The Sakhalin Ainu, with an estimated population between 1,200 and 2,400 in the first half of the twentieth century, most likely migrated from Hokkaidō, possibly as early as the first millennium A.D. , but definitely by the thirteenth century. They had extensive contacts with native populations on Sakhalin and along the Amur, including the Gilyaks, Oroks, and Nanais. It is likely that Chinese influence reached the island by the first millennium A.D. and intensified during the thirteenth century when northern Sakhalin submitted to Mongol suzerainty subsequent to the Mongol conquest of China. The period between 1263 and 1320 saw the Mongol colonization and "pacification" of the Gilyaks and the Ainu. The Sakhalin Ainu fought valiantly until 1308, finally submitting to the suzerainty of the Yuan dynasty, the Mongolian dynasty that ruled China and to whom the Ainu were forced to pay tribute. The tribute system, together with trade with other peoples along the way, merged with the Japanese-Hokkaido Ainu trade during the fifteenth century. As a result, Japanese ironware reached the Manchus while Chinese brocade and cotton made their way to Osaka in western Japan. With the weakening of Manchu control over Sakhalin, the tribute system was abandoned at the beginning of the nineteenth century. By then, the Japanese and Russians were racing to take political control of the island and exploit its rich natural resources.
The impact of the Japanese government on the Sakhalin Ainu intensified under the Meiji government established in 1868. Many Japanese were sent to southern Sakhalin to exploit its resources. The Sakhalin Ainu came under Russian control in 1875 when southern Sakhalin came under Russian control, but Japan regained the area in 1905; the territory north of 50° N remained under Russian control throughout history. Between 1912 and 1914, the Japanese government placed the Sakhalin Ainu, except those on the remote northwest coast, on reservations, drastically altering their way of life. With the conclusion of World War II, southern Sakhalin again was reclaimed by the USSR and most of the Ainu were resettled on Hokkaidō.
The history of contact with outsiders is equally important for the Hokkaidō Ainu, whose territory once extended to northeastern Honshū. As the Japanese central government expanded its control toward the northeast, the Ainu were gradually pushed north from their southernmost territory. Trade between the Ainu and the Japanese was established by the mid-fourteenth century. With the increased power of the Matsumae clan, which claimed the southwestern end of Hokkaidō and adjacent areas, the trade became a means for the Japanese to exploit the Ainu during the sixteenth century. Although there were numerous revolts by the Ainu against Japanese oppression, the revolt in the mid-seventeenth century by a famous Ainu political leader, Shakushain, was the most significant. Shakushain rose to the forefront of the Ainu resistance in the mid-1660s, but his forces were crushed when the Matsumae samurai broke the truce, slaying Shakushain and his retinue. This event marked the last large-scale resistance by the Hokkaidō Ainu.
In 1779, the Matsumae territory on Hokkaidō came under the direct control of the Tokugawa shogunate in order to protect Japanese interests against Russian expansion southward. The administrative hands changed again in 1821 to the Matsumae and then back to the shogunate in 1854. Drastic changes took place shortly after the establishment of the Meiji government in 1868, as the new government abolished residential restrictions for the Ainu and the Japanese, allowing them to live anywhere on Hokkaidō. The Japanese were encouraged to emigrate to Hokkaidō to take advantage of the natural resources. Most significant, the new government issued the Hokkaidō Aboriginal Protection Act. The Ainu on Hokkaidō were forced to attend Japanese schools established by the government and to register in the Japanese census. Beginning in 1883, the Ainu were granted plots of land and encouraged to take up agriculture. They were removed from their settlements and resettled on land more suited to agriculture, causing drastic changes in Ainu society and culture.
The long history of Ainu contact with outsiders, especially the Japanese, has undermined the Ainu way of life. The Ainu have long been a minority population in Japanese society, suffering prejudice, discrimination, and economic impoverishment. In recent years, the Ainu have made positive efforts to improve their social and political position in Japanese society as well as to establish their own cultural identity.
In addition to ecological factors, the history of contact with outsiders is responsible to a large degree for the major differences in the way of life among these groups of Ainu. For example, because of a lack of contact with metal-using populations, the Kurile Ainu continued to use stone and bone implements and to manufacture pottery long after the Hokkaidō and Sakhalin Ainu had started to use metal goods obtained in trade with their neighbors. The Ainu on the central and northern Kuriles had long been in contact with the Aleuts and Kamchadals. From the end of the eighteenth century, Russians and Japanese, who were hunting sea otters in the area for their furs, exploited the Ainu and transmitted diseases, causing a decline in the population. In 1875 the central and northern Kuriles came under thè political control of the Japanese government, which made several attempts to "protect" the Ainu, but the last survivor in this area died in 1941.