Continuing with our series of articles on minority groups in Japan (previous posts include the Burakumin and the Brazilian-Japanese), we’ll take brief look into the (now officially recognized with hanko-stamp of approval by the Japanese Government as of 2008) indigenous group, the Ainu. The Ainu population is concentrated in the northern islands of modern Japan, specifically Hokkaido and Honshu. They are also found along the Russian Kuril Islands and Sakhalin.
Ainu Population Distribution Map
Burakumin Dowa, the Ainu are genetically, physically, and culturally distinguishable from the Japanese majority. They are akin to what the Native Americans are to the United States (actually, there has been some claims that the Native Americans and Ainu are share an origin and language relationship). Government numbers point the population as 25,000 humans strong, but many alternate resources claim the numbers are as high as 250,000. The varied numerical claims can be attributed to many reasons that are common among the minority groups 1) The people are assimilated into the population through intermarriages that they now just consider themselves Japanese, and 2) Falsely claiming ethnicity for fear of racial discrimination. So who are the Ainu and what role do they play in Japan?
Brief Origins And History
The flag of the Ainu People
The origins of the Ainu and their cultural & racial relationships are, for the most part, speculative. It is believed that the group existed some 2000+ years and are descendants of the Jōmon-jin of the Jōmon period. Hypotheses have been made that the group is of proto-Caucasian origin, as opposed to the dominant Yamato ethnic group (Wajin) and the Okinawan Ryukyuan. Part of the rational behind this are the differing physical traits the Ainu people exhibit oppose to the Yamato people: lighter skin, hairiness, jaw protrusion, hazel-to-bluish eye color, and rounder heads. Characteristics that are more inline with the inland European and Asian Caucasian. One hypothesis believes that the descendants traveled to Japan from the mainland via previously existing land bridges.
Studies of the language is usually one way to determine a group’s origin, since most languages follow common roots. Unfortunately, researchers have found no conclusive origins and connections of the people, apart from some borrowings of the Japanese language. In other words, the language appears to be unique and isolated, and so are the people.
Researchers and scientists are surely baffled on the origins of the Ainu, but what do the Ainu believe? Their version of the account (folklore?) is that they are descendants of the first ancestor named Aiona, who was quite the traveller and stud, having traversed the globe and took on many wives. Taking on many wives from across the globe explains why so many foreigners resemble the Ainu. It is the name Aiona that the Ainu name was derived from. Specifically, it is a shorten version of “Aioina rak guru” or “persons smelling of Aiona.” However, Ainu is more commonly defined by many as “human.” The name also has some negative connotation, popularly due to the Japanese during the old time periods associating the name (and the people’s social status) to a particularly kind of animal of similar name. Can you make a guess on what the animal was? A more historical, and tamer name for the people is Ezo, people of the northern modern Japanese lands.
Contact between the Yamato Japanese and the Ainu first began some 2000 years ago, but the relationship status between the two was a mystery until sometime around 700 AD, when the Japanese laid campaigns in “subduing” the Ainu, which were somewhat unsuccessful. Warfare between the two groups did help lay the foundation of the Samurai class in Japan.
Fast forward to the Tokugawa Shogunate era, the Ainu controlled much of Hokkaido, while the Tokugawa-led Japanese nation controlled much of southern Japan. There were a few scuffles here and there, but the relationship between the two groups stabilized and a lucrative trading network was set up between the two groups. It all came to an end in 1899, shortly after the Meiji Restoration.
The newly formed government passed an act declaring the Ainu official Japanese citizens, thus former indigenous group. The act wasn’t out of kindness, but it paved the way for the Japanese to take control of Ainu land and have access to its resources and provide some security to the expanding Russians up north. With newly economically untamed land in their possession, the Japanese began to flock to the area to establish a few new cogs in their economy. Even though on paper the Ainu were considered Japanese citizens, racial discrimination still persisted. Many were forced to work in slave-like conditions in the Japanese fishing industry, fishing for salmon from land that was once theirs. Worst is that they are now forbidden to fish for salmon in Hokkaido, which is a huge part of their culture. Displaced from their lands, faced with discrimination and slave-like working environments, and forced to assimilate, it was the beginning of a deterioration of the group’s culture and existence.
Ainu’s identification as an indigenous group was officially reinstated in 2008. Why the change of heart? The Japanese Government isn’t known to prioritize minority issues. Sure, the Ainu people and their supporters have been trying for years to get the Japanese Government to overturn the 1899 act. However, overturning the act was probably a reactionary response to a U.N. investigator calling Japan out on their profound racism and xenophobia. After being called out, the Government put together a panel to draft up a report and policy suggestions towards the Ainu. There were panels like this before, but this was the first time an individual of Ainu descent was allowed to participate in the drafting. This kind of racism publicity and reactionary response (as opposed to being proactive) doesn’t help much for nation that has been trying to obtain a seat on the lucrative U.N security council.
Ainu-Japanese musician Oki Kano plays the tonkori, a traditional Ainu string instrument.
The Ainu culture is believed to be derived from the agricultural Satsumon culture, prevalent in Hokkaido and northern Honshu. They were a society of hunter-gatherers, hunting and fishing live game such as deer, bear, and salmon. All protein consumed were cooked, usually in form of stews with herbs and roots. This is opposed to traditional Japanese, where consumption of raw proteins is not uncommon.
Japanese culture has had some influence on the Ainu. For example, household utensils were formerly made out of pottery and bark, however they were replaced by Japanese wooden utensils and steel knives.
For physical appearances, the males grow out full beards and mustaches. Both males and females maintain shoulder length hair. The females begin tattooing their mouths and lips at an early age of 10-12. Once the tattooing process has been completed, typically around the ages of 14-15, the female is then considered to be a woman and fit for marriage. The traditional formal clothing is a robe made out of Elm tree bark.
Ainu Female with Traditional Garb and Facial Tattoo
Music and many unique instruments were also enjoyed by the Ainu. Every Ainu song is considered sacred and it is believed that musical instruments are infused with souls. The two common instruments played by the Ainu are the tonkori (pictured in the section header) and the mukkuri, a jaw harp.
Shigeru Kayano, Japan’s first Ainu politician to enter the Upper House Diet, 1994.
The Ainu culture and people has been steadily garnering recognition and respect for the past couple decades due to the hard work and efforts of the Ainu people and their supporters.
One of the more landmark cases for Ainu recognition began in the early 1980s, when the Japanese Government (in the form of the Hokkaido Development Bureau) planned for the erection of two dams on the Saru River, located in southern Hokkaido. The issue with this is one of the proposed dams was planned to be built near a prominently populated Ainu village, one with historic and cultural importance. There’s something about the Japanese building/authorizing construction of unwanted structures in areas where Wajin people aren’t as concentrated (an example would be a majority of the American military bases are located in Okinawa, which has been extremely unpopular with the locals and Ryukyuan).
Refusing the Government’s offer to buy the land, a Project Authorization was granted to the bureau, effectively requiring all residents of the area to vacate. Obviously not happy with the situation, the Ainu took the government to court. Unfortunately, by the time a verdict was drawn, the dam was already completed and standing. Nevertheless, the claims set forth by the Ainu were recognized by the court, most importantly that the court recognized the group as indigenous people for the first time and that the Japanese nation has not been, but should be, responsible for taking care of its own indigenous groups.
The attitude towards the group has certainly improved significantly the past couple decades, that is for certain. But what was the general attitude like in the early 1990s? I’ll end this post with an old documentary. As I’ve said before in my
Burakumin Dowa post, there are multiple sides to this issue and a whole lot more going on. A lot of the readers had strong opinions to share on the assimilation choices made by Japan’s Ministry of Education toward the Burakumin. Now, having viewed a different minority group and the way the assimilation has affected the group, what are your opinions now? If you have any interest in Japan or ever thought about living there at some point, it may be worth your time to educate yourself on the Ainu and all of the minority groups in Japan. Japan is commonly referred to as a homogenous nation and does have the appearance of one from the outside, but it really is a multiethnic nation.