Raising Cultural Awareness About Japan's Ainu People

Four Ainu women in dark blue traditional clothing perform a song and dance

If you’re learning about Japanese culture, it’s unlikely your cultural awareness training will include anything about Japan’s Ainu people.

The Ainu are the indigenous people of Hokkaido, the northernmost island of the Japanese archipelago. They have also historically lived in the Kuril and Sakhalin islands of Russia.

Believed to have originated in the 12th and 13th centuries, their culture is very different from that of the Japanese, and they have their own distinctive language. The Ainu believe that everything in nature has a spirit. They worship the “kamuy,” or spirit deities, of flora, fauna, fire, water, wind, mountains, and rivers.

In the 15thcentury, the Ainu earned their livelihoods by fishing, hunting, and plant gathering, as well as trading. But their way of life has changed drastically, and today the Ainu work in many different capacities.

Ainu music

Music has played an important role in Ainu culture. Singing is part of daily life, and most songs are considered sacred. There are two types of songs — ballads that highlight everyday life and customs, and songs which recount epic stories.

The singing includes imitations of animal cries and insect sounds, reflecting the Ainu’s animistic beliefs. Songs are accompanied by two unique instruments: the “mukkuri,” a jaw harp that’s placed in one’s mouth, and the “tonkori,” a type of zither that has five strings.

Lost traditions and language

Unfortunately, many of the Ainu’s traditions and much of their language, listed as an endangered language by UNESCO, have been lost due to a forced assimilation policy.

In 1899, the Japanese government passed the Hokkaido Former Aborigines Protection Act, which prohibited the Ainu from speaking their language and participating in their own cultural events and religion.

What has survived from Ainu culture has been passed down from generation to generation and through exchanges with neighboring peoples in northeast Asia and other indigenous groups.

Although the Hokkaido Former Aborigines Protection Act was repealed in 1996, the Japanese government didn’t formally recognize the Ainu as indigenous to Japan until June of 2008.

Cross-cultural learning

Last year, as part of a 2019 law that requires the Japanese government to promote Ainu culture as reparation, the National Ainu Museum opened in Shiraoi, Hokkaido. The museum’s mission is to “promote a proper understanding and awareness of Ainu history and culture in Japan and elsewhere.”

Also on Hokkaido, the Ainu settlement of Lake Akan is open to visitors. In addition to seeing some impressive animal wood carvings, people can eat traditional Ainu food and watch dance performances. This art form, listed as an Intangible Cultural Heritage by UNESCO, is part of the annual Iomante Fire Festival, held from March until the end of November. 

The dance performances tell a story about the Ainu people, “kamuy,” and prayer.