History and Traditions of Japan’s Ainu People

The Ainu are the indigenous people of Japan native to Hokkaido and northeastern Japan. (Image: Torbenbrinker via wikimedia  CC BY-SA 3.0)
The Ainu are the indigenous people of Japan native to Hokkaido and northeastern Japan. (Image: Torbenbrinker via wikimedia CC BY-SA 3.0)

The Ainu are the indigenous people of Japan. According to official data, there are about 25,000 Ainu living in the country. However, some estimate that the population numbers over 200,000.

History of the Ainu

How the Ainu people originated is largely unclear. One theory suggests that “Ainu people are remnants of the Jomon-jin, or the hunter-gathers who inhabited Japan during the Jomon Period (14,500 B.C. – A.D. 300) and perhaps even before. Around the year A.D. 300, another group of immigrants known as the Yayoi people made their way to the islands of Japan, introducing new agricultural techniques and technology and integrating with the Jomon people.” (Tofugu)

There are physical differences between Ainu and the Japanese. Ainu tend to have a stouter frame, lighter skin, and deep-set eyes with a European shape. However, they are not of Caucasian origin, but Mongoloid. As intermarriage between the Ainu and Japanese has increased, distinguishing between the two based on physical appearance alone has become difficult. It is only in terms of culture that you spot the differences.

Ainu people tend to keep their hair at shoulder length. This is true for both men and women. After a certain age, men never shave and sport full beards. Women get a mouth tattoo when they enter adulthood and also sometimes tattoo their forearms. While the Japanese are famous for eating their food raw, Ainu people always cook their food and never eat it raw. The traditional dress of the Ainu was a robe crafted from the inner bark of an elm tree. Today, many wear modern clothing for everyday life. But for cultural ceremonies, the Ainu still adorn themselves with traditional clothes.

(Image: wikimedia / CC0 1.0)

Traditionally, Ainu men never shave after a certain age and sport full beards. (Image: wikimedia / CC0 1.0)

Ainu traditionally never use furniture in their homes. Instead, they sit on a mat laid down on the floor. With regard to law, the Ainu never had a “one-man judge” system. Instead, several members of the community heard a case and passed judgment. Capital punishment and imprisonment were avoided. Instead, severe beatings were given to criminals. In the case of murder, the punishment would involve cutting off the ears and nose of the perpetrator.

During the Tokugawa Period (1600-1868), the Ainu people were able to improve their position somewhat as they got a chance to trade with the Japanese. But the Meiji restoration of 1899 brought an incredible challenge to the community. Since the government wanted to westernize Japan, it decided to annex the land of the Ainu people and forced them to adopt the customs, traditions, and language of mainstream Japanese society. The law was only repealed in 1997.

Government recognition

Last year, the Japanese government enacted legislation aimed at promoting and protecting Ainu culture. The law stipulated for the first time that the Ainu are an indigenous community and it provides for financial assistance to maintain their culture and identity. Both central and local governments are required to promote Ainu culture through avenues like tourism so that the community’s financial backwardness due to decades of neglect can be reversed.

(Image: Screenshot / YouTube)

Both central and local governments are required to promote Ainu culture through avenues like tourism. (Image: Screenshot / YouTube)

The new law also eased restrictions on fishing in rivers. Rules regarding the collection of timber and other things from the forest for performing traditional rituals have also been simplified. However, many in the community feel that the administration has not heeded all their demands. “It doesn’t refer to [the recovery of] fishing rights taken from the Ainu. The situation does not seem to have changed in that we still need to obtain permission from the Hokkaido government,” Satoshi Hatakeyama, who heads the Ainu association of Monbetsu, said to The Japan Times.

According to a 2017 survey conducted by the government of Hokkaido, only 33.3 percent of Ainu people entered universities. This was 10 percentage points lower than the rest of the population in the region. Until and unless the community focuses on performing better in education, the state policies to help them might end up ineffective.

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