6 Interesting Facts About the Ainu, the Indigenous People of Japan

  • Most people associate the people of Japan with the modern ethnic majority. Just like how modern-day Americans descended from those who originally emigrated from Europe, the modern Japanese person has descendants from Korea if you go back far enough. Japan’s indigenous population, the Ainu, however, is relatively unknown, and their culture and language are on the brink of extinction. Here are some interesting facts about the mysterious indigenous people of Japan.

    1. They’ve been in Japan since the Jomon period (14,500 to 300 BC)

    The Ainu people have been in Japan, or specifically, Hokkaido, for up to sixteen and a half thousand years, which is incredible.

    2. They weren’t officially recognized by the Japanese government until 2008

    Despite being in Japan longer than modern-day Japanese people, they were discriminated against and ignored right up until 2008. According to the government, there are around 25,000 Ainu people in Japan to this day, but other sources claim that it could be many, many more.

    3. The Ainu were discriminated against for a long time

    Some sources say that the Ainu were enslaved, although there isn’t sufficient evidence to support this. Until 1997, the government actually outlawed Ainu cultural activities in the hopes that the people would migrate into modern Japanese culture. Although this ended 20 years ago, a lot of the damage is done and most of what the Ainu had left of their culture was lost, which is a tremendous shame.

    4. Their culture is very different to modern Japanese culture

    There are many significant differences between the Ainu culture and the Japanese culture as we know it. Traditionally hunter-gatherers, the Ainu live off the land, mostly eating wild animals such as deer, bear, rabbit, salmon, and fox, as well as root vegetables, and they always cook their food. You won’t find sashimi in an Ainu household.

    Women get tattooed on their mouth to signify their journey to adulthood and men stop shaving their beards at a certain age. Many aspects of Ainu culture differ greatly from the Japanese.

    5. They have their own language

    Unlike the Japanese language, which has its roots from Chinese, the Ainu language is unique. It has no known written form and its origins are unknown. Now, there is only a handful of native Ainu speakers, all of them elderly, making the language, and its culture, endangered and very close to extinct.

    Because of its lack of written form, the Ainu language has mostly been transcribed using Japanese kana, which has had an effect on the language. Sadly, it seems that this will be one of the languages to die after decades of oppression and censorship.

    6. There are places where you can learn more about the Ainu

    1994 seemed to be a turning point for the Ainu people as Shigeru Kayano, an Ainu native, entered the Japanese diet and spread awareness of his people and their culture. In the past few years, more of an effort is being made to preserve Japan’s indigenous people and to teach others about them.

    You can visit the Ainu Museum Poroto Kotan in Hokkaido to learn more about these fascinating people. By learning about them, you are helping keep their culture alive.

    It is good to see that attempts are being made to recognize the Ainu people and help keep their traditions alive by educating people about them. Sadly, it may be too little too late for these people, who, through oppression and discrimination, almost died out. Hopefully, we can help preserve what is left of this fascinating and unique culture.