“This large island {Hokkaido} was once a land of freedom for our ancestors.”

(From the preface of “Ainu Mythology” by Yukie Chiri)


            Last week, I was lucky enough to be able to dig a little deeper into Ainu culture by visiting Shiraoi (meaning “a place with many horseflies” in the Ainu language), a town about an hour by train away from Sapporo, in Hokkaido (despite the name, I saw no horseflies there). The attraction of Shiraoi is that it has a great reconstructed Ainu village, Poroto Kotan, which is nestled beside Lake Poroto, hence the name Poroto Kotan (which means “large lakeside village” in the Ainu language).

            Ainu tradition typically features songs and dances which include iyomante rimse (a ceremonial dance for sending bears’ spirits back to heaven), upopo (a song performance by seated singers), saroruncikap rimse (a crane dance), and emus rimse (an epic sword dance). They also use a mouth harp called a mukkuri while singing lullabies (infunke). One benefit of visiting Poroto Kotan is that you can see some traditional Ainu dances and songs. Some words in the Ainu language are wakka (water), hapo (mother), ni (tree), tanto (today), iyairaikere (thank you), and irankarapte (hello).

            Unfortunately, the Ainu, like other indigenous peoples of many other countries in the world, has had a similar history of being forced off of their own land. The Ainu are a rapidly disappearing race and it’s estimated that there are only about 200 pure blood Ainu left. The Ainu were thought to have arrived in Japan about 5,000 to 10,000 years ago and were hunters and gatherers, who believed that God existed in everything; plants, animals, and water.

            In the 15th and 16th centuries, the Ainu were exploited through trade, forced to adapt to Japanese culture, and pushed off their land. In 1868, the Japanese government prohibited the Ainu from speaking their own language and banned woman from having religious tattoos. Men were also banned from wearing traditional Ainu costume, which included wearing earrings. Even today, some of their rituals are banned by the Japanese government (for example, killing a bear which has been raised from a cub to fully grown in order to send the bear back to the land of the gods. The Ainu believe that bears are earthly forms of deities.) I am not really sure how many modern-day Ainu are still interested in this ritual, but even if they were, they are not allowed.

            Sadly, there is still discrimination against the Ainu these days. In 1986, Japan declared itself proudly to be a “mono-ethnic” nation; however, when an Ainu representative gave a speech for the United Nationals Year of Indigenous People’s event in 1992, other countries pressured Japan to stop discriminating against their indigenous people. Finally, in 1997, a new law was passed that gave the Ainu permission to promote their culture and traditions. Before 1997 (shock!), the Ainu were denied land ownership and the governor of Hokkaido was given authority of Ainu social funds, making Ainu dependable on the government. The law’s title even went so far as to describe the Ainu people as “dirt people,” which naturally angered and insulted many Ainu.

            Most people cannot tell the difference between Ainu people and Japanese people, although Ainu people tend to have slightly lighter skin color. Many Ainu people today even choose not to identify themselves as Ainu out of fear of continuing social discrimination. Clearly, Japan still has a long way to go when it comes to racial discrimination. However, now that places like Shiraoi have opened, perhaps it will start to open people’s eyes a little more and people will become more educated about the Ainu culture and history. Only time will tell but we can always hope for the best, that racial discrimination will disappear from every corner of the Earth and we can learn to celebrate our similarities as humans, not focus on our differences regarding race, religion, or sex. 



04/21/2015 9:07am

Every country has different culture there and some country has own culture but Pakistan one of the Islamic country and this country has very awesome culture.

06/03/2017 4:42am

Thanks for sharing this informative post I was able to learn about the Ainu and their culture. It is a shame that people experience being forced off the land where they have been living for years. The Japanese government is cruel towards the Ainu people for prohibiting them to speak their own language and wearing their traditional clothing. I have never thought that the Japanese would discriminate other because of a person's race. I hope that in the years to come social discrimination will no longer exist.

10/30/2015 11:21pm

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The Ainu were thought to have arrived in Japan about 5,000 to 10,000 years ago and were hunters and gatherers, who believed that God existed in everything; plants, animals, and water.

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