing that bears are gifts from their bear and mountain god, Kim-un Kamuy, the Ainu would treat the creature with the utmost respect. But then, when the cub reached a certain age, it would be torn from its comfortable life and tied up in the middle of the village. Once the animal was restrained, the Ainu men would take turns firing arrows at the unfortunate beast.
Eventually, one member of the community would shoot an arrow into the bear’s neck from close range, ensuring its certain death. Next, the assembled Ainu would drink the creature’s blood before skinning it and distributing the meat throughout the village. And although this practice may seem barbaric to modern sensibilities, nonetheless, it was once regarded as the way to release the bear into the spirit world.
Interestingly, experts have disagreed over where the Ainu were first spirited from. Some have made links between them and the prehistoric Jomon culture, which emerged in Japan circa 14,000 B.C. Meanwhile, other historians have pointed out that the Ainu likely practiced agriculture from before that era – unlike the Jomon, who were primarily hunter-gatherers.
But whatever the Ainu’s true lineage, it is clear that their culture was fascinating and unique. However, as practices such as Iyomante were banned and the oppressed people tried to hide their true heritage, their identity began to fade. Then, in 1997, something happened that would empower modern-day Ainu across Japan.
Since 1978, an Ainu community living near the Saru River on Hokkaido had been locked in a dispute with the Japanese government over its desire to build a dam. Eventually, almost 20 years later, a legal decision was reached. And even though the Ainu did not manage to stop the industrial construction, the legal action did draw attention to the plight of their people. Finally, on May 8, 1997, the Japanese authorities repealed the destructive Ainu Protection Act of 1899 and replaced it with the Ainu Culture Law.
Although this new initiative sought to redress the oppression suffered by Japan’s first people, it was far from perfect. In fact, it would not be until June 2008 that the Japanese government would officially recognize the Ainu as an indigenous ethnic group. Finally, it was time for members of the ancient community to begin emerging from the shadows and reclaiming their culture.
Nowadays, many Ainu throughout Japan are increasingly proud of their heritage. In the town of Biratori, near the site of the Saru River dam in Hokkaido, much of the population identifies as Ainu, and there are ongoing efforts to teach the traditional language and customs to younger generations. Meanwhile, in larger cities such as Tokyo, strong Ainu communities are growing in visibility.
In 2018, the Ainu even have their own pop star in the shape of Oki, who plays a traditional Ainu instrument known as a tonkori. And while arcane practices such as Iyomante – which is still technically illegal – are unlikely to come back, there is hope that elements of the colorful Ainu culture will finally find their place in modern Japan.