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1 The Ainu People

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Ainu History and Culture

1●Ainu People
2●Eating Habits
3●Wild Vegetable
10●Religion/"Sending Spirits Back"
11●Life of the Ainu
12●Sacred Dances
13●Oral Literature
15●Ainu Museum

The Ainu People

"Ainu" means "human". The Ainu people regard things useful to them or beyond their control as "kamuy"(gods). In daily life, they prayed to and performed various ceremonies for the gods. These gods include : "nature" gods, such as of fire, water, wind and thunder ; "animal" gods, such as of bears, foxes, spotted owls and gram-puses ; "plant" gods, such as of aconite, mush-room and mugwort ; "object" gods, such as of boats and pots ; and gods which protect houses, gods of mountains and gods of lakes. The word "Ainu" refers to the opposite of these gods.


About 300 B.C., Honshu (Japan's mainland) experienced the Yayoi Period. Between the Yayoi and Muromachi Periods, Hokkaido experienced periods of earthenware cultures, such as the Zoku-Jomon Period, the Satsumon Period, and the Okhotsk Culture.

The "Ainu Culture" extended from about 1400 to the early 1700 s. According to one theory, the Satsumon Culture developed into the Ainu Culture through the influence of the Okhotsk Culture.

However, this theory is not a proven one. In the mid-1400 s, the Japanese extended their influence over southern Hokkaido, primarily Esashi and Matsumae. Later, they came to op-press the Ainu. To resist the oppression by the Japanese, the Ainu waged the Battle of Kosyamain in 1457, the Battle of Syaksyain in 1669, and the Battle of Kunasiri-Menasi in 1789. The Ainu lost each time. After losing the Battle of Kunasiri-Menasi in particular, the Ainu fell completely under the control of the Japanese.

They remained oppressed and exploited by the Japanese until the Meiji era. In the Meiji era, under the government policy of assimilation, the Ainu were prohibited from observing their daily customs. Given the status of former aborigines, the Ainu were forced to abide by Japanese daily customs. In 1899, the Hokkaido Aborigine Protection Act was passed. The act primarily aimed to provide relief for the Ainu and help them become engaged in agriculture. However, the act designated the Ainu as "former aborigines" and clarified the distinction between the Japanese and the Ainu.

In the late Meiji era, with an increasing number of Japanese colonizing Hokkaido from Honshu, the oppression and exploitation of the Ainu was replaced by discrimination against them. Discrimination against the Ainu still remains today and has become a major social problem.

At the Hokkaido Ainu Convention in Shizunai, Hokkaido, in 1946, the Hokkaido Ainu Association was established primarily to provide higher education and collaborate in the construction of social welfare facilities. In 1961, the association changed its name to the Hokkaido Utari Association. The association is actively engaged tackling in various problems regarding the Ainu. In 1984, the Hokkaido Utari Association resolved that the Government should enact the New Ainu Law (tentative name), a new law which replaces the current "Hokkaido Aborigine Protection Act." Since then, the association has been conducting an active campaign to demand that the national government enact the New Ainu Law as soon as possible. Furthermore, 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. Moreover, associations to preserve traditional dancing have been organized to revive and conduct ceremonies such as iyomante and chipsanke.


prayers to gods

The elder of Ainu

The elders of Ainu("ezoshima-kikan")


The area where Ainu lived in in the early modern times


Ainu who lived in Hokkaido, the Kurile Islands and Sakhalin were called "Hokkaido Ainu", "Kurile Ainu" and "Sakhalin Ainu"respectively. Most Ainu now live in Hokkaido. It has been confirmed that a few Ainu people now live in Sakhalin. The census of the Ainu was started by the Japanese in the 1800 s for various purposes, e.g. for putting them to work. The Ainu population from 1807 to 1931 varied as follows :

  • 1807 : 26,256
  • 1822 : 23,563
  • 1854 : 17,810
  • 1873 : 16,272
  • 1903 : 17,783
  • 1931 : 15,969

These figures (estimated ones) show that the population decreased particularly sharply from 1822 to 1854. The reasons for the decrease were, among others, the spread through the Ainu population of such diseases as smallpox, measles, cholera, tuberculosis and venereal diseases and the breakup of families due to forced labor.

According to a current survey conducted by the Hokkaido Government in 1984, the Ainu population of Hokkaido then was 24,381.



Shiraoi village in taisho era




Ainu Museum 3-4, Wakakusa-cho 2-chome, Shiraoi-gun, Hokkaido, JAPAN 059-0902

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