The Ainu are the original inhabitants of Japan. They are thought to have arrived possibly 14,000 years ago – 10,000 years before the ‘new Japanese’. It is not certain where the Ainu originated from, but it is thought that they have genetic links with the people of Tibet or early settlers of Siberia.
The Ainu settled mostly in the northern tips of Honshu and Hokkaido. They were hunters, fishermen and gatherers living in harmony with nature. A village possessed a hunting ground of its own or several villages used a joint hunting territory. Their traditional food consisted of the flesh of bear, fox, badger, ox, or horse, as well as fish, fowl, millet, vegetables, and roots.
1. Who were the Ainu?
2. How long ago are the thought to have settled in northern Japan?
3. What type of lifestyles did they lead?
4. What comparisons can you make to Indigenous Australians (be specific)?
The Ainu are traditionally animists, believing that everything in nature has a kamuy (spirit or god) on the inside. The most important included Kamuy Fuchi, goddess of the hearth (fireplace in a house), Kim-un Kamuy, god of bears and mountains, and Repun Kamuy, god of the sea, fishing, and marine animals. The Ainu have no priests by profession; instead the village chief performs the religious ceremonies.
5. Briefly describe the type of religion the Ainu practiced.
6. Do Indigenous Australians pray to gods like the Ainu? How would you describe the spiritual
beliefs of Indigenous Australians?
Conflict and the Ainu Today
The Ainu came into contact with ‘The Children of the Sun’ (ancestors of today’s ‘new Japanese’) 3,000 years ago. Despite fierce resistance, by the 9th Century CE the Ainu were eventually driven from their lands in Honshu. They found refuge in the northern island of Hokkaido. Hokkaido remained outside the control of the Japanese government until the late 19th Century.
In the late 19th Century, Hokkaido came under official jurisdiction of the Japanese government. Under the government policy of assimilation, the Ainu were prohibited from practicing their daily customs and were forced to follow Japanese daily customs. With an increasing number of Japanese colonising Hokkaido from Honshu, the oppression of the Ainu was replaced by discrimination against them. Discrimination against the Ainu still remains today and has become a major social problem.
These days, various activities are being vigorously promoted to revive the Ainu language and to preserve and maintain Ainu culture, such as traditional dancing and various ceremonies. Ainu language classes are being held in various parts of Hokkaido.
Most of those who identify themselves as Ainu still live in this same region, though the exact number of living Ainu is unknown. This is due to confusion over mixed heritages and to ethnic issues in Japan resulting in those with Ainu backgrounds hiding their identities. Intermarriage with Japanese has blurred the concept of a pure Ainu ethnic group. Official estimates of the population are of around 25,000, while the unofficial number is upward of 200,000 people.
7. When did Ainu contact with the ancestors of the ‘new Japanese’ begin? Do the experiences
of the Ainu, relate to early Indigenous Australian contact with Europeans (be specific)?
8. What similarities of ‘Assimilation’ are their between the Ainu and Indigenous Australians?
9. How is Ainu culture being promoted today?
10. Why is it hard to provide an exact figure of the Ainu? Are the same challenges faced in