The Ainu – Japan’s Forgotten Indigenous People



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In northern Japan, on the main island of Honshu, and the northern-most island of Hokkaido are where the Ainu, Japan's little-known indigenous people, live. 

They've lived here for tens of thousands of years. 

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The Ainu: Japan's Forgotten Indigenous People
by Rob Dyer

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Where the Ainu settled

The second time I went to Japan (in 2001) was when I first I went to Hokkaido. I loved it.

Hokkaido is Japan's northern-most island, not far from Siberia in Russia.

Before recorded history, Hokkaido was settled by the Ainu - Japan's forgotten indigenous people.

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Long-suffering discrimination

But like the native people of America, Australia and other countries, the Ainu have long suffered discrimination.

They are physically and culturally very different from the Japanese.

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Know for having a lot of body hair, the men have beards which they leave unshaven. While women’s mouths are tattooed.

Arctolatry - the worship of bears

These people are traditionally hunter-gatherers. They have their own language, but fewer than 100 people still speak it, and it is classified as endangered.

They practice arctolatry - the worship of bears. They hunted them for food but also kept them as pets.

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Meeting Ainu at the Marimo Festival

Every autumn, on the shores of Lake Akan in Hokkaido, the marimo festival takes place, and the Ainu people play a key part in the celebrations. 

The festival began in 1950 as a means to save the endangered marimo algae found in Lake Akan. Marimo are giant green balls of algae (growing up to 30cm in diameter).

The highlight of the three-day festival is a 1,000 torch parade. It's a rare opportunity to see, firsthand, the customs of the Ainu, their traditional dance, and to hear their folk songs.

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Official Recognition by the Japanese Government

Today, only a few thousand of Japan's indigenous people remain.

After many decades of discrimination, in 2008 that the Japanese government officialy recognised the Ainu as indigenous people, with their own language and culture.

Perhaps they will no longer be Japan's 'forgotten people'...

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VIDEO: The Ainu – Japan’s Forgotten People

Did you know about the Ainu? What do you think about them and their history? And what do you think the future holds for them?

Please let me know by leaving a comment below...

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About the Author

A writer and publisher from England, Rob has been exploring Japan’s islands since 2000. He specialises in travelling off the beaten track, whether on remote atolls or in the hidden streets of major cities. He’s the founder of

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  • Legbreaker says:

    I’m Japanese with Ainu blood. I visited Bilbao back in 1990 .. as a workvisit. Beautiful City and I noticed something strange, since I never heard about the Basque language before..I recognized too many words, especially when written down. To me it was no coincidence and too similar to ignore. There is something going on, between Euskara and Ainu.. The Ainu and Basque language share too many similarities to ignore. The Japanese took many Ainu words. That’s why people also notice the similarities between Basque and Japanese. Even between Basque and languages from the Altaic family. Anyway the Ainu were living in Japan thousands of years before the Ainu were overrun by Asian / Mongolian tribes and intermixed. So before anybody claims it is nonsense because the Ainu are genetically closer to Asians than Europeans, think twice.. since the Ainu were originally Caucasian. So science claims it immediately as pseudoscience.. because here we have something really odd going on, the Basque and the Ainu, separated 10.000 Kilometers from each other, but still sharing so many words and can’t be ignored. But, western science ‘we know everything, because we were the first who explored the world’ is too stubborn and too ignorant. What if the Basque and the Ainu migrated from a common source. Wait, that means ancient ‘stupid’ people were already traveling the oceans. Now here we have a big problem says modern science.. nah.. lets call it pseudoscience and we’re good. History of human civilization and history of mankind is full of gaps.

    • That’s fascinating!

      I’m with you. I would not be surprised to learn that there is some ancient historical connection that explains the language similarities.

    • Thanks for the comment Jennifer.

      Apparently, the women get their mouths tattooed from their early teens. As they get older the more they get added to their tattoos until they are considered a woman. Fascinating culture.

      Hokkaido is a beautiful island and still untamed and wild in many parts. Well worth a visit if ever you get the opportunity.

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