Ainu people

From Academic Kids

The Ainu (pronounced eye-noo) are an ethnic group indigenous to Hokkaido, the northern part of Honshu in Northern Japan, the Kurile Islands, much of Sakhalin, and the southernmost third of the Kamchatka peninsula. The word ainu (アイヌ) means "human" in the Ainu language; Emishi, Ezo, or Yezo, (蝦夷) (the second character of which means barbarian) in old Japanese; Utari,ウタリ, (meaning "countrymen" in Ainu) is now preferred by some members. There are over 150,000 Ainu today, however the exact figure is not known as many Ainu hide their origins or in many cases are not even aware of them, their parents having kept it from them so as to protect their children from racism.

Missing image

Group of Ainu people, 1904 photograph.

Total Population
  • 50,000 people with half or more Ainu ancestry
  • 150,000 Japanese people with some Ainu ancestry
    • (some estimates on the number of Japanese with some Ainu blood range as high as 1,000,000; the exact number is unknown)
  • Pre-Japanese era: ~50,000, almost all pure Ainu
Significant Populations in:
Language Ainu is the traditional language, but today somewhere between 1% and 5% of Ainu can speak it fluently, between 5% and 10% are passive speakers or partial speakers, and about 50% of Ainu have a very basic command of the language
Related ethnic groups Modern genetics has proven they are East Asians. They are usually grouped with the non-Tungusic peoples of Sakhalin, the Amur river valley, and the Kamchatka peninsula:


The origins of the Ainu are uncertain. Although their traditional homeland has been inhabited since the end of the last ice age, it is impossible to track the movements of the peoples of Northeastern Asia until well after the beginning of the historical period. At first, contact with the Japanese people was friendly and both were equals in a trade relationship. However, eventually the Japanese started to dominate the relationship, and soon established large settlements on the outskirts of Ainu territory. As the Japanese moved north and took control over their traditional lands, the Ainu often gave up without resistance, but there was occasional resistance as exemplified in wars in 1457, 1669, and 1789, all of which were lost by the Ainu. Japanese policies became increasingly aimed at reforming the Ainu in the Meiji period, outlawing their language and restricting them to farming on government-provided plots. Ainu were also used in near-slavery conditions in the Japanese fishing industry. Japan used to call the Ainu's home island Ezo or Ezo-chi, but changed the name to Hokkaido during the Meiji Restoration.

The Ainu are now governed by Japanese laws and judged by Japanese tribunals, but in former times their affairs were administered by hereditary chiefs, three in each village, and for administrative purposes the country was divided into three districts, Saru, Usu and Ishikari, which were under the ultimate control of Saru, though the relations between their respective inhabitants were not close and intermarriages were avoided. The functions of judge were not entrusted to these chiefs; an indefinite number of a community's members sat in judgement upon its criminals. Capital punishment did not exist, nor was imprisonment resorted to, beating being considered a sufficient and final penalty, except in the case of murder, when the nose and ears of the culprit were cut off or the tendons of his feet severed. Intermarriages between Japanese and Ainu are not infrequent, and at Sambutsu especially, on the eastern coast, many children of such marriages may be seen.

Today, many Ainu dislike like the term Ainu and prefer to identify themselves as Utari (comrade in the Ainu language). In official documents both names are used


For historical reasons (the Russo-Japanese war and World War II), nearly all Ainu live in Japan. There is, however, a small number of Ainu living on Sakhalin, most of them descendants of Sakhalin Ainu who were evicted and later returned. There is also an Ainu minority living at the southernmost area of the Kamchatka Peninsula and on the Kurile Islands. However, the only Ainu speakers remaining (besides perhaps a few partial speakers) live solely in Japan. There, they are concentrated primarily on the southern and eastern coasts of the island of Hokkaido.

Due to intermarriage with the Japanese and ongoing absorption into the predominant culture, few living Ainu settlements exist. Many "authentic Ainu villages" advertised in Hokkaido are simply tourist attractions.

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"Time's long shadow creeps over an Ainu grandmother who sees the distinctive life of her peopleaboriginal inhabitants of Japan's Hokkaido islanddrawing to a close. Lip tattooing in her youth, a custom now obsolete, helped her attract a husband." Sister Mary Inez Hilger, from National Geographic article, Japan's "Sky People", the Vanishing Ainu, February 1967


Traditional Ainu culture is quite different from Japanese culture. Never shaving after a certain age, the men have full beards and moustaches. Men and women alike cut their hair level with the shoulders at the sides of the head, but trim it semicircularly behind. The women tattoo their mouths, arms, clitorides, and sometimes their foreheads, starting at the onset of puberty. The soot deposited on a pot hung over a fire of birch bark is used for colour. Their traditional dress is a robe spun from the bark of the elm tree. It has long sleeves, reaches nearly to the feet, is folded round the body, and is tied with a girdle of the same material. Women also wear an undergarment of Japanese cloth. In winter the skins of animals are worn, with leggings of deerskin and boots made from the skin of dogs or salmon. Both sexes are fond of earrings, which are said to have been made of grapevine in former times, as also are bead necklaces called tamasay, which the women prize highly. Their cuisine consists of the flesh of the bear, the fox, the wolf, the badger, the ox or the horse, as well as fish, fowl, millet, vegetables, herbs, and roots. They never eat raw fish or flesh, but always either boil or roast it. Their habitations are reed-thatched huts, the largest 20 ft. square, without partitions and having a fireplace in the centre. There is no chimney, but only a hole at the angle of the roof; there is one window on the eastern side and there are two doors. The house of the village head is used as a public meeting place when one is needed. Instead of using furniture, they sit on the floor, which is covered with two layers of mats, one of rush, the other of flag; and for beds they spread planks, hanging mats around them on poles, and employing skins for coverlets. The men use chopsticks when eating; the women have wooden spoons.


The Ainu believe in Animism, or that everything in nature has a "kamui" (spirit or god) on the inside. There is a hierarchy of the kamui. The most important is grandmother hearth (fire), then kamui of the mountain (animals), then kamui of the sea (sea animals), lastly everything else. They have no priests by profession. The village chief performs whatever religious ceremonies are necessary; ceremonies are confined to making libations of wine, uttering prayers, and offering willow sticks with wooden shavings attached to them. These sticks are called Inau (singular) and nusa (plural). They are placed on an altar used to sacrifice the heads of killed animals. The Ainu people give thanks to the gods before eating and pray to the deity of fire in time of sickness. They believe their spirits are immortal, and that their spirits will be rewarded hereafter by ascending to kamui mosir (Land of the Gods).

Some Ainus in the north are members of the Russian Orthodox Church.


There are many different organizations of Ainu trying to further their cause in many different ways. There is an umbrella group of which most Hokkaido Ainu and some other Ainu are members, called the Hokkaido Utari Association, originally controlled by the government with the intention of speeding Ainu assimilation and integration into the Japanese nation-state but which now operates independent of the government and is run exclusively by Ainu.

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Flag of the Ainu people. The Ainu flag was designed by the late Mr. Bikki Sunazawa in 1973. Cerulean blue stands for sky and sea, white for snow and red for arrow which is running in the snow beneath big Hokkaido's sky. As a whole, the flag is a symbol of Ainu peoles mind and culture which never disappear. --Nozomi Kariyasu, March 21, 1999


See Also


External links

de:Ainu et:Ainu es:Ainu eo:Ajnuoj fr:Anus ko:아이누족 nl:Ainu (volk) nds:Ainu ja:アイヌ pl:Ajnowie sv:Ainu th:ชาวไอนุ zh:愛努族


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