The Ainu are considered the natives to Japan, similar to Native Americans being the original peoples to the United States. They are actually very similar to the Native Americans because their culture/economy was based around farming, hunting, fishing and gathering; along with having their own language, culture, and religious distinctions.
The Ainu were originally concentrated throughout the Honshu and Hokkaido islands. They called Hokkaido Ainu Moshir, which was annexed by the Japanese in 1868 to prevent the intrusion of Russians. This fact alone is interesting because according to a historical census in Russia there were over 1000 people that claimed Ainu as their main language. This means the Ainu not only were in Japan, but also parts of Russia as well, even though now most Ainu do live in Japan. Now, most Ainu live in Hokkaido on the southern and eastern coasts.
There are probably less than 100 people whom speak Ainu left, so basically the language is about to go extinct. The Ainu language has next to no correlation to Japanese and is part of the reason the language is going extinct because most people try to record the language using a Japanese writing system, since there isn’t one, and words are getting changed because of it.
There are a few distinctions in the culture too. For one the Ainu tend to be more hairy, I am guessing this is because they live in a colder climate longer the hair helps keep them warmer, total speculation on my part. This is mentioned because after a certain age the men stop shaving, and grow out there beards and mustaches. The women on the other hand keep their hair trimmed around their shoulders. As for food, ironically enough, all their food is cooked. They don’t eat raw foods like sushi, which in my ignorance would have thought is where Japan started eating sushi. I do have to say their system of accountability is quite intriguing and should maybe be incorporated again, in some places. Basically, a group of people, like jurors, sit in judgment of an action and the only punishment is basically how severely you get beaten. However, if you murder someone your nose and ears were cut off and the tendons in your feet where severed.
The religion is animist, which one can construe as Shintoism that most Japanese favor today. Basically everything has a spirit or god, similar to Greek mythology. The most important of spirits is fire, or earth. Most Ainu believe they will ascend to kamui mosir (land of the gods)
With all this said the Ainu haven’t exactly had the easiest of lives. To roughly sum up they were forced into assimilating into Japanese culture with a law made in 1899. Under the law they were denied the right to continue traditional practices and forced to learn the Japanese language. Biggest hit of all was they were only allowed to have 0.15% of they land they originally had. Basically, look a bit at American history with Native Americans transplant that onto the Japanese and Ainu. It wasn’t until 1997 that the Ainu started getting some rights back, and are still discriminated against. Finally, in 2008 the Japanese Diet officially recognized the Ainu as the indigenous people of Japan and rescinded the laws of 1899.
I hope you enjoyed this post. I have a strong passion that understanding history of a region helps you better understand the modern culture. I plan to do more history posts in the future. Please let me know what you think and how I can improve as history is not my strong point.