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Ainu (アイヌ?) IPA: [ʔáinu] (also called Ezo in historical texts) are an ethnic group indigenous to Hokkaidō, the Kuril Islands, and much of Sakhalin. There are most likely over 150,000 Ainu today; however the exact figure is not known as many Ainu hide their origin due to racial issues in Japan. In many cases, surviving Ainu may not be even aware of their ancestry, as their parents and grandparents kept their descent private in order to protect their children from social problems.

Their most widely known ethnonym is derived from the word ainu, which means "human" (particularly as opposed to kamui, divine beings) in the Hokkaidō dialects of the Ainu language; Emishi, Ezo or Yezo (蝦夷) are Japanese terms, which are believed to derive from the ancestral form of the modern Sakhalin Ainu word enciw or enju, also meaning "human". The term Utari (ウタリ?) (meaning "comrade" in Ainu) is now preferred by some members of this minority. Note that Yezo was also an earlier name of the island of Hokkaidō, if not of the homonymous prefecture.


The origins of the Ainu have not been fully determined. They have often been considered Jōmon-jin, natives to Japan from the Jōmon period. "The Ainu lived in this place a hundred thousand years before the Children of the Sun came" is told in one of their Yukar Upopo (Ainu legends).[1]

Ainu culture dates from around 1200 CE[2] and recent research suggests that it originated in a merger of the Okhotsk and Satsumon cultures.[3] Their economy was based on farming as well as hunting, fishing and gathering.[4]

Full-blooded Ainu are mostly fair-skinned, with the men generally having dense hair development.[5] Many early investigators proposed a Caucasian ancestry although recent DNA tests have found no traces of Caucasian ancestry. [6]

Genetic testing of the Ainu people has shown them to belong mainly to Y-haplogroup D.[7] The only places outside of Japan in which Y-haplogroup D is common are Tibet and the Andaman Islands in the Indian Ocean.[8] In a study by Tajima et al. (2004), two out of a sample of sixteen (or 12.5%) Ainu men were found to belong to Haplogroup C3, which is the most common Y-chromosome haplogroup among the indigenous populations of the Russian Far East and Mongolia;[7] Hammer et al. (2006) tested another sample of four Ainu men and found that one of them belonged to haplogroup C3.[9] Some researchers have speculated that this minority of Haplogroup C3 carriers among the Ainu may reflect a certain degree of unidirectional genetic influence from the Nivkhs, a traditionally nomadic people of northern Sakhalin Island and the adjacent mainland, with whom the Ainu have long-standing cultural interactions.[7] According to Tanaka et al. (2004), their mtDNA lineages mainly consist of haplogroup Y (21.6%) and haplogroup M7a (15.7%).[10] Mitochondrial DNA haplogroup Y is otherwise found mainly among Nivkhs, as well as at lower frequency among Koreans, Mongols, Tungusic peoples, Koryaks, Itelmens, and Austronesians; haplogroup M7a, on the other hand, is found elsewhere almost exclusively among Japanese, Ryukyuans, Koreans, and Waars of the Jaintia Hills in Meghalaya, India.[11][12][13] A recent reevaluation of cranial traits suggests that the Ainu resemble the Okhotsk more than they do the Jōmon.[14] This agrees with the reference to the Ainu culture being a merger of Okhotsk and Satsumon cultures referenced above.

Some have speculated that the Ainu may be descendants of a prehistoric group of humans that also produced indigenous Australian peoples. In Steve Olson's book Mapping Human History, page 133, he describes the discovery of fossils dating back 10,000 years, representing the remains of the Jōmon, a group whose facial features more closely resemble those of the indigenous peoples of New Guinea and Australia. After a new wave of immigration, probably from the Korean Peninsula some 2,300 years ago, of the Yayoi people, the Jōmon were pushed into northern Japan. Genetic data suggest that modern Japanese are descended from both the Yayoi and the Jōmon.

American continent connectionEdit

In the late 20th century, much speculation arose that people of the group related to the Jomon may have been one of the first to settle North America. This theory is based largely on skeletal and cultural evidence among tribes living in the western part of North America and certain parts of South America. It is possible that North America had several peoples among its early settlers – these relatives of the Jomon being one of them. The best-known evidence that may support this theory is probably Kennewick Man.[15][16]

Groundbreaking genetic mapping studies by Cavalli-Sforza have shown a sharp gradient in gene frequencies centered in the area around the Sea of Japan(East Sea), and particularly in the Japanese Archipelago, that distinguishes these populations from others in the rest of eastern Asia and most of the American continent. This gradient appears as the third most important genetic movement (in other words, the third principal component of genetic variation) in Eurasia (after the "Great expansion" from the African continent, which has a cline centered in Arabia and adjacent parts of the Middle East, and a second cline that distinguishes the northern regions of Eurasia and particularly Siberia from regions to the south), which would make it consistent with the early Jōmon period, or possibly even the pre-Jōmon period.[17]


After initial contact with the immigrants, large settlements of the Japanese newcomers gradually spread into Ainu territory. As the Japanese moved north and took control over Ainu lands, the Ainu often gave up without resistance, with some occasional wars in 1457, 1669, and 1789, where the Ainu were defeated. Notable Ainu revolts include Shakushain's Revolt and the Menashi-Kunashir Battle. The Japanese government was not able to control the Ainu lands from Hokkaido and northward until the 19th century.[18] Japanese policies became increasingly aimed at assimilating the Ainu in the Meiji period starting in 1868, outlawing their language, forcing them to use Japanese names, redistributing their land to Japanese farmers[5] and restricting them to farming on government-provided plots and as labor in the Japanese fishing industry. As the Japanese government encouraged immigration of ethnic Japanese to populate Hokkaido, the Ainu became increasingly marginalised in their own land. The population was greatly reduced due to hardship and diseases introduced by the immigrant Japanese. The island of Hokkaido was called Ezo or Ezo-chi during the Edo period. Its name was changed to Hokkaido during the Meiji Restoration as part of the program to "unify" the Japanese national character under the aegis of the Emperor, thus reducing the local identity and autonomy of the different regions of Japan.

In 1899 the Japanese government passed an act labeling the Ainu as former Aborigines, with the idea they would assimilate. The act was replaced in 1997—until then the government had stated there were no ethnic minority groups.[5] It was not until June 6, 2008 that Japan would formally recognise the Ainu as an indigenous group.[5] As Japanese citizens, the Ainu are now governed by Japanese laws and judged by Japanese tribunals, but in the past, their affairs were administered by hereditary chiefs, three in each village, and for administrative purposes the country was divided into three districts, Saru, Usu and Ishikari, which were under the ultimate control of Saru, though the relations between their respective inhabitants were not close and intermarriages were avoided. The functions of judge were not entrusted to these chiefs; an indefinite number of a community's members sat in judgment upon its criminals. Capital punishment did not exist, nor did the community resort to imprisonment. Beating was considered a sufficient and final penalty. However, in the case of murder, the nose and ears of the culprit were cut off or the tendons of his feet severed. Intermarriages between Japanese and Ainu were actively promoted by the Ainu to lessen the chances of discrimination against their offspring. As a result, many Ainu are indistinguishable from their Japanese neighbors. There are many small towns in the southeastern or Hidaka region where full-blooded Ainu may still be seen such as in Nibutani. In Sambutsu especially, on the eastern coast, many children of such marriages may be seen.

The 400,000 Japanese citizen inhabitants of Sakhalin (including all indigenous Ainu) were deported following the conquest of the southern portion of the island by the Soviet Union in 1945 at the end of World War II.

Today, many Ainu dislike the term Ainu because once it had been used with derogatory nuance and prefer to identify themselves as Utari (comrade in the Ainu language). In official documents both names are used.

Official recognitionEdit

On 6 June 2008, a bi-partisan, non-binding resolution was approved by the Japanese Diet calling upon the government to recognize the Ainu people as indigenous to Japan and urge an end to discrimination against the group. The resolution recognised the Ainu people as "an indigenous people with a distinct language, religion and culture" and rescinds the law passed in 1899.[5] Though the resolution is historically significant, Hideaki Uemura, professor at Keisen University in Tokyo and a specialist in indigenous peoples' rights, commented that the motion is "weak in the sense of recognizing historical facts" as the Ainu were "forced" to become Japanese in the first place.[19]


The Ainu were distributed in the northern and central islands of Japan, from Sakhalin island in the north to the Kurile islands and the island of Hokkaidō and Northern Honshū, although some investigators place their former range as throughout Honshū and as far north as the southern tip of Kamchatka. The island of Hokkaido was known to the Ainu as Ainu Moshir, and was formally annexed by the Japanese at the late date of 1868, partly as a means of preventing the intrusion of the Russians, and partly for imperialist reasons.

According to the Russian Empire Census of 1897, 1446 persons in the Russian Empire reported Ainu language as their mother tongue, 1434 of them in Sakhalin Island.[20] For historical reasons nearly all Ainu live in Japan now. The southern half of Sakhalin was acquired by Japan as a result of the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05, but at the end of World War II in 1945, the Soviets declared war on Japan and took possession of the Kurile islands and southern Sakhalin. The Ainu population, as previously Japanese subjects, were "repatriated" to Japan.

There are, however, a small number of Ainu living on Sakhalin, most of them descendants of Sakhalin Ainu who were evicted and later returned. There is also an Ainu minority living at the southernmost area of the Kamchatka Peninsula and on the Kurile Islands. However, the only Ainu speakers remaining (besides perhaps a few partial speakers) live solely in Japan. There, they are concentrated primarily on the southern and eastern coasts of the island of Hokkaidō.

Due to intermarriage with the Japanese and ongoing absorption into the predominant culture, there are no truly Ainu settlements existing today. The town of Nibutani in Hidaka area (Hokkaido prefecture) has a number of Ainu households and a visit to some of the Ainu owned craft shops close to the Ainu museums (there are two of them in Nibutani) is an opportunity to interact with the Ainu people. Many "authentic Ainu villages" advertised in Hokkaido such as Akan and Shiraoi are tourist attractions and provide an opportunity to see and meet Ainu people.


Main article: Ainu language

The Ainu language is significantly different from the Japanese language in its syntax, phonology, morphology, and vocabulary. Although there have been attempts to show that they are related, the vast majority of modern scholars reject that the relationship goes beyond contact, such as the mutual borrowing of words between Japanese and Ainu. In fact, no attempt to show a relationship with Ainu to any other language has gained wide acceptance, and Ainu is currently considered to be a language isolate. The Ainu language is polysynthetic, and attempts have been made to relate Japanese, Korean and Ainu via an early proto-Ainu language. Words used as prepositions in English such as: to, from, by, in, and at are postpositional in Ainu; they come after the word that they modify. A single sentence in Ainu can be made up of many added or agglutinated sounds or morphemes which represent nouns or ideas. The Ainu language has had no system of writing, and has historically been transliterated by the Japanese kana or the Russian Cyrillic and now Latin alphabets by investigators. The unwieldy nature of the Japanese kana with its inability to accurately represent terminal consonants has contributed to the degradation of the original Ainu, with such words as "Kor" (meaning to hold), being pronounced now with a terminal vowel sound, "Koro", in many Japanese Ainu dialects, as distinct from the Kurile or Sakhalin Ainu. Many of the Ainu dialects even from one end of Hokkaido to the other were not mutually intelligible; however, the classic Ainu language of the Yukar, or Ainu epic stories, was understood by all. Without a writing system, the Ainu were masters of narration, with the Yukar and other forms of narration such as the Uepeker (Uwepeker) tales, being committed to memory and related at gatherings often lasting many hours or even days.


Traditional Ainu culture was quite different from Japanese culture. Never shaving after a certain age, the men had full beards and moustaches. Men and women alike cut their hair level with the shoulders at the sides of the head, trimmed semicircularly behind. The women tattooed their mouths, and sometimes the forearms. The mouth tattoos were started at a young age with a small spot on the upper lip, gradually increasing with size. The soot deposited on a pot hung over a fire of birch bark was used for color. Their traditional dress was a robe spun from the inner bark of the elm tree, called attusi or attush. Various styles of clothing were made, and consisted generally of a simple short robe with straight sleeves, which was folded around the body, and tied with a band about the waist. The sleeves ended at the wrist or forearm and the length generally was to the calves. Women also wore an undergarment of Japanese cloth. Modern craftswomen weave and embroider traditional garments which command very high prices. In winter the skins of animals were worn, with leggings of deerskin and in Sakhalin, boots were made from the skin of dogs or salmon. Both sexes are fond of earrings, which are said to have been made of grapevine in former times, as also are bead necklaces called tamasay, which the women prized highly. Their traditional cuisine consists of the flesh of bear, fox, wolf, badger, ox or horse, as well as fish, fowl, millet, vegetables, herbs, and roots. They never ate raw fish or flesh; it was always boiled or roasted. Their traditional habitations were reed-thatched huts, the largest 20 ft. (6 m) square, without partitions and having a fireplace in the center. There was no chimney, only a hole at the angle of the roof; there was one window on the eastern side and there were two doors. The house of the village head was used as a public meeting place when one was needed. Instead of using furniture, they sat on the floor, which was covered with two layers of mats, one of rush, the other of flag; and for beds they spread planks, hanging mats around them on poles, and employing skins for coverlets. The men used chopsticks when eating; the women had wooden spoons. Ainu cuisine is not commonly eaten outside Ainu communities; there are only a few Ainu-run restaurants in Japan, all located in Tokyo or Hokkaidō, serving primarily Japanese fare.


For more information see Ainu creation myth.

The Ainu are traditionally animists, believing that everything in nature has a kamui (spirit or god) on the inside. There is a hierarchy of the kamui. The most important is grandmother earth (fire), then kamui of the mountain (animals), then kamui of the sea (sea animals), lastly everything else. They have no priests by profession. The village chief performs whatever religious ceremonies are necessary; ceremonies are confined to making libations of rice beer, uttering prayers, and offering willow sticks with wooden shavings attached to them. These sticks are called inau (singular) and nusa (plural). They are placed on an altar used to "send back" the spirits of killed animals. The Ainu people give thanks to the gods before eating and pray to the deity of fire in time of sickness. They believe their spirits are immortal, and that their spirits will be rewarded hereafter by ascending to kamui mosir (Land of the Gods).

Some Ainu in the north are members of the Russian Orthodox Church.


File:Ainu promotion center, Sapporo.JPG

In March 1997, the Ainu were recognized by a Japanese court as an indigenous and minority people. Ainu issues did not matter in the sphere of public policy until then. There was a limited outcry when the Saru River was dammed and the upriver town of Nibutani, one of the largest traditional Ainu villages, was flooded and the land expropriated from its Ainu owners. The reservoir was designed to service an industrial development project on the coast of Hokkaido, and despite the industrial project's cancellation, the government persisted in building the dam. Two Ainu residents, Kaizawa Tadashi and Kayano Shigeru, refused to sell their land, and in 1993 filed lawsuit against the expropriation. The expropriation was upheld, and for the first time, a Japanese Court recognised that the Ainu's indigenous rights had been violated.[21]

As signatories of the United Nations Treaty, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) which was signed by Japan in 1979, the Japanese had been forced to face the issue that the Ainu were indeed indigenous and minority peoples, which supported the Ainu in their pursuit of their rights to their distinct culture and language. There are many different organizations of Ainu trying to further their cause in many different ways. There is an umbrella group of which most Hokkaido Ainu and some other Ainu are members, called the Hokkaido Utari Association, originally controlled by the government with the intention of speeding Ainu assimilation and integration into the Japanese nation-state, which now operates mostly independently of the government and is run exclusively by Ainu.


See alsoEdit


  1. Sjöberg, Katarina V. (1993). The Return of the Ainu: Cultural Mobilization and the Practice of Ethnicity in Japan, Chur: Harwood Academic Publ..
  2. The Boone Collection - Image Gallery: Ainu Artifacts. URL accessed on 2008-05-08.
  3. Sato, Takehiro, et al. (2007). Origins and genetic features of the Okhotsk people, revealed by ancient mitochondrial DNA analysis. Journal of Human Genetics 52 (7): 618–627.
  4. NOVA Online – Island of the Spirits – Origins of the Ainu. URL accessed on 2008-05-08.
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 5.3 5.4 includeonly>Fogarty, Philippa. "Recognition at last for Japan's Ainu", BBC News, BBC, 2008-06-06. Retrieved on 2008-06-07.
  6. 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Ainu
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 Tajima, Atsushi, et al. (2004). Genetic origins of the Ainu inferred from combined DNA analyses of maternal and paternal lineages. Journal of Human Genetics 49 (4): 187–193.
  9. Hammer, Michael F., et al. (2006). Dual origins of the Japanese: Common ground for hunter-gatherer and farmer Y chromosomes. Journal of Human Genetics 51 (1): 47–58.
  10. Tanaka, Masashi, et al. (2004). Mitochondrial Genome Variation in Eastern Asia and the Peopling of Japan. Genome Research 14: 1832–1850.
  11. Miroslava Derenko, Boris Malyarchuk, Tomasz Grzybowski, Galina Denisova, Irina Dambueva, Maria Perkova, Choduraa Dorzhu, Faina Luzina, Hong Kyu Lee, Tomas Vanecek, Richard Villems, and Ilia Zakharov, "Phylogeographic Analysis of Mitochondrial DNA in Northern Asian Populations," American Journal of Human Genetics, 2007 November; 81(5): 1025–1041.
  12. Toomas Kivisild, Helle-Viivi Tolk, Jüri Parik, Yiming Wang, Surinder S. Papiha, Hans-Jürgen Bandelt and Richard Villems, "The Emerging Limbs and Twigs of the East Asian mtDNA Tree," Molecular Biology and Evolution 19:1737–1751 (2002).
  13. Reddy BM, Langstieh BT, Kumar V, Nagaraja T, Reddy ANS et al. (2007), "Austro-Asiatic Tribes of Northeast India Provide Hitherto Missing Genetic Link between South and Southeast Asia." PLoS ONE 2(11): e1141. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0001141
  14. Shigematsu, Masahito, et al. (2004). Morphological affinities between Jomon and Ainu: Reassessment based on nonmetric cranial traits. Anthropological Science 112 (2): 161–172.
  15. Kennewick Man Skeletal Find May Revolutionalize Continent's History, Science Daily
  16. ANTHROPOLOGY: Kennewick Man's Contemporaries, Science
  17. "The synthetic maps suggest a previously unsuspected center of expansion from the Sea of Japan but cannot indicate dates. This development could be tied to the Jōmon period, but one cannot entirely exclude the pre-Jōmon period and that it might be responsible for a migration to the Americas. A major source of food in those pre-agricultural times came from fishing, then as now, and this would have limited for ecological reasons the area of expansion to the coastline, perhaps that of the Sea of Japan, but also father along the Pacific Coast" "The History and Geography of Human Genes" p253, Cavalli-Sforza ISBN 0-691-08750-4
  18. Report on a New Policy for the Ainu: A Critique
  19. The Japan Times | Diet officially declares Ainu indigenous
  20. Russian Empire Census of 1897: Totals Russian Empire Census of 1897: Sakhalin (Russian)
  21. Toward a Genuine Redress for an Unjust Past: The Nibutani Dam Case - [1997] MurUEJL 16

References and further readingEdit

This article incorporates text from the Encyclopædia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, a publication now in the public domain.

  • Batchelor, John (1901). "On the Ainu Term `Kamui" The Ainu and Their Folklore, London: Religious Tract Society.
  • Etter, Carl [1949] (2004). Ainu Folklore: Traditions and Culture of the Vanishing Aborigines of Japan, Whitfish, MT: Kessinger Publishing.
  • Fitzhugh, William W.; Dubreuil, Chisato O. (1999). Ainu: Spirit of a Northern People, Seattle: University of Washington Press.
  • Honda Katsuichi (1993). Ainu Minzoku (in Japanese), Tokyo: Asahi Shimbun Publishing.
  • Ichiro Hori (1968). Folk Religion in Japan: Continuity and Change, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Junko Habu (2004). Ancient Jomon of Japan, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Kayano, Shigeru (1994). Our Land Was A Forest: An Ainu Memoir. Westview Press. ISBN 0813318807. ISBN 9780813318806.
  • Landor, A. Henry Savage (1893). Alone with the Hairy Ainu. Or, 3,800 miles on a Pack Saddle in Yezo and a Cruise to the Kurile Islands, London: John Murray.
  • Siddle, Richard (1996). Race, Resistance and the Ainu of Japan, London: Routledge.
  • Starr, Frederick (1905). The Hairy Ainu of Japan. Proceedings of the Second Yearly Meeting of the Iowa Anthopological Association.
  • Walker, Brett (2001). The Conquest of Ainu Lands: Ecology and Culture in Japanese Expansion, 1590–1800, Berkeley: University of California Press.
  • Article on the Ainu in Japan's Minorities: The Illusion of Homogeneity.

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