Information about the Ainu

The Ainu (pronounced /'ainu/, "eye-noo", or "ah-ee-noo") are an ethnic group indigenous to Hokkaido, the northern part of Honshu in Northern Japan, the Kuril Islands, much of Sakhalin, and the southernmost third of the Kamchatka peninsula. The word "ainu" means "human" in the Ainu language; Emishi, Ezo or Yezo (??) in old Japanese; Utari,???, (meaning "countrymen" in Ainu) is now preferred by some members. There are over 150,000 Ainu today, however the exact figure is not known as many Ainu hide their origins or in many cases are not even aware of them, their parents having kept it from them so as to protect their children from racism.


The origins of the Ainu are uncertain. Some commentators believe that they derive from an ancient proto-Asian stock that may have occupied most of Asia before the Han expansion. Various other Asian aborigine populations, from Okinawa to Taiwan, and as far as Australia, are also thought to be related to them.

In the early 20th century anthropologists debated what typological classification (such as Mongoloid or Caucasoid) the Ainu belonged to. The typological model of racial classification has, since that time, been thoroughly discredited: research demonstrates that so-called "racial" characteristics are typically the result of climatic selection.

The prevailing mythology in Japan has been of the Ainu as a race of "noble savages," a proud but reclusive culture of hunter-gatherers. That this mythology made it easier to expropriate their lands is unquestioned. In fact, the Ainu were farmers from the earliest centuries of the Common Era.[1]


At first, contact with the Japanese people was friendly and both were equals in a trade relationship. However, eventually the Japanese started to dominate the relationship, and soon established large settlements on the outskirts of Ainu territory. As the Japanese moved north and took control over their traditional lands, the Ainu often gave up without resistance, but there was occasional resistance as exemplified in wars in 1457, 1669, and 1789, all of which were lost by the Ainu. Japanese policies became increasingly aimed at reforming the Ainu in the Meiji period, outlawing their language and restricting them to farming on government-provided plots. Ainu were also used in near-slavery conditions in the Japanese fishing industry. The island of Hokkaido was called Ezo or Ezo-chi during the Tokugawa Era. Its name was changed to Hokkaido during the Meiji Restoration as part of the programme to "unify" the Japanese national character under the aegis of the Emperor, thus reducing the local identity and autonomy of the different regions of Japan.

The Ainu are now governed by Japanese laws and judged by Japanese tribunals, but in former times their affairs were administered by hereditary chiefs, three in each village, and for administrative purposes the country was divided into three districts, Saru, Usu and Ishikari, which were under the ultimate control of Saru, though the relations between their respective inhabitants were not close and intermarriages were avoided. The functions of judge were not entrusted to these chiefs; an indefinite number of a community's members sat in judgement upon its criminals. Capital punishment did not exist, nor was imprisonment resorted to, beating being considered a sufficient and final penalty, except in the case of murder, when the nose and ears of the culprit were cut off or the tendons of his feet severed. Intermarriages between Japanese and Ainu are not infrequent, and at Sambutsu especially, on the eastern coast, many children of such marriages may be seen.

Today, many Ainu dislike like the term Ainu and prefer to identify themselves as Utari (comrade in the Ainu language). In official documents both names are used.


For historical reasons (primarily the Russo-Japanese war), nearly all Ainu live in Japan. There is, however, a small number of Ainu living on Sakhalin, most of them descendants of Sakhalin Ainu who were evicted and later returned. There is also an Ainu minority living at the southernmost area of the Kamchatka Peninsula and on the Kurile Islands. However, the only Ainu speakers remaining (besides perhaps a few partial speakers) live solely in Japan. There, they are concentrated primarily on the southern and eastern coasts of the island of Hokkaido.

Due to intermarriage with the Japanese and ongoing absorption into the predominant culture, few living Ainu settlements exist. Many "authentic Ainu villages" advertised in Hokkaido are simply tourist attractions.

Lip tattooing in this Ainu grandmother's youth helped her attract a husband. Today, the custom is obsolete. (1967)[edit] 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, but trimmed it semicircularly behind. The women tattooed their mouths, arms, clitorides, and sometimes their foreheads, starting at the onset of puberty. The soot deposited on a pot hung over a fire of birch bark was used for colour. Their traditional dress is a robe spun from the bark of the elm tree. It has long sleeves, reaches nearly to the feet, is folded round the body, and is tied with a girdle of the same material. Women also wear an undergarment of Japanese cloth. In winter the skins of animals were worn, with leggings of deerskin and boots made from the skin of dogs or salmon. 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 prize highly. Their cuisine consisted of the flesh of the bear, the fox, the wolf, the badger, the ox or the horse, as well as fish, fowl, millet, vegetables, herbs, and roots. They never ate raw fish or flesh, but always either boiled or roasted it. Their habitations were reed-thatched huts, the largest 20 ft. square, without partitions and having a fireplace in the centre. There was no chimney, but 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 is needed. Instead of using furniture, they sat on the floor, which was covered with two layers of mats, one of rush, the other of flag; and for beds they spread planks, hanging mats around them on poles, and employing skins for coverlets. The men use chopsticks when eating; the women had wooden spoons.


The Ainu believe in Animism, or that everything in nature has a "kami" (spirit or god) on the inside. There is a hierarchy of the kami. The most important is grandmother hearth (fire), then kami of the mountain (animals), then kami of the sea (sea animals), lastly everything else. They have no priests by profession. The village chief performs whatever religious ceremonies are necessary; ceremonies are confined to making libations of wine, uttering prayers, and offering willow sticks with wooden shavings attached to them. These sticks are called Inau (singular) and nusa (plural). They are placed on an altar used to sacrifice the heads of killed animals. The Ainu people give thanks to the gods before eating and pray to the deity of fire in time of sickness. They believe their spirits are immortal, and that their spirits will be rewarded hereafter by ascending to kamui mosir (Land of the Gods).

Some Ainus in the north are members of the Russian Orthodox Church.


The Ainu excel at many competitive physical activities. Due to their taller physical build, the Ainu have outshone the ethnic Japanese in typically Western sports like Baseball, Football (Soccer), and Track and Field events. This has engendered much resentment from the ethnic Japanese but the athletic feats of the Ainu people are still celebrated throughout Asia nonetheless (Fitzhugh, 364-366)


There are many different organizations of Ainu trying to further their cause in many different ways. There is an umbrella group of which most Hokkaido Ainu and some other Ainu are members, called the Hokkaido Utari Association, originally controlled by the government with the intention of speeding Ainu assimilation and integration into the Japanese nation-state but which now operates independent of the government and is run exclusively by Ainu.


This article incorporates text from the 1911 Encyclopędia Britannica, which is in the public domain.
  • Article on the Ainu in Japan's Minorities: The Illusion of Homogeneity.
  • Kayano, Shigeru. Our Land Was a Forest: An Ainu Memoir (1994). Translated by Kyoko Selden and Lili Selden. Foreword by Mikiso Hane. Transitions--Asia and Asian America series. Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press.
  • Fitzhugh, William (2004). Ainu:Spirit of a Northern People. University of Washington Press. ISBN 0295979127.

The above includes excerpts from Wikipedia.org, the free encyclopedia:

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