Who are the Ainu?

by Buddy Lindsey

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.

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{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

1 sixmats October 10, 2009 at 1:06 am

Like you, I am also fascinated by the Ainu and it's amazing how they are ignored and seemingly pushed aside.

What sources did you use for your post?

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2 percent20 October 10, 2009 at 6:33 am

Yeah but it looks like, maybe slightly, they are able to come into their own more. I don't know though as I don't live in Japan to see it first hand.

Mostly just google searches to get the information it was longer, but I trimmed it down because I went off on a lot of tangents and wanted this to be an overview. The final place I got information to fill in the gaps was wikipedia. Actually felt bad, and good, that my article reflected wikipedia a lot. I plan to do more research though and maybe hit specific topics on the Ainu in the future, am trying to get several general history posts first to have a base to build on later.

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3 reesan October 10, 2009 at 7:11 am

good post. good overview. every country has a skeleton or two in their closet and this is certainly one of japan's.

"The religion is animist…" is this where the divine worshiping of anime originated?

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4 hikky October 10, 2009 at 1:11 pm

Interesting post. I knew very little about them, besides that the were the natives. Nice summary.

Although they got the rights and such, with only 100 people left speaking the language, I'm wondering if this culture will survive?

@Reesan: Lol, guess I wouldn't be an atheist with such a religion around.
Just looked it up on wikipedia btw: "Animism (from Latin anima (soul, life)) is a philosophical, religious or spiritual idea that souls or spirits exist not only in humans but also in other animals, plants, rocks, natural phenomena such as thunder, geographic features such as mountains or rivers, or other entities of the natural environment, a proposition also known as hylozoism in philosophy.

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5 percent20 October 10, 2009 at 6:34 pm

I think parts of the culture will survive since the government is doing things to keep it around, but I don't see it lasting longer than a couple hundred years max, unfortunately.

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6 Billy October 10, 2009 at 11:31 am

Nice post. I recently learned about the Ainu because my friend Akira Sasaki (Japanese Olympic skier) got a tattoo of an Ainu symbol. Hea from Hokkaido. I forget the exact meaning of the symbol but it has something to do with god’s vision.

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7 percent20 October 10, 2009 at 7:03 pm

That is cool he is a friend. Next time you see him can you ask what it means? i'd be interested to know.

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8 David October 13, 2009 at 12:02 am

Someone obviously hasn't taught jr. high school English in Japan. New Crown, 2nd year, Lesson 4 anyone?

"Thank you. Bears are important to us."

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9 Mihai October 14, 2009 at 12:24 am

Great post- nice description! I actually ordered a book with Ainu language.
Know the history and you` ll know the future

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10 Jamaipanese October 16, 2009 at 11:19 pm

awesome read, I read a little about the Ainu people in a book about the history of Japan I read recently, I ight explore them some more as well

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