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

Unlike the 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.

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Ainu Today

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.

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  • Lildreamertina

    This is amazing! and…. they where the orignal founders of techno from the sounds of the jaw harp!

  • Hashi

    Maybe Daft Punk are a couple of Ainu guys under those masks :o

  • Anonymous

    As well as with the Burakumin post, very nicely done!  As an aside, I think most people would agree that the definition of Aiona as  ‘human’ is much better than ‘persons smelling of Aiona’…..just saying ;)

    It saddens me that the dam was already completed by the time the Ainu won the court case against the government.  You’d think they would have halted the work whilst a decision was being made.  I understand that the decision was ground-breaking in terms of their indigenous legitimacy long-term, but short-term all those people still had to relocate/be uprooted, which certainly doesn’t seem fair :-/

    Just out of curiosity, does anyone know the symbolism behind the Ainu flag? Sorry for the odd question, I just find that sort of thing interesting.

  • Viet

    According to the following source (, the meaning behind the flag:

    “The Ainu flag was designed by the late Mr Bikki Sunazawa in 1973. Cerurean 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 the Ainu people’s mind and culture which never disappear.”

    I’m a fan of the design and colors of the flag. The concept and meaning behind it is also great.

  • Anonymous

    That’s awesome, thank you so much Viet! :D

  • Viet

    Not a problem Carlie. I’m glad you asked about the flag. I was also curious about the symbolism behind it, but alas have been preoccupied with other work.

  • Wanjamwr

    My thoughts exactly.

  • Sm

    They resemble our people in SE Alaska/British Columbia…The Tlingit, especially in their Artistic designs and such.

  • ヽ(´ー`)ノ

    That would’ve been my second guess, right after “rocket ship.”

  • koichi

    Yeah, lots of similarities between Pacific Northwest Native Americans too. My dad’s always working with Japanese archaeologists to study just that, actually. I’ve never been much into it, but it’s pretty interesting to learn about the native natives!

  • Baisley C

    Ever since I first read Shaman King, I;ve always wanted to learn about the Ainu, Thank you :)

  • koichi

    oh damn, that’s totally a rocket ship. Ancient Aliens!

  • hoihoi
  • hoihoi

    The truth of Ainu
    there is already no pure ainu in Japan
    You will be  surprised. there are wire puller.
    who is real wire puller.? 

  • Sebastian

    YAY Thank you for posting an article on the Ainu! I feel special for you guys reading all our e-mails we send you!

  • Anonymous

    Thanks for this, I really enjoy these posts.


    Hi, found your blog entry, it is a helpful and informative introduction into the Ainu. It would be helpful if you could also provide some sources – there are actually a few points I would like to correct or add additional information on:

    1) The flag created by Bikky Sunazawa is great, and I like it myself, but it’s (unfortunately?) not widely accepted or used by the Ainu people, at least not today.

    2) The theory of Caucasian/proto-Caucasian origins of the Ainu have generally been discredited, and it is now commonly believed that the Ainu are “Mongoloid” (if you believe in such categorization), having developed from Jomon and later Satsumon cultures as you pointed out.

    3) As for the creation myth, this is not my area of expertise, but as far as I know the most common name for the ancestor is Aynurakkur, or “god smelling of humans” since although he was a god he lived like the humans (so the Ainu weren’t named after him, ‘aynu/ainu’ just means ‘human’). He was also known by several other names such as Okikurmi, Okikirmuy, and Oyna-kamuy or A-e-oyna-kamuy. A variant of A-e-oyna-kamuy is Ayoynakamuy (Aioina-kamuy), but I have yet to see or hear of “Aioina rak guru” (I think linguistically this is incorrect since “a-e-oyna” is not just a name but means “that which we pass on traditions of” or “that uses shamanism itself”).

    4) You mention that contact between the Ainu and Yamato began 2000 years ago with campaigns to subdue them in 700 AD. However, in Japan the general theory is that what we refer to as Ainu culture was established in 1200 AD (although this is subject to debate). I think you are referring to what was known as ‘Ezo’ or ‘Emishi,’ and it is debatable whether they should be considered Ainu, predecessors of the Ainu, or an amalgamation of different peoples which may or may not have included the Ainu.

    5) As for the Ainu’s recognition as an indigenous people in 2008 (I would say recognition, not reinstatement) it is believed that the hosting of the G8 Summit in Hokkaido in 2008 put a lot of pressure on the Japanese government to do so as well.

    I think that’s about it – the rest of the information is generally very good and accurate. Sorry for such a long post! Thank you for contributing to spreading knowledge about the Ainu.

    If you want to keep up to date on current Ainu society, please check out:


  • Viet


    Thank you for  your comment! As for my sources, I drew most of my information from the three journal articles

    I. L. G. Sutherland
    The Journal of the Polynesian Society , Vol. 57, No. 3 (September, 1948), pp. 203-226

    A Glimpse into the Demography of the Ainu
    E. A. Hammel
    American Anthropologist , New Series, Vol. 90, No. 1 (Mar., 1988), pp. 25-41

    Ethnic Tourism in Hokkaido and the Shaping of Ainu Identity
    Lisa Hiwasaki
    Pacific Affairs , Vol. 73, No. 3 (Autumn, 2000), pp. 393-412

    I’ve also used the internet to do quick spot checks on very generic information on the Ainu.

    I’ll addressed each of your list items.

    1) You are right that the flag is not an official banner of the Ainu people, which is something I should have made clear in the post. But it is an image that is now associated to the group, whether they recognize it or not.

    2) I wouldn’t call it a theory that the Ainu are proto-Caucasian or proto-Mongloid/Mongoloid. It’s more of a hypothesis made by the research society, if anything. Calling it a theory would imply that their origins are conclusive and can stand on its own against any differing hypothesis’, which is by far not the case at the moment. As to my understanding, although proto-Mongoloid is becoming the new flavor hypothesis, all the genetic testing and anthropology research that has been done so far hasn’t found anything conclusive or anything close to it.

    As pointed out in the very beginning of my article, the origin of the Ainu is still up in mystery and everything is just a hypothesis at this point.

    3) Yeah, I’m definitely no expert on folklore, but the Ainu story I gave does have some relevance. I first read the story in one of the journal articles, and did spot check it (and read the results) through a quick Google . You can see from the first page of the results, the story and the term itself “Aioina rak guru,” and the story behind it is prevalent in many , if not a lot, academic books. This is not to discount your knowledge on the matter, but I believe that the story has relevance and isn’t something that is made up.

    4) Again, the date of existence is really up in the air. I think I should have worded that part a little better. Many researchers hypothesized that the culture itself (not the people) existed sometime around a couple hundred years AD. For the longest time, it was believed that the Ainu were descendants of the Jomon, but the problem was there seem to be a huge cultural gap between the two people, like a transition between the two cultures must have existed between the two. It wasn’t until recently that the Satsumon was discovered and fit that gap between the two cultures. You are right, it is all very debatable.

    5) Yeah, recognition would be a better word to use. I used reinstatement because I was more thinking in the lines of “they were once considered a different ethnic group before 1899 and now they are considered a different group again.” But good to know about the G8 summit. It seems that the only way things can get done is if Japan has to save face.

    Again, thanks for your comments. You did bring up many good points that I now realized I should have covered more in the article itself. The point of the article is to bring awareness of Japan’s minority group through an introduction, and I think both you and I can appreciate that :)

  • Anonymous

    I just want to say that I found this article very informative and interesting.  Sometimes, I feel like people learning a new language and culture become blinded to the “seedier” parts and only concentrate on the good things.  If you really want to understand a language and culture, then I think you should educate yourself about as many of the aspects as you can, even the not so pretty parts, and your article definitely helps with that.

  • Anonymous

    Besides watching Anthony Bourdain diminish Hokkaido’s supply of Uni and Ikura, his No Reservations episode had a segment on the Ainu: . I didn’t know that there were native ethnic groups that were different from the Japanese until he brought it up. After reading your article, it’s great to learn more about the Ainu!

  • Viet

    Thanks for sharing! I’m a big fan of Bourdain. Always enjoy his perspective on life and food.


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    Hi Viet,

    Thanks for your reply.

    I actually haven’t read any of your sources  yet (most of my
    information has been garnered through working & living in the Ainu
    community and sources written in Japanese) but I will definitely try to check
    it out.


    One thing I would say is to recommend you to be wary about
    older sources such as Sutherland and other “Early European writings on Ainu
    culture” (which comes up in the search for Aioina rak guru). Many of the
    hypotheses held or created several decades ago have widely been debunked and no
    longer accepted (ie Caucasoid origins) although, as you say, the evidence may
    not be conclusive. (Interestingly, the Ainu = Caucasoid hypothesis was utilized
    by some Nazis to justify their alliance with the Japanese, who were in their
    minds descendants of the Aryan Ainu.)


    In language as well, I am sure you might be able to find
    sources with reference to “Aioina rak guru” such as “Early European writings on
    Ainu culture,” but I imagine that these must be outdated. Research into the
    language has been refined over the years by linguists, and it can be seen that
    older sources are rife with misspellings (especially since transliterations had
    not been systematized) and/or misattributions. A good example is “guru” which
    would definitely be transliterated now as “kur” (perhaps in some sense similar
    to how Peking became Beijing).


    Regardless, I would just like to emphasize that I am happy
    to see your post and appreciate your effort to spread knowledge and interest
    about the Ainu. I find it frustrating at times the lack of information and
    resources on the Ainu in English, and that’s one of the reasons I started Ainu
    Pride Productions.


    One source I would recommend if you can get your hands on it
    is “Ainu: Spirit of a Northern People” by William W. Fitzugh and Chisato O.
    Dubreuil. I must admit I haven’t read the entire thing but it’s worth it even
    just for the pictures!


    Anyways, thanks again and best of luck – please let me know
    if there’s any way I can help if you need information about the Ainu.

  • Musouka

    This might be a bit late, but I guess it does not hurt to point it.

    Aljazeera’s 101 East did a 23-minute report on the Ainu people back in 2010 you might still want to add it in:

  • Chin chin wat

    Of a North West Oregon Tribe in the United States;  this was interesting to see.  Thank you.  Creator took care of each tribe as it was necessary.   So proud of all our people that hold on to the “old ways”….small or large.  Keep it in your heart.

  • Hun

    Fun fact: The Ainu language does not contain the L sound, but only has R, just like Japanese.

  • Anonomys


  • AadiAryaPurushaz(Himavat)

    Flag is of a trident, like Lord Shiva’s..weird.