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Japan's History

Japanese History: The Ainu

To the north, lived another distinctly separate group of people from both the Yayoi and the Jomon People. While they may not have a lasting impact on the Jomon and Yayoi, their culture is unique, fascinating, and certainly deserves to be mentioned here. These people are known as the Ainu.

The Ainu inhabited Japan’s northern island, Hokkaido. The majority of the estimated 25,000 remaining Ainu people living today still reside here. The origin of the Ainu people is largely unknown. Some claim they descended from a group of Jomon People who went north, breaking off from the main population and thus maintaining the hunter-gatherer lifestyle of Japan’s early settlers. It is also possible that they came to Japan as a completely separate group of people. 

The Ainu have a distinct appearance. They have light skin, European-shaped eyes, thick wavy hair, and the men grow full, thick beards. The Ainu women were covered in tattoos. This began as a small black dot on the upper lip. As they matured, more tattooing was added until a black tattoo surrounded the woman’s mouth and eventually her forearms too. These were said to ward off evil spirits. The pain of tattooing was also supposed to prepare the woman for the pain of childbirth. In fact, a fully tattooed woman was a sign that she was of marrying age. Conversely, men never shaved past a certain age. Both men and women kept their hair at roughly shoulder length.

Like the mainland Japanese, the Ainu were animistic, meaning they believed that everything had a spirit (or “kami”). To the Ainu people, the chief amongst these was “Kim-un Kamuy.” This was the spirit of bears and the mountains. The bear was believed to be the highest god. The Ainu practiced a tradition known as “lotame,” which involved raising a bear from a cub as one of their children. Then, when the bear cub reached adulthood, the Ainu would sacrifice the bear to release the “kamuy.”

The Ainu language was (and is) distinct from mainland Japanese. During the Meiji restoration in 1899, the Japanese government began a campaign of forced assimilation of the Ainu people. They outlawed the Ainu from speaking their native language or participating in their native customs. It was not until 1997 that this ban was lifted, though by this time Ainu culture had been all but wiped out. Today, the remaining Ainu are attempting to preserve their culture and pass it on to the next generations.

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