Ainu: The Indigenous People of Japan

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. These hunter-gatherers worshipped nature and animals, spoke a language unrelated to any other, and had unusual customs like tattooing their lips. 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. 

 The Ainu people are historically residents of parts of Hokkaido (the Northern island of Japan) the Kuril Islands, and Sakhalin. According to the government, there are currently 25,000 Ainu living in Japan, but other sources claim there are up to 200,000. The origin of the Ainu people and language is, for the most part, unknown. However, there have been many theories on the subject. It was only 2008 that the Japanese government officially recognized the existence of the Ainu as an indigenous people, although their distinct language, culture, and religious practices have survived for millennia.

As Japan grew as the country, the Ainu people were pushed farther and farther north, until ultimately they were relegated almost entirely to the frigid island of Hokkaido. But in 1899, the Japanese government took inspiration from the treatment of indigenous people in the American West. Under the Meiji Restoration, the Ainu had their traditional lands taken from them and their language and cultural practices were outlawed. It's a depressingly familiar story, and the damage done is only recently being addressed.

You can see just by the appearance of the Ainu that traditional Ainu culture is significantly different from Japanese culture. First of all, both men and women keep their hair at shoulder length and wear traditional Ainu garb. Men, never shaving after a certain age, usually have full beards, and women undergo mouth tattooing to signify their coming to adulthood.

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.

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 as kamuy. 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."

Traditionally, the Ainu sacrificed bears in order to release the kamuy within them to the spirit world. One tradition, called lotame, involves the raising of a young bear cub as if it were an Ainu child and then sacrificing once it has come of age.

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, or Yukar, 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:

For hundreds of years, the Ainu have been either ignored, discriminated against, or forced to assimilate with mainstream Japanese culture, which unfortunately, led the Ainu language and culture to the brink of extinction. It was only ten years ago, the Ainu finally gained parliamentary recognitions a people with a "distinct language, religion, and culture." The resolution ins 2008 was a small victory for this long-oppressed people, despite no statement of rights, no restitutions and no apology for centuries of discrimination. 

It began in the early 15th century, when Japanese settlers began pushing into Ainu land on the island known today as Hokkaido. Later, under the harsh policies of the Meiji Era, the Ainu were prohibited from speaking their language and forced to use Japanese names. They were barred from their hunting and fishing traditions.

Today, a concerted effort is being made to preserve Ainu culture and language. And with the 2020 Olympics to be held in Japan, the government has plans for a facility centered on Ainu culture. Between these and other efforts in Hokkaido villages, perhaps a little life can be breathed into the land known as Ainu Mosir — “land of the human beings.”


Check out photographer Laura Liverani's project 'Ainu Nenoan Ainu (meaning 'humanlike human'), a journey of exploration of native identity in contemporary Japan.

(Resources: Tofugu, The Washington Post, Curiosity)

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