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ETHNONYMS: Aino, Emischi, Ezo, Hokkaidō Ainu, Kurile Ainu, Sakhalin Ainu


The Ainu are a group of people in northern Japan whose traditional life was based on a hunting, fishing, and plant-gathering economy; the word ainu means "man." Only about 18,000 Ainu now live on Hokkaidō, the northernmost island of Japan, but the population was much larger in the past and their homeland included at least southern Sakhalin, the Kurile Islands, northern parts of Honshū (the main island of Japan), and adjacent areas.

Not only was their hunting-gathering economy vastly different from that of the neighboring Japanese, Koreans, and Chinese, who had been agriculturalists for several millennia, but they spoke a language of their own, and certain physical characteristics distinguished them from their neighbors.

Far from being monolithic, Ainu culture has been rich in intracultural variation. This article introduces only some of the major differences and similarities among the three major Ainu groups: the Kurile, Sakhalin, and Hokkaidō Ainu. The Hokkaidō Ainu and the Sakhalin Ainu reside on the island of Hokkaidō and the southern half of the island of Sakhalin, respectively. Some use the term "Kurile Ainu" to refer only to the Ainu who occupied the central and northern Kurile Islands, excluding the Ainu on the southern Kuriles, whose way of life was similar to that of the Hokkaidō Ainu. Others use the label "Kurile Ainu" to refer to the Ainu on all the Kurile Islands, which is the practice followed in this article. The island of Sakhalin south of 50° N had always been the homeland of the Sakhalin Ainu, while the territory north of 50° N belonged to the Gilyaks and other peoples.

History and Cultural Relations

The Sakhalin Ainu, with an estimated population between 1,200 and 2,400 in the first half of the twentieth century, most likely migrated from Hokkaidō, possibly as early as the first millennium a.d., but definitely by the thirteenth century. They had extensive contacts with native populations on Sakhalin and along the Amur, including the Gilyaks, Oroks, and Nanais. It is likely that Chinese influence reached the island by the first millennium a.d. and intensified during the thirteenth century when northern Sakhalin submitted to Mongol suzerainty subsequent to the Mongol conquest of China. The period between 1263 and 1320 saw the Mongol colonization and "pacification" of the Gilyaks and the Ainu. The Sakhalin Ainu fought valiantly until 1308, finally submitting to the suzerainty of the Yuan dynasty, the Mongolian dynasty that ruled China and to whom the Ainu were forced to pay tribute. The tribute system, together with trade with other peoples along the way, merged with the Japanese-Hokkaido Ainu trade during the fifteenth century. As a result, Japanese ironware reached the Manchus while Chinese brocade and cotton made their way to Osaka in western Japan. With the weakening of Manchu control over Sakhalin, the tribute system was abandoned at the beginning of the nineteenth century. By then, the Japanese and Russians were racing to take political control of the island and exploit its rich natural resources.

The impact of the Japanese government on the Sakhalin Ainu intensified under the Meiji government established in 1868. Many Japanese were sent to southern Sakhalin to exploit its resources. The Sakhalin Ainu came under Russian control in 1875 when southern Sakhalin came under Russian control, but Japan regained the area in 1905; the territory north of 50° N remained under Russian control throughout history. Between 1912 and 1914, the Japanese government placed the Sakhalin Ainu, except those on the remote northwest coast, on reservations, drastically altering their way of life. With the conclusion of World War II, southern Sakhalin again was reclaimed by the USSR and most of the Ainu were resettled on Hokkaidō.

The history of contact with outsiders is equally important for the Hokkaidō Ainu, whose territory once extended to northeastern Honshū. As the Japanese central government expanded its control toward the northeast, the Ainu were gradually pushed north from their southernmost territory. Trade between the Ainu and the Japanese was established by the mid-fourteenth century. With the increased power of the Matsumae clan, which claimed the southwestern end of Hokkaidō and adjacent areas, the trade became a means for the Japanese to exploit the Ainu during the sixteenth century. Although there were numerous revolts by the Ainu against Japanese oppression, the revolt in the mid-seventeenth century by a famous Ainu political leader, Shakushain, was the most significant. Shakushain rose to the forefront of the Ainu resistance in the mid-1660s, but his forces were crushed when the Matsumae samurai broke the truce, slaying Shakushain and his retinue. This event marked the last large-scale resistance by the Hokkaidō Ainu.

In 1779, the Matsumae territory on Hokkaidō came under the direct control of the Tokugawa shogunate in order to protect Japanese interests against Russian expansion southward. The administrative hands changed again in 1821 to the Matsumae and then back to the shogunate in 1854. Drastic changes took place shortly after the establishment of the Meiji government in 1868, as the new government abolished residential restrictions for the Ainu and the Japanese, allowing them to live anywhere on Hokkaidō. The Japanese were encouraged to emigrate to Hokkaidō to take advantage of the natural resources. Most significant, the new government issued the Hokkaidō Aboriginal Protection Act. The Ainu on Hokkaidō were forced to attend Japanese schools established by the government and to register in the Japanese census. Beginning in 1883, the Ainu were granted plots of land and encouraged to take up agriculture. They were removed from their settlements and resettled on land more suited to agriculture, causing drastic changes in Ainu society and culture.

The long history of Ainu contact with outsiders, especially the Japanese, has undermined the Ainu way of life. The Ainu have long been a minority population in Japanese society, suffering prejudice, discrimination, and economic impoverishment. In recent years, the Ainu have made positive efforts to improve their social and political position in Japanese society as well as to establish their own cultural identity.

In addition to ecological factors, the history of contact with outsiders is responsible to a large degree for the major differences in the way of life among these groups of Ainu. For example, because of a lack of contact with metal-using populations, the Kurile Ainu continued to use stone and bone implements and to manufacture pottery long after the Hokkaidō and Sakhalin Ainu had started to use metal goods obtained in trade with their neighbors. The Ainu on the central and northern Kuriles had long been in contact with the Aleuts and Kamchadals. From the end of the eighteenth century, Russians and Japanese, who were hunting sea otters in the area for their furs, exploited the Ainu and transmitted diseases, causing a decline in the population. In 1875 the central and northern Kuriles came under thè political control of the Japanese government, which made several attempts to "protect" the Ainu, but the last survivor in this area died in 1941.


There was considerable variation in the permanency of Ainu settlements. Until the turn of the century, the basic pattern of the Sakhalin Ainu was a seasonal alternation of settlement between a summer settlement on the shore and a winter settlement farther inland. In the winter settlement, they built semisubterranean pit-houses. Ainu settlements were usually located along the shore, with houses in a single line parallel to the shore. The Kurile Ainu migrated even more frequently. In contrast, on Hokkaidō, permanent settlements were located along the rivers, which were rich in fish from mouth to sourcean unusual situation for hunter-gatherers.

Most Ainu settlements, regardless of region, were small, usually consisting of fewer than five families. An exception was the Hidaka-Tokachi District on Hokkaidō, which enjoyed the most abundant natural resources and the densest population of all the Ainu lands. Here, especially along the Saru River, a few settlements housed about thirty families, and more than half the settlements in the valley exceeded five families.


The Ainu were basically a hunting-gathering population but fish from the sea, rivers, and lakes was an important source of food for most Ainu. Ainu men fished and hunted sea and land mammals, while women were responsible for gathering plants and storing food for the cold season. Large animals such as bear, deer (in Hokkaidō), musk deer, and reindeer (in Sakhalin) were usually caught using individual techniques of hunting, although cooperation among individuals sometimes took place, especially among the Hokkaidō Ainu. They used the bow and arrow, the set-trap bow, the spear, and various kinds of traps for hunting land mammals, often combining different methods. The hunting techniques of the Hokkaidō Ainu were on the whole technologically more developed than those of other Ainu. They used trained dogs for hunting, and, in some areas, even for fishing. In addition, they used aconite and stingray poison for hunting, which ensured that wounded animals would fall to the ground within a short distance. Large fish such as trout and salmon were important foods, obtained by means of detachable spearheads. The Ainu also used nets, various traps, weirs, and the line and fishhook.

Animal domestication was most highly developed among the Sakhalin Ainu, who engaged in selective breeding to create strong and intelligent male sled dogs and in castration of the dogs to preserve their strength for pulling the sleds, which were an important means of transportation during the harsh winters. The Hokkaido Ainu alone engaged in small-scale plant domestication prior to the introduction of agriculture by the Japanese government.

Kinship, Marriage, and Family

There are some basic features of sociopolitical organization that are shared by most of the Ainu groups, although their finer workings vary from region to region. Among most Ainu groups, the nuclear family is the basic social unit, although some extended families are present. In most Ainu settlements, males related through a common male ancestor comprise the core members who collectively own a hunting ground or a river with good fish runs. Although some scholars emphasize that among the Ainu along the Saru River in Hokkaidō women related through females comprise a corporate group, the exact nature of the group is unclear. Among these Hokkaidō Ainu, an individual is prohibited from marrying a cousin on his or her mother's side. Among most Ainu groups, a few prominent males in the community practice polygyny.

Sociopolitical Organization

Nowhere among the Ainu does political organization extend beyond the settlement, although occasionally a few extremely small settlements form a larger political unit, or a small settlement belongs politically to an adjacent larger settlement. Ainu political leaders are usually not autocratic; elders in the settlement are usually involved in decision making and executing the rules.

Although the formalized ideology prohibits women from participating in the major religious activities that provide the basis of sociopolitical powers for males, there are a number of culturally constituted ways for women to exercise nonformalized power, as discussed in the section on shamanism.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Separation of religious dimensions of Ainu life from others distorts the way Ainu view their lives, since religion is the perspective that pervades their life. Thus, even the disposal of discarded items such as food remains and broken objects is guided by the spatial classification of the Ainu universe and its directions, which derive from religious and cosmological principles. What we call economic activities are religious activities to the Ainu, who regard land and sea animals as deities and fish and plants as products of deities.

Religious Beliefs. An important concept in the Ainu belief system is the soul, owned by most beings in the Ainu universe. According to tradition, the soul becomes perceptible when it leaves the owner's body. For example, when one dreams, one's soul frees itself from the sleeping body and travels, even to places where one has never been. Likewise, a deceased person may appear in one's dreams because the soul of the deceased can travel from the world of the dead to that of the living. During a shamanistic performance, the shaman's soul travels to the world of the dead to snatch back the soul of a dead person, thereby reviving the person nearing death.

This belief underlies the Ainu emphasis on proper treatment of the dead body of humans and all other soul owners in the universe, resulting in elaborate funeral customs ranging from the bear ceremony, discussed later, to the careful treatment of fish bones, which represent the dead body of a fish. Without proper treatment of a dead body, its soul cannot rest in peace in the world of the dead and causes illness among the living to remind the Ainu of their misconduct. Shamans must be consulted to obtain diagnosis and treatment for these illnesses.

The soul has the power to punish only when it has been mistreated. Deities (kamuy ), in contrast, possess the power to punish or reward at will. Some scholars believe that among the Ainu nature is equated with the deities. Others claim that only certain members of the universe are deified. The Ainu consider all animal deities to be exactly like humans in appearance and to live just like humans in their own divine countryan important point in Ainu religion. Animal deities disguise themselves when visiting the Ainu world to bring meat and fur as presents to the Ainu, just as Ainu guests always bring gifts. The bear thus is not itself the supreme deity but rather the mountain deity's disguise for bringing the gift of bear meat and hide.

In most regions, the goddess of the hearth (fire) was almost as important as the bear. Referred to as "Grandmother Hearth," she resides in the hearth, which symbolizes the Ainu universe. Other important deities include foxes, owls (the deity of the settlement), seals, and a number of other sea and land animals and birds. The importance of each varies from region to region. In addition, there are the goddess of the sun and moon (in some regions, the sun and moon represent two phases of one deity), the dragon deity in the sky, the deity of the house, the deity of the nusa (the altar with inaw, ritual wood shavings), the deity of the woods, the deity of water, and others.

Evil spirits and demonscalled variously oyasi, wenkamuy (evil deity), etc.constitute another group of beings in the universe who are more powerful than humans. They exercise their destructive power by causing misfortunes such as epidemics. The smallpox deity is an example. Some of them are intrinsic or by definition bona fide demons, whereas others become demons. For example, if a soul is mistreated after the death of its owner, it turns into a demon. The Ainu devote a great deal of attention to evil spirits and demons by observing religious rules and performing exorcism rites. Human combat with demons is a major theme in Ainu epic poems, discussed later. Characteristically, the deities never deal directly with the demons; rather, they extend aid to the Ainu if the latter behave as directed.

Religious Practitioners. Shamanism is not an exclusively male role. Sakhalin Ainu shamanism differs considerably from Hokkaidō Ainu shamanism. Among the Sakhalin Ainu, with regard to the symbolic structure, the shamanistic ritual represents the process of cooking, a role assigned to women in Ainu society. Shamanism is highly valued among the Sakhalin Ainu, and highly regarded members of society of both sexes, including heads of settlements, may become shamans. Although shamans sometimes perform rites for divinations of various sorts and for miracles, most rites are performed to diagnose and cure illnesses. When shamans are possessed by spirits, they enter a trance and the spirit speaks through their mouths, providing the client with necessary information such as the diagnosis and cure of an illness or the location of a missing object.

Among the Hokkaidō Ainu, shamanism is not highly regarded and shamans are usually women, who collectively have lower social status than men. The Hokkaidō Ainu shaman also enters a possession trance, but she does so only if a male elder induces it in her by offering prayers to the deities. Although she too diagnoses illnesses, male elders take over the healing process. Male elders must consult a shaman before they make important decisions for the community. In other words, the politically powerful male cannot even declare a war without consulting the shamanan intriguing cultural mechanism to balance formalized and nonformalized power.

Ceremonies. Among the rich and varied Ainu religious beliefs and practices, the bear ceremony is perhaps the most important religious ceremony among both the Sakhalin and Hokkaidō Ainu, for whom the bear represents the supreme deity in disguise. From the Ainu perspective, the bear ceremony is a "funeral ritual" for the bear. Its purpose is to send the soul of the bear back to the mountains through a proper ritual so the soul will be reborn as a bear and revisit the Ainu with gifts of meat and fur.

The process of the bear ceremonial takes at least two years. Among the Sakhalin Ainu another, less elaborate, "after ceremony" follows several months after the major ceremony, thereby further extending the process. A bear cub, captured alive either while still in a den or while walking with its mother upon emerging from the den, is usually raised by the Ainu for about a year and a half. Sometimes women nurse these cubs. Although the time of the ceremony differs according to region, usually it is held at the beginning of the cold season; for the Sakhalin Ainu, it takes place just before they move inland to their winter settlement.

The bear ceremony combines deeply religious elements with the merriment of eating, drinking, singing, and dancing. All participants don their finest clothing and adornments. Prayers are offered to the goddess of the hearth and the deity of the house, but the major focus of the ceremony is on the deity of the mountains, who is believed to have sent the bear as a gift to humans. After the bear is taken out of the "bear house," situated southwest of the house, the bear is killed. The Sakhalin Ainu kill the bear with two pointed arrows, while the Hokkaidō Ainu use blunt arrows before they fatally shoot the bear with pointed arrows, and then strangle the dead or dying bear between two logs. Male elders skin and dress the bear, which is placed in front of the altar hung with treasures. (Ainu treasures consist primarily of goods such as swords and lacquerware obtained in trade with the Japanese. They are considered offerings to the deities and serve as status symbols for the owner.) After preliminary feasting outside at the altar, the Ainu bring the dissected bear into the house through the sacred window and continue the feast.

Among the Hokkaidō Ainu, the ceremony ends when the head of the bear is placed at the altar on a pole decorated with ritual wood shavings (inaw). An elder offers a farewell prayer while shooting an arrow toward the eastern skyan act signifying the safe departure of the deity. The Sakhalin Ainu bring the bear's skull, stuffed with ritual shavings, bones, eyes, and, if a male bear, the penis, to a sacred place in the mountains. They also sacrifice two carefully chosen dogs, whom they consider to be servant-messengers of the bear deities. Although often taken as a cruel act by outsiders, the bear ceremony expresses the Ainu's utmost respect for the deity.

The bear ceremonial is at once religious, political, and economic. The host of the bear ceremony is usually the political leader of the community. It is the only intersettlement event, to which friends and relatives as well as the politically powerful from nearby and distant settlements may come to participate. Offerings of trade items, such as Japanese lacquerware or swords and Chinese brocades, are a display of wealth, which in turn signifies the political power of the leader and his settlement.

The bear ceremony expresses the formalized cosmology in which men are closer to the deities than are women. The officiants of the ceremony must be male elders and the women must leave the scene when the bear is shot and skinned.

Arts. While Ainu religion is expressed through rituals as well as in daily routines like the disposal of fish bones, nowhere is it better articulated than in their highly developed oral tradition, which is comparable to the Greek tradition. For the Ainu, the oral tradition is both a primary source of knowledge about the deities and a guide for conduct. There are at least twenty-seven native genres of oral tradition, each having a label in Ainu, that may be classified into two types: verses (epic or lyric) to be sung or chanted, and narrative prose. While the prose in some genres is in the third person, first-person narration is used in the rest: a protagonist tells his own story through the mouth of the narrator-singer. The mythic and heroic epics are long and complex; some heroic epics have as many as 15,000 verses. While the mythic epics relate the activities of deities, the heroic epics are about the culture hero who, with the aid of the deities, fought demons to save the Ainu and became the founder of the Ainu people. Among the Hokkaidō Ainu, the culture hero descended from the world of the deities in the sky and taught the Ainu their way of life, including fishing and hunting and the rituals and rules governing human society. Some scholars contend that the battles fought by the culture hero are battles that the Ainu once fought against invading peoples.

Ainu carving, weaving, embroidery, and music are of high aesthetic quality. Traditionally, these activities were a part of their daily lives rather than separate activities. While Hokkaidō Ainu relied most extensively on garments made of plant fibers, the Sakhalin Ainu wore garments made of fish skin and animal hides. The Kurile Ainu, who knew basketry but not weaving, used land- and sea-mammal hides and bird feathers for their clothing.


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LOCATION: Japan (Hokkaido)


LANGUAGE: Japanese; Ainu (few present speakers)

RELIGION: Traditional pantheistic beliefs


Until 400 years ago, the Ainu controlled Hokkaido, the northernmost of Japan's four main islands. Today they are a small minority group of Japan. They are a hunting and fishing people whose origins remain in dispute. They probably came from Siberia or from the southern Pacific, and originally comprised different groups. For centuries, the Ainu culture developed alongside, but distinctive from, that of the Japanese. However, in recent centuries (particularly with the 1889 Hokkaido Former Aborigines Protection Law) they have been subject to Japanese government policies of modernization and integration. As with indigenous (native) peoples in the United States and many other nations, the Ainu have largely assimilated (adapted to the dominant culture). And like many other such groups, there have been signs of cultural revival recently.

The oldest ruins found in Hokkaido, the Ainu homeland, date from 20,000 to 30,000 years ago in the old Stone Age. Iron was introduced approximately 2,000 years ago from either southern Japan or the Asian continent, probably by ancestors or groups related to the Ainu. Between the eighth and thirteenth centuries, earthenware unique to Hokkaido and the northern mainland appeared. Its producers were the direct ancestors of the Ainu. The subsequent 300 to 400 years saw the development of the culture known today as uniquely Ainu.


Hokkaido, one of Japan's four main islands, is 32,247 square miles (83,520 square kilometers)comprising one-fifth of Japan. Hokkaido is twice as large as Switzerland. A small number of Ainu live on southern Sakhalin. Earlier, the Ainu also lived in the southern Kuril Islands, along the lower reaches of the Amur River, and in Kamchatka, as well as the northern part of the Northeast region of Honshu. Their ancestors may have once lived throughout Japan.

Hokkaido is surrounded by beautiful coasts. The island has many mountains, lakes, and rivers. Its land was densely wooded with ancient trees into the twentieth century. Two major mountain ranges, Kitami in the north and Hidaka in the south, divide Hokkaido into the eastern and western regions. The Saru basin area in southeastern Hokkaido is a center of Ainu ancestral culture.

An 1807 survey reported the Hokkaido and Sakhalin Ainu population as 23,797. Mixed marriages between Ainu and mainland Japanese became more common over the last century. In 1986 the total number of people in Hokkaido identifying themselves as Ainu was 24,381.

In the late nineteenth century, the Japanese government created a colonial office for Hokkaido's economic development and encouraged settlers from other parts of Japan. A similar government office now continues to promote Hokkaido's development. With the loss of their land, their livelihood, and their traditional culture, the Ainu had to adapt to a rapidly industrializing society.


Ainu is said to belong either to a Paleo-Asiatic or a Paleo-Siberian group of languages. It has two dialects. The Ainu have no written language. The Japanese phonetic syllabaries (characters representing syllables) or the Roman alphabet is used to transcribe (write) Ainu speech. Few people now speak Ainu as their primary language.

Ainu and Japanese share many single words. God (male or female) is kamui in Ainu and kami in Japanese. Chopstick(s) is pasui in Ainu and hashi in Japanese. The word sirokani (silver) and konkani (gold) in literary Ainu correspond to shirokane and kogane in literary Japanese (see quotation below). The two languages, however, are unrelated. Two well-known Ainu words still commonly used refer to venerated Ainu individuals: ekasi (grandfather or sire) and huci (grandmother or grand dame).

The name Ainu comes from a common noun ainu, meaning "human(s)." Once the term was felt to be derogatory, but more Ainu now use the name positively, taking pride in their ethnic identity. Their land is called "Ainu Mosir"peaceful land of humans. The phrase ainu nenoan ainu means "human-like human." The following is a famous refrain from a poem about the owl deity:

sirokanipe ranran piskan
(fall, fall, silver drops, all around)

konkanipe ranran piskan
(fall, fall, golden drops, all around)


According to mythic poetry, the world was created when oil floating in the ocean rose like a flame and became the sky. What was left turned into land. Vapor gathered over the land and a god was created. From the vapor of the sky, another god was created who descended on five colored clouds. Out of those clouds, the two gods created the sea, soil, minerals, plants, and animals. The two gods married and produced many gods including two shining godsthe Sun god and the Moon god, who rose to Heaven in order to illuminate the fog-covered dark places of the world.

Okikurmi of the Saru region is a semidivine hero who descended from Heaven to help humans. Humans lived in a beautiful land but did not know how to build fire or make bows and arrows. Okikurmi taught them to build fire, to hunt, to catch salmon, to plant millet, to brew millet wine, and to worship the gods. He married and stayed in the village, but eventually returned to the divine land.

Ainu historical heroes include Kosamainu and Samkusainu. Kosamainu, who lived in eastern Hokkaido, led an Ainu rebellion against the mainland Japanese ruling the southern tip of Hokkaido, called Matsumae. He destroyed ten out of the twelve Japanese bases but was killed in 1457. Samkusainu organized Ainu in the southern half of the island during a 1669 uprising, but after two months they were destroyed by Matsumae forces armed with guns.


Ainu religion is pantheistic, believing in many gods. Traditional belief held that the god of mountains dwelled in the mountains, and the god of water dwelled in the river. The Ainu hunted, fished, and gathered in modest quantities in order not to disturb these gods. Animals were visitors from the other world temporarily assuming animal shapes. The bear, striped owl, and killer whale received the greatest respect as divine incarnations.

The most important god in the home was the female god of fire. Every house had a firepit where cooking, eating, and rituals took place. The main offerings made to this and to other gods were wine and inau, a whittled twig or pole, usually of willow, with shavings still attached and decoratively curled. A fence-like row of taller inau stood outside between the main house and the raised storehouse. Outdoor rituals were observed before this sacred altar area.


The spirit-sending festival, called i-omante, either for a bear or striped owl, was the most important Ainu festival. I-omante, the bear, was observed once in five or ten years. After three days of reverence to a bear cub, accompanied by prayers, dancing, and singing, it was shot with arrows. The head was decorated and placed at the altar, while the meat was eaten by the members of the village community. The spirit, while visiting this world, had temporarily adopted the form of a bear; the bear ritual released the spirit from the form so it could return to the other realm. Similar festivals are observed by many northern peoples.


In preparation for adulthood, boys traditionally learned hunting, carving, and making tools such as arrows; girls learned weaving, sewing, and embroidery. In mid-teen years, girls were tattooed around the mouth by a skilled older woman; long ago they were also tattooed on the forearms. The Japanese government banned tattooing in 1871.

The gift of a knife mounted in carved wood from a young man indicated both his skill and his love. The gift of embroidery from a young woman similarly indicated her skill and her willingness to accept his proposal. In some cases, a young man visited the family of a woman he wished to marry, helping her father in hunting, carving, and so forth. When he proved himself an honest, skilled worker, the father approved the marriage.

A death was mourned by relatives and neighbors. All were fully dressed in embroidered costume; men also wore a ceremonial sword and women a necklace of beads. Funerals included prayers to the fire deity and verse laments expressing wishes for a smooth journey to the other world. Items to be buried with the dead were first broken or cracked so that the spirits would be released and travel together to the other world. Sometimes burial was followed by the burning of the dwelling. The funeral for an unnatural death could include a tirade (raging speech) against the gods.


A formal greeting, irankarapte, which corresponds to "how are you" in English, literally means "let me softly touch your heart."

It is said that Ainu people always shared food and drink with neighbors, even a cup of wine. The host and the guests seated themselves around the firepit. The host then dipped his ceremonial chopstick in the cup of wine, sprinkled a few drops onto the firepit giving thanks to the fire god (goddess of fire), and then shared the wine with his guests. The first salmon caught each year in early fall was a special item to be shared with neighbors.

Ukocaranke (mutual argumentation) was a custom of settling differences by debating instead of fighting. The disputants sat and argued for hours or even days until one side was defeated and agreed to compensate the other. Representatives with oratorical (public speaking) skills and endurance were chosen to resolve disputes between villages.


Formerly, an Ainu house was made of poles and thatch plant. It was well insulated and had a firepit at the center of the main room. An opening below each end of the ridge allowed smoke to escape. Between three and twenty such houses formed a village community called kotan. Houses were built close enough together that a voice would reach in case of emergency, and far enough apart that fire would not spread. A kotan was usually located by waters for convenient fishing but also in the woods to remain safe from floods and close to gathering grounds. If necessary, the kotan moved from place to place in search of a better livelihood.


Besides weaving and embroidering, women farmed, gathered wild plants, pounded grains with a pestle, and cared for babies. Men hunted, fished, and carved. Some accounts suggest that married couples lived in separate houses; other accounts suggest that they stayed with the husband's parents. Until recently, men and women traced descent differently. Males traced descent through various animal crests (such as a killer whale insignia) and females through hereditary chastity belts and forearm tattoo designs. The inheritance could include the art of a bard (male or female), a midwife, or a shaman. The midwife and shamaness Aoki Aiko (1914) inherited her arts as the fifth generation offspring of the female line of the family.

Dogs were favorite animals. In one scene of an epic poem describing the descent of a divine youth to this world, a dog was mentioned as guarding millet grains. Dogs were also used in hunting.


The Ainu traditional robe was made of the woven fibers of inner elm bark. It was worn with a woven sash similar in shape to the sash worn with a mainland Japanese kimono. The male robe was calf-length. In winter a short sleeveless jacket of deer or other animal fur was also worn. The female robe was ankle-length and worn over a long undershirt with no front opening. The robes were hand-embroidered or appliqued with rope designs. A pointed edge at the tip of each front flap was characteristic of the Saru region.

The traditional Ainu costume is still worn on special occasions. However, in everyday life the Ainu wear internationalstyle clothing similar to that worn by other Japanese people.


Traditional staple foods of the Ainu were salmon and deer meat, in addition to millet raised at home and herbs and roots gathered in the woods. Millet was largely replaced by rice earlier in this century. Fresh salmon was cut up and boiled in soup. A rice porridge called ciporosayo was prepared by adding salmon roe (eggs) to boiled grains.

As in other cold regions, Ainu children used to enjoy making maple ice candy. On a late March or early April evening when a cold night was expected, they made cuts in the bark of a large sugar maple and placed containers of hollow sorrel stalks at the roots of the tree to collect dripping syrup. In the morning, they found the sorrel cylinders heaping with frozen white syrup.


Traditionally children were educated at home. Grandparents recited poems and tales while parents taught practical skills and crafts. From the late nineteenth century on, Ainu were educated in Japanese schools. Many concealed their Ainu background.


The Ainu have handed down a vast body of oral traditions. The main categories are yukar and oina (longer and shorter epic poems in literary Ainu), uwepekere and upasikma (old tales and autobiographical stories, both in prose), lullabies, and dance songs. Yukar usually refers to heroic poetry, chanted mainly by men, dealing with demigods and humans. It also includes oina, or kamui yukar, shorter epics chanted principally by women about the gods. The Saru region of south central Hokkaido is particularly known as the homeland of many bards and storytellers.

Yukar was narrated by the fireside for a mixed gathering of men, women, and children. Men sometimes reclined and beat time on their bellies. Depending upon the piece, yukar lasted all night or even for a few nights. There were also festival songs, group dance-songs, and stamping dances.

The best known Ainu musical instrument is the mukkuri, a mouth harp made of wood. Other instruments included coiled-bark horns, straw flutes, skin drums, five-string zithers, and a type of lute.


Since the mid-nineteenth century, the traditional subsistence activities of hunting, fishing, gathering of wild plants, and millet raising have been replaced by rice and drycrop cultivation and commercial fishing. Other activities in Hokkaido include dairy farming, forestry, mining, food processing, wood working, pulp, and paper industries. The Ainu contribute to all these activities.


Traditional sports for children included swimming and canoeing. In the early twentieth century there was a children's game called seipirakka (shell clogs). A hole was bored through the shell of a large surf clam and a thick rope passed through it. Children wore two clams each, with the rope between the first two toes, and walked or ran about on them. The shells made a clicking noise like horseshoes. Another indigenous Ainu game was making toy pattari in the creek when the snow thawed in spring. The pattari were made from hollow stalks of sorrel filled with creek water. With the accumulation of water, one end of the stalk dropped to the ground under the weight. On the rebound, the other end hit the ground with a thump. Adults used real pattari to pound millet grains.


See the article on "Japanese" in this chapter.


Weaving, embroidery, and carving are among the most important forms of folk art. Some types of traditional Ainu weaving were once almost lost, but were revived around the 1970s. Chikap Mieko, a second generation professional embroiderer, builds her original embroidery on the foundation of the traditional art. Carved trays and bears are treasured tourist items.

Among the many traditional items made are the poison arrow, unattended trap arrow, rabbit trap, fish trap, ceremonial sword, mountain knife, canoe, woven bag, and loom. In the early 1960s, Kayano Shigeru began to privately collect many such genuine items in and around his village in the Saru region, when he realized that all that was left of the Ainu cultural heritage was scattered among the communities. His collection developed into the Biratori Township Nibutani Ainu Cultural Museum and the Kayano Shigeru Ainu Memorial Museum. Also famous is the Ainu Museum established in 1984 in Shiraoi in southeastern Hokkaido on the Pacific.


The 1899 Ainu law that classified the Ainu as "former aborigines" remained in effect into the 1990s. As an Ainu representative to the National Diet since 1994, Kayano Shigeru has taken the lead in fighting to eliminate this law. A new Ainu law is now under consideration.

The recent construction of a dam in Kayano's homeland, Nibutani village in Biratori town, exemplifies forceful development of Hokkaido at the cost of the Ainu's civil rights. Despite the resistance led by Kayano Shigeru and others, construction proceeded. In early 1996 the village was buried under water. At a meeting on the use of Hokkaido lands, Kayano stated that he would accept the Nibutani dam construction plan if only the salmon fishing rights be returned to the Nibutani Ainu in exchange for the destruction of their homes and fields. His request was ignored.


Encyclopedia of Japan. New York: Kodansha, 1983.

Japan: An Illustrated Encyclopedia. Kodansha, 1993.

Kayano, Shigeru. Our Land Was a Forest: An Ainu Memoir (trans. Kyoko Selden and Lili Selden). Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1994.

Munro, Neil Gordon. Ainu Creed and Cult. New York: K. Paul International, distributed by Columbia University Press, 1995.

Philippi, Donald L. Songs of Gods, Songs of Humans: The Epic Tradition of the Ainu. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1979.


Embassy of Japan. Washington, D.C. [Online] Available, 1998.

Microsoft. Encarta Online. [Online] Available, 1998.

Microsoft. [Online] Available, 1998.

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Ainu (ī´nōō), aborigines of Japan who may be descended from a Caucasoid people who once lived in N Asia. More powerful invaders from the Asian mainland gradually forced the Ainu to retreat to the northern islands of Japan and Sakhalin and the Kuril Islands in what is now the Russian Far East; today, they reside mainly on Hokkaido. Reduced in number, they traditionally lived by hunting and fishing, which they were gradually forced to abandon in favor of small-scale farming. The Ainu have attracted the attention of tourists, and some make a living by selling reproductions of their cultural artifacts. Physically, they seem related to European peoples, i.e., they have much more body hair than typical East Asians, but intermarriage has introduced Asian traits among them. Contact with the Japanese, who insisted that they not speak the Ainu language and taught them only Japanese history, also led to culture change and assimilation, which the Ainu resisted in the past, with decreasing success. Their traditional religion is highly animistic and centers on a bear cult; a captive bear was sacrificed at an annual winter feast and his spirit, thus released, was believed to guard the Ainu settlements.

See N. G. Munro, Ainu Creed and Cult (1963); I. Hilger, Together with the Ainu (1971).

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"Ainu." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . 15 Dec. 2017 <>.

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The Ainu are an indigenous people of northern Japan who also resided on the southern half of Sakhalin Island and the Kurile Islands in the former Soviet Union. Early in the twentieth century they numbered several thousand in the territories of the former Soviet Union. They were subsequently displaced and their culture was transformed by alternating periods of Russian and Japanese rule. In recent times, the Soviet government did not recognize the Ainu as a distinct ethnic group. There is therefore no reliable information about the number of Ainu still in the former Soviet Union nor about their culture.

See Ainu in Volume 5, East and Southeast Asia

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Ainu. A Japanese people and religion. They were early inhabitants of Japan, driven northward from c.7th cent. CE. They are now mainly assimilated into mainstream Japanese culture, though some of their beliefs and practices can be traced in later religion—e.g. their animistic belief that spirits or spiritual powers (kamuy) are causative in natural events.

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"Ainu." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of World Religions. . 15 Dec. 2017 <>.

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Ainu Aboriginal people of Hokkaido (n Japan), Sakhalin and the Kuril Islands. Traditionally hunters, fishermen and trappers, they practise animism and are famed for their bear cult.

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Ainu •Manu • Vishnu • Ainu • ingénue •parvenu

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