LOCATION: Japan (Hokkaido)


LANGUAGE: Japanese; Ainu (few present speakers)

RELIGION: Traditional pantheistic beliefs


Until 400 years ago, the Ainu controlled Hokkaido, the northernmost of Japan's four main islands. Today they are a small minority group of Japan. They are a hunting and fishing people whose origins remain in dispute. They probably came from Siberia or from the southern Pacific, and originally comprised different groups. For centuries, the Ainu culture developed alongside, but distinctive from, that of the Japanese. However, in recent centuries (particularly with the 1889 Hokkaido Former Aborigines Protection Law) they have been subject to Japanese government policies of modernization and integration. As with indigenous (native) peoples in the United States and many other nations, the Ainu have largely assimilated (adapted to the dominant culture). And like many other such groups, there have been signs of cultural revival recently.

The oldest ruins found in Hokkaido, the Ainu homeland, date from 20,000 to 30,000 years ago in the old Stone Age. Iron was introduced approximately 2,000 years ago from either southern Japan or the Asian continent, probably by ancestors or groups related to the Ainu. Between the eighth and thirteenth centuries, earthenware unique to Hokkaido and the northern mainland appeared. Its producers were the direct ancestors of the Ainu. The subsequent 300 to 400 years saw the development of the culture known today as uniquely Ainu.


Hokkaido, one of Japan's four main islands, is 32,247 square miles (83,520 square kilometers)—comprising one-fifth of Japan. Hokkaido is twice as large as Switzerland. A small number of Ainu live on southern Sakhalin. Earlier, the Ainu also lived in the southern Kuril Islands, along the lower reaches of the Amur River, and in Kamchatka, as well as the northern part of the Northeast region of Honshu. Their ancestors may have once lived throughout Japan.

Hokkaido is surrounded by beautiful coasts. The island has many mountains, lakes, and rivers. Its land was densely wooded with ancient trees into the twentieth century. Two major mountain ranges, Kitami in the north and Hidaka in the south, divide Hokkaido into the eastern and western regions. The Saru basin area in southeastern Hokkaido is a center of Ainu ancestral culture.

An 1807 survey reported the Hokkaido and Sakhalin Ainu population as 23,797. Mixed marriages between Ainu and mainland Japanese became more common over the last century. In 1986 the total number of people in Hokkaido identifying themselves as Ainu was 24,381.

In the late nineteenth century, the Japanese government created a colonial office for Hokkaido's economic development and encouraged settlers from other parts of Japan. A similar government office now continues to promote Hokkaido's development. With the loss of their land, their livelihood, and their traditional culture, the Ainu had to adapt to a rapidly industrializing society.


Ainu is said to belong either to a Paleo-Asiatic or a Paleo-Siberian group of languages. It has two dialects. The Ainu have no written language. The Japanese phonetic syllabaries (characters representing syllables) or the Roman alphabet is used to transcribe (write) Ainu speech. Few people now speak Ainu as their primary language.

Ainu and Japanese share many single words. God (male or female) is kamui in Ainu and kami in Japanese. Chopstick(s) is pasui in Ainu and hashi in Japanese. The word sirokani (silver) and konkani (gold) in literary Ainu correspond to shirokane and kogane in literary Japanese (see quotation below). The two languages, however, are unrelated. Two well-known Ainu words still commonly used refer to venerated Ainu individuals: ekasi (grandfather or sire) and huci (grandmother or grand dame).

The name Ainu comes from a common noun ainu, meaning "human(s)." Once the term was felt to be derogatory, but more Ainu now use the name positively, taking pride in their ethnic identity. Their land is called "Ainu Mosir"—peaceful land of humans. The phrase ainu nenoan ainu means "human-like human." The following is a famous refrain from a poem about the owl deity:

sirokanipe ranran piskan
(fall, fall, silver drops, all around)

konkanipe ranran piskan
(fall, fall, golden drops, all around)


According to mythic poetry, the world was created when oil floating in the ocean rose like a flame and became the sky. What was left turned into land. Vapor gathered over the land and a god was created. From the vapor of the sky, another god was created who descended on five colored clouds. Out of those clouds, the two gods created the sea, soil, minerals, plants, and animals. The two gods married and produced many gods including two shining gods—the Sun god and the Moon god, who rose to Heaven in order to illuminate the fog-covered dark places of the world.

Okikurmi of the Saru region is a semidivine hero who descended from Heaven to help humans. Humans lived in a beautiful land but did not know how to build fire or make bows and arrows. Okikurmi taught them to build fire, to hunt, to catch salmon, to plant millet, to brew millet wine, and to worship the gods. He married and stayed in the village, but eventually returned to the divine land.

Ainu historical heroes include Kosamainu and Samkusainu. Kosamainu, who lived in eastern Hokkaido, led an Ainu rebellion against the mainland Japanese ruling the southern tip of Hokkaido, called Matsumae. He destroyed ten out of the twelve Japanese bases but was killed in 1457. Samkusainu organized Ainu in the southern half of the island during a 1669 uprising, but after two months they were destroyed by Matsumae forces armed with guns.


Ainu religion is pantheistic, believing in many gods. Traditional belief held that the god of mountains dwelled in the mountains, and the god of water dwelled in the river. The Ainu hunted, fished, and gathered in modest quantities in order not to disturb these gods. Animals were visitors from the other world temporarily assuming animal shapes. The bear, striped owl, and killer whale received the greatest respect as divine incarnations.

The most important god in the home was the female god of fire. Every house had a firepit where cooking, eating, and rituals took place. The main offerings made to this and to other gods were wine and inau, a whittled twig or pole, usually of willow, with shavings still attached and decoratively curled. A fence-like row of taller inau stood outside between the main house and the raised storehouse. Outdoor rituals were observed before this sacred altar area.


The spirit-sending festival, called i-omante, either for a bear or striped owl, was the most important Ainu festival. I-omante, the bear, was observed once in five or ten years. After three days of reverence to a bear cub, accompanied by prayers, dancing, and singing, it was shot with arrows. The head was decorated and placed at the altar, while the meat was eaten by the members of the village community. The spirit, while visiting this world, had temporarily adopted the form of a bear; the bear ritual released the spirit from the form so it could return to the other realm. Similar festivals are observed by many northern peoples.


In preparation for adulthood, boys traditionally learned hunting, carving, and making tools such as arrows; girls learned weaving, sewing, and embroidery. In mid-teen years, girls were tattooed around the mouth by a skilled older woman; long ago they were also tattooed on the forearms. The Japanese government banned tattooing in 1871.

The gift of a knife mounted in carved wood from a young man indicated both his skill and his love. The gift of embroidery from a young woman similarly indicated her skill and her willingness to accept his proposal. In some cases, a young man visited the family of a woman he wished to marry, helping her father in hunting, carving, and so forth. When he proved himself an honest, skilled worker, the father approved the marriage.

A death was mourned by relatives and neighbors. All were fully dressed in embroidered costume; men also wore a ceremonial sword and women a necklace of beads. Funerals included prayers to the fire deity and verse laments expressing wishes for a smooth journey to the other world. Items to be buried with the dead were first broken or cracked so that the spirits would be released and travel together to the other world. Sometimes burial was followed by the burning of the dwelling. The funeral for an unnatural death could include a tirade (raging speech) against the gods.


A formal greeting, irankarapte, which corresponds to "how are you" in English, literally means "let me softly touch your heart."

It is said that Ainu people always shared food and drink with neighbors, even a cup of wine. The host and the guests seated themselves around the firepit. The host then dipped his ceremonial chopstick in the cup of wine, sprinkled a few drops onto the firepit giving thanks to the fire god (goddess of fire), and then shared the wine with his guests. The first salmon caught each year in early fall was a special item to be shared with neighbors.

Ukocaranke (mutual argumentation) was a custom of settling differences by debating instead of fighting. The disputants sat and argued for hours or even days until one side was defeated and agreed to compensate the other. Representatives with oratorical (public speaking) skills and endurance were chosen to resolve disputes between villages.


Formerly, an Ainu house was made of poles and thatch plant. It was well insulated and had a firepit at the center of the main room. An opening below each end of the ridge allowed smoke to escape. Between three and twenty such houses formed a village community called kotan. Houses were built close enough together that a voice would reach in case of emergency, and far enough apart that fire would not spread. A kotan was usually located by waters for convenient fishing but also in the woods to remain safe from floods and close to gathering grounds. If necessary, the kotan moved from place to place in search of a better livelihood.


Besides weaving and embroidering, women farmed, gathered wild plants, pounded grains with a pestle, and cared for babies. Men hunted, fished, and carved. Some accounts suggest that married couples lived in separate houses; other accounts suggest that they stayed with the husband's parents. Until recently, men and women traced descent differently. Males traced descent through various animal crests (such as a killer whale insignia) and females through hereditary chastity belts and forearm tattoo designs. The inheritance could include the art of a bard (male or female), a midwife, or a shaman. The midwife and shamaness Aoki Aiko (1914–) inherited her arts as the fifth generation offspring of the female line of the family.

Dogs were favorite animals. In one scene of an epic poem describing the descent of a divine youth to this world, a dog was mentioned as guarding millet grains. Dogs were also used in hunting.


The Ainu traditional robe was made of the woven fibers of inner elm bark. It was worn with a woven sash similar in shape to the sash worn with a mainland Japanese kimono. The male robe was calf-length. In winter a short sleeveless jacket of deer or other animal fur was also worn. The female robe was ankle-length and worn over a long undershirt with no front opening. The robes were hand-embroidered or appliqued with rope designs. A pointed edge at the tip of each front flap was characteristic of the Saru region.

The traditional Ainu costume is still worn on special occasions. However, in everyday life the Ainu wear internationalstyle clothing similar to that worn by other Japanese people.

12 • FOOD

Traditional staple foods of the Ainu were salmon and deer meat, in addition to millet raised at home and herbs and roots gathered in the woods. Millet was largely replaced by rice earlier in this century. Fresh salmon was cut up and boiled in soup. A rice porridge called ciporosayo was prepared by adding salmon roe (eggs) to boiled grains.

As in other cold regions, Ainu children used to enjoy making maple ice candy. On a late March or early April evening when a cold night was expected, they made cuts in the bark of a large sugar maple and placed containers of hollow sorrel stalks at the roots of the tree to collect dripping syrup. In the morning, they found the sorrel cylinders heaping with frozen white syrup.


Traditionally children were educated at home. Grandparents recited poems and tales while parents taught practical skills and crafts. From the late nineteenth century on, Ainu were educated in Japanese schools. Many concealed their Ainu background.


The Ainu have handed down a vast body of oral traditions. The main categories are yukar and oina (longer and shorter epic poems in literary Ainu), uwepekere and upasikma (old tales and autobiographical stories, both in prose), lullabies, and dance songs. Yukar usually refers to heroic poetry, chanted mainly by men, dealing with demigods and humans. It also includes oina, or kamui yukar, shorter epics chanted principally by women about the gods. The Saru region of south central Hokkaido is particularly known as the homeland of many bards and storytellers.

Yukar was narrated by the fireside for a mixed gathering of men, women, and children. Men sometimes reclined and beat time on their bellies. Depending upon the piece, yukar lasted all night or even for a few nights. There were also festival songs, group dance-songs, and stamping dances.

The best known Ainu musical instrument is the mukkuri, a mouth harp made of wood. Other instruments included coiled-bark horns, straw flutes, skin drums, five-string zithers, and a type of lute.


Since the mid-nineteenth century, the traditional subsistence activities of hunting, fishing, gathering of wild plants, and millet raising have been replaced by rice and drycrop cultivation and commercial fishing. Other activities in Hokkaido include dairy farming, forestry, mining, food processing, wood working, pulp, and paper industries. The Ainu contribute to all these activities.


Traditional sports for children included swimming and canoeing. In the early twentieth century there was a children's game called seipirakka (shell clogs). A hole was bored through the shell of a large surf clam and a thick rope passed through it. Children wore two clams each, with the rope between the first two toes, and walked or ran about on them. The shells made a clicking noise like horseshoes. Another indigenous Ainu game was making toy pattari in the creek when the snow thawed in spring. The pattari were made from hollow stalks of sorrel filled with creek water. With the accumulation of water, one end of the stalk dropped to the ground under the weight. On the rebound, the other end hit the ground with a thump. Adults used real pattari to pound millet grains.


See the article on "Japanese" in this chapter.


Weaving, embroidery, and carving are among the most important forms of folk art. Some types of traditional Ainu weaving were once almost lost, but were revived around the 1970s. Chikap Mieko, a second generation professional embroiderer, builds her original embroidery on the foundation of the traditional art. Carved trays and bears are treasured tourist items.

Among the many traditional items made are the poison arrow, unattended trap arrow, rabbit trap, fish trap, ceremonial sword, mountain knife, canoe, woven bag, and loom. In the early 1960s, Kayano Shigeru began to privately collect many such genuine items in and around his village in the Saru region, when he realized that all that was left of the Ainu cultural heritage was scattered among the communities. His collection developed into the Biratori Township Nibutani Ainu Cultural Museum and the Kayano Shigeru Ainu Memorial Museum. Also famous is the Ainu Museum established in 1984 in Shiraoi in southeastern Hokkaido on the Pacific.


The 1899 Ainu law that classified the Ainu as "former aborigines" remained in effect into the 1990s. As an Ainu representative to the National Diet since 1994, Kayano Shigeru has taken the lead in fighting to eliminate this law. A new Ainu law is now under consideration.

The recent construction of a dam in Kayano's homeland, Nibutani village in Biratori town, exemplifies forceful development of Hokkaido at the cost of the Ainu's civil rights. Despite the resistance led by Kayano Shigeru and others, construction proceeded. In early 1996 the village was buried under water. At a meeting on the use of Hokkaido lands, Kayano stated that he would accept the Nibutani dam construction plan if only the salmon fishing rights be returned to the Nibutani Ainu in exchange for the destruction of their homes and fields. His request was ignored.


Encyclopedia of Japan. New York: Kodansha, 1983.

Japan: An Illustrated Encyclopedia. Kodansha, 1993.

Kayano, Shigeru. Our Land Was a Forest: An Ainu Memoir (trans. Kyoko Selden and Lili Selden). Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1994.

Munro, Neil Gordon. Ainu Creed and Cult. New York: K. Paul International, distributed by Columbia University Press, 1995.

Philippi, Donald L. Songs of Gods, Songs of Humans: The Epic Tradition of the Ainu. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1979.


Embassy of Japan. Washington, D.C. [Online] Available , 1998.

Microsoft. Encarta Online. [Online] Available , 1998.

Microsoft. . [Online] Available , 1998.

Also read article about Ainu from Wikipedia

User Contributions:

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Has anyone ever mentioned Abraham's ancestors as being Ainu? [Just Genesis]
Is there a specific naming system used by Ainu people/examples of traditional Ainu names?
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