The Ancient Legends of the Ainu People of Japan

The Ainu People and Ainu Politics

The Ainu people is one of the indigenous groups of Japan. It was only in the last few centuries that these people have been discovered. It is only in the recent decades that their everyday lives and culture are studied and documented.

This particular indigenous group of Japanese people piques the curiosity of not only the modern Japanese people but also those of international anthropologists and historians. They come from both local and international institutions and university. This is because of the fact that their life and culture gives an insight of Japan’s unknown history.

What is interesting about the Ainu people of Japan is that they are rarely included in literary works and other forms of media. They are hidden to the point that there are some modern Japanese locals that are not aware that the Ainu people exist.

Felice Beato [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Interestingly, the Ainu tribe of Japan can also be found in parts of Russia. Not only that, some Ainu locals speak both Russian and Japanese. The Japanese take pride in the idea that they are homogenous – they are all strictly Japanese. What they don’t know is that hidden within the islands and mountains of Hokkaido lives the ancient peoples of the Ainu – a living proof that there is true diversity in the Japanese race. This just goes to show that just like in other countries, there are certain places in Japan which have been secluded from the rapid globalization and modernization that happened in other parts of Japan.

Ainu history and origins

According to studies of the Ainu people’s spoken history, it would seem that this particular indigenous tribe of the Japanese came from somewhere in Western Asia. What is most surprising about them is that both their culture and language have a very strong Russian influence that anthropologists can only theorize how these people have reached Japan.

Based on a theory, more than two thousand years ago immigration from parts of Russia and Mongolia to the eastern parts of Asia have been prevalent. It is assumed that the Ainu tribes from Russia had battles with the local tribes of Mongolia until they reached China. Through their nomadic living, where they relied strongly on hunting and gathering, search for habitable land had brought them to the north of Japan. Perhaps through land bridges or other forms of transport, that has spread out a diverse set of tribes and indigenous people throughout the globe.

It is believed that the Ainu people lived in Japan during the Jomon period and their culture had transitioned significantly during the Yayoi period. Archaeological diggings of Kofuns, or burial mounds, have shown how elaborate the change in their culture was between the two periods.

From the time that their populations started to flourish in Japan and the modernization of the country has started to become prevalent, it is important to note that the Ainu people experienced a great deal of difficulty. They had been discriminated and isolated, they are often sold as slaves. Their lands have been taken from them and they had restrictions on farming, fishing, and hunting.

During this time, they spoke a different language and they were forced to learn Japanese. Their culture and beliefs are so different that they have been forced to cease some of their practices. This forced the Ainu tribe to seclude themselves to the northernmost parts of Hokkaido, to be rarely seen again with ordinary Japanese people.

Since the Ainu people had been in Japan since the pre-modern era, it is their right to have a title as aboriginals or indigenous. They had been among the first peoples of Hokkaido, but colonization from the Japanese people had changed this fact significantly. Until a certain time, the Japanese government recognized no ethnic groups in Japan. It was only in 2008 that the Ainu tribe had been declared as an indigenous group of Japan.

Ainu Genetics

Since the general physical appearance of an Ainu native is different from a Japanese local, there had always been a question regarding their origin. DNA tests show that these people belong to what is called as the haplogroup D2. These people are those that share similar genetic traits as Andaman Islanders and Tibetans. They share no common DNA haplogroups with that of the common mainland Japanese.

It was also found that Ainu men had genetic similarities to the haplogroup C3 which belonged to the indigenous peoples of Eastern Russia and Mongolia. This may provide proof to the earlier theory that nomadic groups of Eastern Russia may have traveled to the Sakhalin Island of Japan.

Ainu Population

During the 1800s census, when the population of the Ainu people was estimated for the first time, it is believed that there are roughly 26,000 members of their tribe. Soon their numbers started to dwindle down to only about 16,000 at the beginning of the 1930s.

According to the history of the region, this number was significantly influenced by the prevalence of certain diseases such as cholera, tuberculosis, and smallpox. There was a time as well when these people had been treated merely as slaves and were forced to do free labor. This significantly affected their health and their population.

By (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

In the most recent census, it has been estimated that there are more than 25,000 Ainu persons in Hokkaido and there are roughly a hundred more living in Russia. Some say that the number can reach up to 200,000, although this number is yet to be verified. This is because of the fact that there had been a time in their history when the Ainu people encouraged intermarriage between Ainus and Japanese. This was believed to be the key to help support and increase their dwindling number. Out of fear that they would be discriminated against, there are a number of Ainu-Japanese persons that deny their roots.

Ainu Geography

The Ainu people is an ethnic group in Japan local to Hokkaido. During the Nara period, Hokkaido was known as the Emishi (or the land of the Ainu people). They are also located in the Kuril Islands, the Sakhalin Islands, and the Kamchatka Peninsula. When they reached Japan thousands of years ago, it is believed that they lived in different parts of the country. However, continuous social and cultural discrimination had pushed them to settle only in the north. Although there are still a few Ainu locals in Russia, the Russo-Japanese war had pushed all the Ainus to live in Japan.

The Ainu culture

Religion and the Ainu Kamuy

For the Ainu, they have a very animistic religion where they believe that everything has a spirit or a god. This spirit is what they call as the Kamuy. These people believe that there are gods for the elements of fire, earth, water, and air. There is kamuy for objects and even animals. Because they have so many gods, there is a known hierarchy for all with the highest to be the grandmother earth or fire.

In their language, the term Ainu literally means “humans”. This is because of the fact that they believe that they are the opposite of their gods. The people are not kamuy and their primary role is to appease the gods by giving them a variety of offerings.Since they have no priests, it is usually the village elder or chief that performs all the rites.

The most important of their traditions is the sacrifice of a bear, known as Iomante. The locals usually raise a bear for two years before officially sacrificing it and offering it to the gods. When they are able to catch cubs during the winter, they treat this with so much care like gods. They are fed the best food and lived in impressive quarters. When it is killed, the people drink its blood and eat its meat. The bear’s skull is usually placed on display at the center of the village and will become a piece of worship.

They believe that they have just “sent off” the bear to the world of the gods. Since 1955, there had been lobbied to eliminate the sacrifice of bears during the Iomante. The bad news is animal ceremonies are considered as an exception to animal rights law in Japan.

Learning about the Ainu Language

Since the Ainu had been assimilated into the culture of the Japanese, only less than a hundred people remain as speakers of their ancient language. Because of this, their language has been considered as endangered and the government is doing its best to help in its preservation. Historically, they have no system of writing, this is because of the fact that there are some syllables in the Ainu language which cannot be represented by the typical Japanese Kana.

Common Ainu names

An interesting local culture, newborn babies are usually given disgusting names because it is believed to ward off ill-health. They are given names which mean poop (poyshi), crying (ayay), old things (shion), and other disgusting and unusual names. These names are usually related to some of the baby’s habits.

However, these are merely temporary and the children are given their permanent names when they reach the age of two or three. Their permanent names are always unique and will not be the same as a name of another person – it will be their identity.

Ainu Tattoos

Ainu women have the eeriest and unusual tattoos on their faces as they are usually given large tattoos of lips which are twisted as if to smile. These facial tattoos usually extend from one cheek to the other covering a large area of the face. Their arms also bear bands of tattoos which are of intricate and interesting designs. It was a custom in all Ainu women and Ainu women only. The Ainu men did not wear any tattoos.

By Juliet Bredon (as "Adam Warwick") [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The everyday lives of the Ainu

Ainu dogs

Ainu dogs, locally known as Hokkaido-ken, are believed to be the oldest breeds of Japanese dogs. They are local to Japan and have a similar look to a Shiba Inu. These are usually gray, brown, white, or tan in color with an average weight of 30 kilograms. They have small eyes, a pointed muzzle, and a black nose. They have very pointy ears and their tongues are often very dark in color. This breed of dogs is believed to be related to the Chow Chow which is native to China.

Ainu Food

Since the Ainu people are believed to have lived in Hokkaido for hundreds of years, it is no wonder to find out that their culinary influences are widespread throughout the region. They are best known for the use of certain ingredients like potatoes, deer, and cod.

They also eat bear meat, fox meat, whales, and the like. This makes Ainu food special because these are ingredients which cannot be found in the local delicacies of any other region in the country. Among their most famous delicacies would be ratashkep ( a stew of mixed ingredients), mefun (fermented salmon innards), and Ohaw (soup made from fish or animal bones).

They have also found that the Ainu people are not quite fond of eating raw meat and they prefer their food to be either grilled or boiled with seasoning. This is unusual because sashimi and sushi are among the most popular dishes in Japan. This goes to show that they truly have a unique taste.

Ainu clothing

The clothing of this Native group of people is significantly different from the traditional outfits of the Japanese. They wore clothes made from birdskin, bird feather and more. They also make clothing from bear hides, or from other furry beasts. Some also make clothing from fish skin, plants, and tree bark. Some of these are not in use anymore and can only be seen in local museums that exhibit their life and culture.

Interestingly, there are fabrics made from the fiber of plants and trees that are still worn as traditional clothing today. Towards the more modern times, the Ainu started collecting cotton and made their clothing out of it. This has introduced their embroidered clothing called chikarkarpe – this piece of clothing gives the Ainu people their unique identity.