Author: Elisha Kayne
Nestled in the forested region of Nibutani in Hokkaido, Japan, dwells a town of less than 500 people. Most communities this small have little to offer visitors, but this tiny village holds one of the greatest treasures of Japanese history, the rich and distinct culture of the Ainu peoples. Many have never heard of the Ainu, an indigenous group in Northern Japan who have somehow kept their unique heritage alive despite thousands of years of change and transformation.
Origin of the Ainu Peoples
The origin of the Ainu has been debated over time. Modern DNA research does suggest that the modern day Ainu are descendants of the Jomon period cultures, including a merging of Okhotsk and Satsumon populations. The Jomon period lasted from roughly 10,000 BC to 300 BC, and surprisingly, the Ainu have managed to retain much of their hunter gatherer traditions, reaching all the way back to Neolithic times.
Beliefs and Practices
There are many cultural beliefs and traditions that make the Ainu people stand out amongst other Japanese populations. Distinctive examples include facial tattoos, shoulder length hair with unshaved beards and moustaches and clothing with intricate, bold geometric patterns. Traditional foods include bear, badger, fox, horse as well as a more conventional diet of fish, vegetables, millet and root vegetables. Ainu living quarters most often consisted of small reed-thatched huts with a central fireplace for keeping warm during cold seasons. Leadership was often a community wide responsibility, as the entire village would commonly make judgements upon those who committed crimes against another, rather than relying on a single chief for making legal decisions. Hunting was also a very important part of Ainu society, as the people relied heavily on the meat and fish for their sustenance. The men frequently shot their prey with poison tipped arrows, which aided in a successful hunt. They also held the animals in extremely high regard, placing particular divine significance on the Bear, which was often the center of sacrificial rituals. While the Ainu don’t appoint priests, the village chief is often tasked with performing certain important religious ceremonies. A belief that everything in nature holds a spirit, or kamuy, is prevalent among the Ainu, and many spiritual customs are associated with developing a relationship or connection with the various spirits which dwell within the local animals, mountains and plants of the area.
The Ainu of Modern Japan
For many years, the Ainu remained largely isolated to the regions of Sakhalin, Hokkaido and the Kuril Islands. In the 20th Century, many other Japanese populations moved into these areas, at times creating a loss of culture. The Ainu became an officially recognized indigenous people by the Japanese government in 2008, providing some protections and encouraging the resurgence of traditional beliefs and practices. In today, it is reported that the number of people in Japan with Ainu heritage is around 25,000. However, because of the amount of co-habitation between the Ainu and other Japanese ethnic groups, there are likely more than a 100,000 people within Japan who have Ainu lineage without being aware of it. Communities like Nibutani provide a unique opportunity for the Ainu people to revitalize their population and continue to pass down their legacy to future generations.