The Precarious Situation and Complex Status of the Ainu

Updated on January 23, 2020
Allorah Rayne profile image

Allorah loves to write about the humanities and spirituality. She is majoring in History with minors in Anthropology & English.

Ainu men and women
Ainu men and women | Source

Who are the Ainu?

The Ainu people are an elusive and mysterious indigenous culture of Japan historically inhabiting the areas of Hokkaido, Sakhalin, and Kurils. Their culture core model and classification has been hotly debated among scholars. Despite debate, the Ainu remain hunter-gatherers though in more complex form than most other hunter-gatherer societies studied throughout the world. Factors which have influenced changes among Ainu peoples are most directly linked to discrimination of their culture and their colonizing nation of Japan and its political and economic goals. Although one of the first peoples of Japan, Ainu struggle to be included in Japan’s national history. Ainu often find their history marginalized and regionalized rather than part of the broader Japanese cultural story. The formal ratification of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People (UNDRIP) of 2007 saw the formal recognition of the Ainu in 2008 not because the Japanese government believed them to have a legitimate claim but because the global community was focused on Japan at that time. However, the UN policy has opened doors for Ainu activists to seek legal action on behalf of the Ainu. The Ainu have a complex and rich culture core that continues to lose sustainability because of the Japanese nation-state despite the implementation of the UN’s Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People in 2007.

The First Peoples of Japan

Ainu culture is anything but simplistic regardless of the stigma placed upon them by the Winja – the ethnic majority of Japan – as an uncivilized people. Ainu are typically referred to as Japan’s first peoples of the north. In large majority, Ainu inhabited the islands of Hokkaido, Sakhalin, and Kurils (all northern islands) though in early modern times there is evidence that they inhabited areas of Japan as far south as mid-Honshu (Ainu Museum 2018). The Ainu that resided in Hokkaido and Sakhalin have the most published research as to their flavour of Ainu culture. Although both groups are Ainu, they are distinct from one another in their ideological, social, and economic structure.

The culture-core of the Ainu is complicated. Ideologically, Hokkaido and Sakhalin Ainu hold a traditional hunter-gatherer animist worldview centred around the importance of sharing. However, they also subscribe to shamanism (magical potency) which is more traditional to the culture core of swidden cultivators (Irimoto, Obayashi, and Wada 2011, 305) (Warren 2018, 17). Both groups engaged in shamanic practices but used different ritual tools and employed different rules for who qualified as a shaman. For example, the Hokkaido Ainu have no record of male shamans and shaman used a kaco (drum) in ceremony (Irimoto, Obayashi, and Wada 2011, 305). Sakhalin shaman are male and used nipopo (wooden effigies) to represent the shaman himself in ceremony (Irimoto, Obayashi, and Wada 2011, 305). Animistic beliefs can be seen in all aspects of Ainu culture from their social structure to their techno-economic base through the process of feedback.

Ainu in ritual
Ainu in ritual | Source

Ainu Social and Economic Structure

The Ainu live in small groups of kinship clans in relatively sedentary kotan (villages) with each division of Ainu mobilizing at different rates. Ainu clans are made up of anywhere from four to ten families, are patrilineal and patrilocal, and subscribe to egalitarian sexual division of labour (Ainu Museum 2018) (Lewallen 2013, 124-129). Each of the main three divisions of Ainu have different levels of mobility. The Hokkaido are the most sedentary while the Kurils are the most mobile (Lewallen 2013, 128). Although the Ainu are egalitarian in their sexual division of labour, they also employ the use of a hierarchy consisting of chiefs and slaves (Lewallen 2013, 125). The semi-sedentary village and the use of hierarchy further complicates the culture-core classification of the Ainu. However, it is within the social organization that the animistic worldview and pronounced importance of sharing is seen. For instance, the hunting of the bear is ritualistic and part of the Ainu religious belief that to kill an animal is to send the descended spirit back to the divine (Ainu Museum 2018). The sacrifice of the bear, the returning of the bear spirit, is celebrated at the bear festival where the spoils of the hunt are shared (Irimoto, Obayashi, and Wada 2011, 293-301). Every tactic employed by the Ainu in their interactions with the natural world is ideologically symbolic.

Deviation from the traditional hunter-gatherer culture core can, yet again, be observed through trade in the techno-economic base of the Ainu. Ainu were often exposed to foreign outsiders as early as the 1600s and continues to be subject to continual exposure (Lewallen 2013, 104). Ainu and those that visited both benefited from cultural exchange. Animal husbandry and the trading of rice for various Ainu goods became a by-product of foreign exposure ((Irimoto, Obayashi, and Wada 2011, 293) (Lewallen 2013, 127). Tools of the Ainu are portable, reusable, and easily disposable fitting the hunter-gatherer culture core requirements. In the instance of hunting, poison arrows, automatic spring-bows, and hand bows are all utilized (Irimoto, Obayashi, and Wada 2011, 293). The Ainu have highly detailed knowledge of their environment from hunting and planting strategies to environmental factors which affect their work with the land. One example of this is how aconite is obtained from plants native to Ainu environments and manufactured by the Ainu into poisons (Irimoto, Obayashi, and Wada 2011, 293-294). Evidence that the Ainu subscribe to personalty rather than private property can be observed in the Hokkaido practice of communal hunting and fishing territories that are off limits to neighbouring groups (Lewallen 2013, 128). Again, despite deviations from the traditional hunter-gatherer culture core, it is not enough to place them in either the traditional Steward swidden cultivator or peasant culture-cores but rather enough to deem them as complex hunter-gatherers.

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Ethnocide of a Culture

The social, economic, and political goals of the Japanese nation-state are largely responsible for the ethnocide of Ainu culture. From 1807 to 1931 the Ainu saw a steep decline in their population dwindling to 15,969 from 26,256 in large part due to disease from foreign exposure and the breakup of families due to forced labour of the Ainu at the will of the Japanese (Ainu Museum 2018). The Japanese began to colonize Hokkaido island beginning in the mid-1400s from the main island of Honshu (Ainu Museum 2018). Although the Ainu attempted to resist colonization by the Japanese, they continued to lose in battle until 1769 when they came under the complete control of the Japanese (Ainu Museum 2018). Expectations and restrictions placed on the Ainu people shifted with Japanese dynastic rule. For example, Ainu paid tribute to the Japanese government during the Qing dynasty and under the Tokugawa dynasty were forced into compulsory fishing practices for regional merchants (Lewallen 2013, 147-148). These policies, geared towards making Japan a capitalist and centrally governed nation-state, provided the Ainu with less land and resources to sustain their culture. Continuous warring over Ainu lands in their early existence, exploitation eventuating into continued racial discrimination by the Winja during the Meiji era (1868-1912), and modern era (1920s onward) forced assimilation policies have led to the decline and unsustainability of the Ainu culture (Ainu Museum 2018) (Lewallen 2013, 175-176) (Olupona 2003, 226-228). Cultural sustainability continues to be a problem in Japan today for the Ainu people despite international rights efforts aimed at protecting indigenous cultures.

When the UN Declaration for the Rights of Indigenous People was ratified in 2007, the Japanese government seemed unsure that it should apply to Ainu people. The government sent out surveys to other states asking them what their understanding of the UN’s policy was (Lewallen 2013, 208). Although Japan had signed the UN document they remained hesitant to implement the policy regarding the Ainu. However, the entire world was looking at Japan in 2008 when it would host the international G8 summit and was forced to officially recognise the Ainu as an indigenous people (Lewallen 2013, 209). Since 2008, the adoption of UNDRIP by the Japanese government has created policies for the protection and return of ancestral remains and for the revitalization of Ainu language (Hansen, Jepsen and Jaquelin 2017, 304-307). Racial discrimination against Ainu remains problematic. To combat hate speech against those of Ainu descent the Japanese government has passed laws related to hate speech and have begun the groundwork for public discrimination awareness programs (Hansen, Jepsen and Jaquelin 2017, 305-306). These laws contain loopholes and the Ainu are far from equality in Japan.

Ainu Museum

Ainu Museum:
2 Chome-3-4 Wakakusachō, Shiraoi-chō, Shiraoi-gun, Hokkaidō 059-0902, Japan

get directions

Museum dedicated to the history of the First Peoples of Japan, the Ainu


The Ainu are a society of indigenous people who do not easily fit into Julian Steward’s cultural-ecological model framework. They encompass traits of hunter-gatherer, shifting cultivators, and peasant societies but have been determined to be complex hunter-gatherers. The economic and political goals of the Japanese nation-state have influenced changes to traditional Ainu society. The ratification of the UN Declaration for the Rights of Indigenous in 2007 led to the official recognition of the Ainu as an indigenous population in 2008. The Ainu continue to fight for their right to sustain their culture in a world determined to witness its extinction.

Reference List

Ainu Museum. 2018. Accessed March 31, 2018.

Hansen, Katrine Broch, Käthe Jepsen, and Pamela Leiva Jacquelin, eds. INDIGENOUS WORLD 2017. Edison, NJ: Transaction, 2017.

Irimoto, Takashi, Kan Wada and Taryo Obayashi. 2011. “Part IV: Northwestern Pacific.” In Shamanism and Northern Ecology, edited by Juha Pentikäinen, 291-331. Berlin/Boston: De Gruyter, Inc. Accessed March 31, 2018. ProQuest Ebook Central.

Lewallen, Ann-Elise. 2013. Beyond Ainu Studies: Changing Academic and Public Perspectives. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press. Accessed March 31, 2018. ProQuest Ebook Central.

Olupona, Jacob K., ed. 2003. Beyond Primitivism: Indigenous Religious Traditions and Modernity. London: Taylor & Francis Group. Accessed March 31, 2018. ProQuest Ebook Central.

© 2018 Allorah

Questions, Comments, Feedback?

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    • ptosis profile image


      2 years ago from Arizona

      Great article. Trivia; Ainu DNA marker found in original people's genes in Northwest of South America. So at one time the Ainu must've sailed to Ecuador and surrounding areas. Probably to escape prosecution for having hairy faces.


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