The Ainu People of Japan

The Ainu people (アイヌ) also referred to as Aynu, Aino (アイノ) or Ezo (蝦夷), are an indigenous people in Japan. They were conquered by Japan about 300 years ago. The Ainu people are different from the Japanese in language and race. Some Ainu people also reside in the Sakhalin and Kuril Islands in Russia. Recent official estimates indicate that there are about 25,000 Ainos in Japan. Intermarriage, mixed heritage, and other ethnic issues in Japan drastically reduced the actual count of the Ainu people. The unofficial number is around 200,000.

ainu1The Ainu culture is a combination of Okhotsk and Satsumon. The Ainu people predominantly lived off hunting and fishing, and their religion is based on the phenomena of nature. Battles were reported between the Ainos and the Yuan Dynasty of China in the late 1200s. The Ainu people began trade with the Wajin of Japan sometime in the 13th century. The Tokugawa period (1600-1868) brought increased trade with the Japanese, who controlled the southern part of the island now known as Hokkaido. The Matsumae clan had exclusive trading rights with the Ainos, and later on the clan began to lease trading rights to other Japanese merchants which further strengthened the relations between the two cultures. The Ainu people became more and more dependent on Japanese goods over the years.

Ainu people. | Ian


In 1868, during the Meiji Restoration, the Japanese government introduced many social, economic, and political reforms to modernize the country which included the annexation of Hokkaido. The purpose of this was to defend Japan from Russia. It also helped solve the unemployment of the samurai class, and the natural resources from the northern island helped Japan’s growing economy.

In 1899, an act was passed that classed the Ainu as former aborigines and automatically labelled them Japanese citizens. But in 2008, a bipartisan, non-binding resolution was approved by the Japanese government to recognize the Ainu people as indigenous to Japan and rescinded the 1899 act. Indigenous people, as defined by international or national legislation, have specific rights that are based on their historical ties to a certain territory as well as their having cultural distinctiveness in language and religion.

The Japanese government just recently announced that it plans on building a museum and park to honor the Ainu people in time for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. The museum and park will be built in Hokkaido in the town of Shiraoi, an area where the most number of Ainu people reside.

Ainu and a bear.