The Ainu – Japan’s Forgotten 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.


The Ainu Japan's Forgotten People Rob Dyer The Real Japan

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.

Ainu indigenous people The Real Japan Rob Dyer

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.

Ainu indigenous people The Real Japan Rob Dyer

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.

Ainu indigenous people The Real Japan Rob Dyer

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.

Ainu indigenous people The Real Japan Rob Dyer

Official Recognition by the Japanese Government

Today, only a few thousand Ainu 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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Related: Meeting An Itako - Spiritual Medium
Related: Onsen Tips For Those With Tattoos


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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The Ainu Japan's Forgotten People Rob Dyer The Real Japan


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Leave A Comment

    • 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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