Ainu of Northern Japan

The Ainu are the indigenous people of Northern Japan, including the island of Hokkaido and the northern portion of Honshu, as well as nearby Russian-controlled Sakhalin Island, the Kuril Islands, and the southern portion of the Kamchatka Peninsula. Today, the Ainu can only be found on Hokkaido and Sakhalin, with most living on Hokkaido, as the groups on the Kuril Islands and Kamchatka Peninsula have gone extinct (Embree, 1988, p. 33).

Ainu man wearing traditional clothing


The origins of the Ainu are unclear (Moss & Wilson, 1993, p. 4). Resemblance in terms of facial features and body hair have led to a debate as to whether the Ainu originated from a Caucasoid (Indo-European) or an Australoid (Afro-Austronesian) group. “Recent intensive skeletal, anthropometric, serological, and other genetic studies suggest closer racial ties with some of the neighbouring Tungusic, Altaic, and Uralic populations of Siberia” (Japan: An Illustrated Encyclopedia, 1993, p. 21). The Ainu language does not offer any clues regarding the origin of the people as the Ainu language is not ‘related to the languages spoken by the neighbouring peoples, including Japanese” (Embree, 1988, p. 34). Some believe that the Ainu language could be related to languages spoken by certain indigenous groups in North America (Moss & Wilson, 1993, p. 7).

Hokkaido is the northernmost island of Japan

The Ainu and the Japanese have endured a long and bitter relationship. By the 9th century AD, the Ainu had been driven off of Honshu (Bowring & Kornicki, 1993, p. 244). At that time, the Japanese recognized the Ainu of Hokkaido as an independent nation called “Ezo” (Huffman, 1998, p. 6), the Ainu word for Hokkaido. After emperor Tokugawa assumed power in Japan in 1600, large numbers of Japanese started moving to Hokkaido. The Ainu resisted Japanese imperialism in three battles: the Battle of Kosyamain in 1457, the Battle of Syaksyain in 1669, and the Battle of Kunasiri-Menasi in 1789. The Ainu lost each time. In 1790, Japan’s imperialist expansion onto Hokkaido took a step forward, when Hokkaido was placed under the direct control of Japanese feudal lords.

Life for the Ainu became especially difficult after Emperor Meiji came to power in 1868 (Huffman, 1998, p. 6). His policy was one of forced assimilation of the Ainu people (Hilger, 1971, p. xiv). Ainu customs, such as the tattooing of women’s lips and the piercing of men’s ears were banned. In 1899, the Japanese government passed the ‘Law for the Protection of the Ainu’. This law stipulated that all Ainu children must attend Japanese schools and learn spoken and written Japanese. It also changed the way land was owned by the Ainu. Formerly, land was held communally. After the 1899 ‘Law for the Protection of the Ainu’, land was apportioned individually among the Ainu, and they were forbidden from selling their land. In the 20th century, the Ainu paid the price for the Japanese and Russian struggle for geopolitical power in the North Pacific. Near the end of World War II, the Sakhalin Ainu were expatriated off the island and sent to Hokkaido (Huffman, 1998).

Since the end of World War II, Ainu nationalism has been on the ascendancy. Today, many Ainu prefer to be called ‘Utari’, which means ‘comrade’ in the Ainu language. rather than Ainu. They have organized under the Ainu rights organization, the Utari Kyokai, which has 14,000 members (Bowring & Kornicki, 1993, p. 244). The Utari Kyokai “has represented the Ainu at the United Nations and other international forums” (Huffman, 1998, p. 6-7). They have sought redress in the Japanese judiciary and petitioned the Japanese government for political representation. Since the 1980s, efforts have been made to save the Ainu language, such as the broadcasting of television and radio programs in the Ainu language. Also, many Japanese universities have started offering Ainu language programs.

Living Physical World

The Ainu see the physical world around them through their animistic world view, in which all inanimate objects and natural forces contain spirits. The physical world, including the sea, the fields, and the forests of their island provide the Ainu with all that they need to survive. As such, the Ainu people place great importance in paying homage to the spirits so that the land and sea will continue to provide abundance.

The volcanic mountains of the island contain many hot springs that spray steam into the air, which the Ainu use to forecast the weather. For example, when the steam is “rising directly skyward” (Hilger, 1971, p. 69), fair weather is believed to be in store (Ibid). The Ainu are also especially aware of the frequent earthquakes that shake Hokkaido. According to Ainu traditional beliefs, an earthquake occurs when a chiraichep, a big fish that lives underground, wiggles its tail.

Immediately after a tremor is felt, an ekashi (a respected old man) sticks a sword, or, if he has none, a knife, in an upright position into a corner of the fireplace, threatening the fish with such words as these: “If you don’t stop wiggling your tail, I will thrust this knife through your backbone.” And with this, he pushes the knife farther down. This done, the earthquake ends.

Hilger, 1971, p. 68

Harvesting the Sea

The economic livelihood of the Ainu comes from the sea. Fish is so important to their diet that the Ainu word for fish, ‘chiep’ literally means, “what we eat” (Kindaiti, 1941, p. 31). The passing of the seasons is marked by the different ocean resources that are harvested at different points throughout the year (Hilger, 1971, p. 22). In the summer months, the Ainu harvest sea urchins and ‘kombu’, which is a type of seaweed. In September, they fish for salmon. In October, they catch flatfish and squids. Cod is what they catch from January to March, while they harvest hairy crab from February to April.

Kombu harvest off the northeast coast of Hokkaido

The harvesting of kombu (seaweed) involves a gendered division of labour. While the men go to sea to harvest kombu, the women remain on the shore to dry it. Kombu may only be harvested on dry, sunny summer days so that it may dry on the beach. If the weather is suitable, the village men go out on the sea in boats equipped with long hooked poles for harvesting kombu from the chilly waters of the North Pacific. After several hours, the men return to shore and the women take over. The women lay out straw mats across the beach, on which the kombu is spread out and left in the sun to dry. After two days of drying on the mats on the beach, the kombu is ready to be cut and sorted. Kombu strands are cut into segments measuring about three feet in length and are classified according to quality. “Smooth pieces of even thickness and without flaws” (Hilger, 1971, p. 20) are considered to be of the highest quality. The kombu that is of the highest quality is sold to Japanese consumers on the islands to the south. Kombu is an important source of revenue for the Ainu people of Hokkaido.

The marine diet of the Ainu is complimented with plants and animals harvested from the land. Traditionally, Ainu women grew vegetables, notably muk, which is an indigenous purple potato (Hilger, 1971, p. 35). In addition to horticulture, women also gathered wild plants, such as, marsh marigolds, garlic, chestnuts, wild grapes, and Deccan grass (Kindaiti, 1941, p. 36). These plants flourish in Hokkaido’s fertile volcanic soil (Hilger, 1971, p. 38). Historically, Ainu men hunted the large mammals of the island such as deer and bears. This activity declined in the twentieth century due to population loss of these animals (Kindaiti, 1941).


Traditional Ainu settlements were known as kotan, which consisted of about 20 family homes usually located adjacent to riverbeds or the sea such that each family has their own spot on the beach. The dwellings were pole frame huts with thatched roofs and walls made of miscanthus or banboo grass. Woven mats would be used to cover the earthen floors. According to traditional Ainu customs, a home’s doorway must face west and the ‘spirit window’ must face east (Moss & Wilson, 1993, p. 5). It was considered sacrilegious to look inside the home through the spirit window (Kindaiti, 1941, p. 20).

Traditional Ainu home with a thatched roof

As the Ainu have no written language, they developed a rich tradition of oral storytelling. The Yukar is the Ainu epic in which the Ainu pass on their history, poetry and songs to the upcoming generations. Over time, a variety of regional dialects of the Ainu language have developed that are mutually unintelligible (Moss & Wilson, 1993, p. 7). Because the Yukar is told in the ancient root language of the Ainu, it can be understood by all Ainu speakers. The Yukar “is an account of deeds of bravery, loyalty and kindness of ancient heroes. It also tells of the activities of the kamui (the deities) and of men’s relationship to them” (Hilger, 1971, p. 10).

The following passage from the Yukar demonstrates the Ainu people’s connection with nature and traditional animistic beliefs:

I am a village sparrow. One day I picked up a stalk of millet. With it, I made sake. I put the sake into six lacquered containers; we call these ‘shintoko‘. After a few days, the house was filled with the aroma of fermenting sake. After a few more days, the sake was matured. I invited the kamui (deity) of various birds from all parts of the country. We had a big party. When the party was almost ended, a young blue jay kamui (deity) left, dancing. Soon he returned holding an acorn in his mouth and dropped it into the sake. All bird kamui (deities) flapped their wings with joy. A crow looked on in silence. Soon he left, also dancing. He returned with a clot of bird manure in his bill and dropped this into the sake. All bird kamui (deities), in anger, shouted, “This evil crow!” A quarrel followed. The woodpecker kamui (deity) tried to mediate, but to no avail. The crow was killed by the other kamui (deities). Nothing but his feathers remained. These turned into a fern known to the Ainu as ‘soroma‘ (Latin: Matteuccia struthiopteris).

Hilger, 1971, pp. 10-11
Ainu woman with customary lip tattoo


The Iomande is the sacred Ainu celebration that involves the ritualistic killing of a bear. The Ainu consider bears to be sacred and believe that by killing the bear at the Iomande, the deity that inhabits the bear’s body is released, thereby allowing it to travel to the world of the gods.

Traditionally, a baby bear would be captured and put in a cage and raised for 2 years, during which time the bear would be lavished with the greatest of care and the finest foods. The bear is ready for Iomande when the bear’s second winter arrives, at which time, the bear will be at its fattest and its fur will be at its fullest.

At that time, a villager elder would say to the bear, “You are now grown up; it is time for you to go back to your father and mother, who are now deities in the world of gods. You shall have a lot of souvenirs, with which your parents will be greatly delighted.” (Ibid).

Then, a large gathering of villagers would start dancing around the cage. Following the dance, the bear would be released from its cage “and put to death with due ceremony” (Ibid). The body would be decorated with gifts for the bear deity and the dead bear’s head would be put on display, clamped between two logs.

Finally, the entire village would have great feast. The men would drink sake and the women would dance and make music. All would pray before the carcass of the bear. “This merry-making would continue for three days and three nights.” (Kindaiti, 1941, p. 54)

The Iomande traditional bear sacrifice festival of the Ainu

Post-Script: This essay was written as an assignment for a second-year Geography course that I took at Kwantlen University College in 2004. The course was on Cultural Geography and was taught by Dr. Rod Fowler.


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