Who are the Ainu people?
Japan is home to a multitude of minority groups and one of these groups is the Ainu. The Ainu people have an intricate history that traces back to pre-modern times and they have long resided in the Northern Island of Japan where Hokkaido is currently situated. A hunter-gatherer society, the Ainu ethnic group has undergone many changes over the course of time, however this group has retained a distinct ethnicity from the Japanese people.
History, Tradition and Culture
They have their own language, culture and full-blooded Ainu people tend to stand out from the Japanese because of their physical traits. Men have full-bodied beards that are not shaved after a certain age while women have mouth tattoos to symbolise their coming of age. With their light skin, European physique and thick, wavy hair, the Mongoloid descendants are set apart from their Japanese counterparts. However, physical appearance is not their only distinguishing factor. Cultural traits vary quite significantly too!
While the origins of the Ainu culture and people have been a point of debate for decades, it was established by Dr Richard Saddle that around the 13th century, the Ainu culture became distinctive in Northern Japan and the population extended to as far as the East of Russia. Hokkaido’s indigenous culture is shaped by its relationship to the environment.
Their nature-dependent lifestyle inculcates a profound respect for the natural environment and the spirits they believe are manifested in the natural world. Intricately-patterned garbs are part of their everyday lives and the patterns are symbolic in warding off spirits and/or representing special occasions. In celebrating traditional ceremonies, or otherwise, the Ainu incorporate song and dance into their lives.
These are meant to embody the human condition and as such the traditional arts are indispensable. Furthermore, the arts are valuable resources in learning about the history and the language of the Ainu people, since there are no written resources available. The philosophical tales, enriched by the imagination and myths, have been passed through generations and resonates in today’s world.
A recent revival of the Ainu culture amongst its people means that visitors of Hokkaido can also enjoy an enriching journey through the history of Japan in the eyes of its indigenous population. While you are in Hokkaido, take your time to visit some of its museums and settlements and get to know about the Ainu people intimately.
Start on your journey of discovering the Ainu culture at the Hokkaido Museum of Northern Peoples. Burgeoning with information about the culture and everyday life of people inhabiting the northern region of the globe, it is the perfect place to view exhibits and learn about the Ainu people. Located in Abashiri, the intricately designed exhibits showcase the traditions, food, transport, clothing and spiritual world of Japan’s indigenous people. Moreover, you can learn about the Inuit, Sami and the Siberian peoples and the similarities or differences that they share with the Ainu people.
Inhabited by approximately 120 people, the Ainu Kotan is a cultural asset to Japan. The settlement offers locals and tourists the opportunity to immerse themselves the Ainu way of life and how they have harmoniously coexisted with nature by taking part in traditional activities and viewing ancient ceremonies. Located in Akankohan, the Ainu village is lined with shops that display traditional handicraft but that is not its main allure! Experience the Ainu culture and take part in wood carving and embroidery classes that teach you about centuries-old traditions. Attend music classes where you can learn how to play the traditional Ainu instrument, Mukkuri and understand how the music translates to everyday life and emotions! Walk through the small museum at the end of the village to admire artefacts of their daily life. Between April to November, celebrate Iomante Fire Festival and witness the stellar ancient ceremonial dance, performed by the natives.
Nibutani Ainu Culture Museum
Located in Nibutani area of Biratori-Cho, Nibutani Ainu Culture Museum takes you on a journey through centuries of Ainu Culture. Walk through rows of intricately-embroidered robes and Menoko Makiri, small knives chiseled into shape from the bark of cherry blossom trees. The museum lets you get up close and personal with the Ainu way of life with exhibit showcasing prayer ceremonies and the spiritual culture- a culmination of myths and lore. From hunting and gathering to singing and weaving, the museum does not disappoint the curious!