The Ainu are the indigenous people of Japan. Ainu means both "human" and "us." The predecessors of the Ainu have lived in the Ezo (present-day Hokkaido) region, the Kuril Islands, and Sakhalin Island for thousands of years. Archaeological finds suggest that the Ainu likely developed from interaction with four significant cultures over a wide span of time: Epi-Jomon (250 BCE- 700 CE), Okhotsk (600-1000 CE), Satsumon (700-1200 CE), and Japanese (Walker, 2001). As early as the 12th century, Japanese accounts categorized the Ainu as Emishi, another people living on Ezo whom the Japanese considered uncultured and coarse outcasts.
The first Japanese census of the Ainu people in the early 19th century described them based upon the place from where they came. The Japanese named them the Hokkaido, Kuril, and Sakhalin Ainu. The Ainu population estimates from 1807 to 1931 indicated a steady decline. In 1807, the population count was 26,256; in 1822, 23,563; in 1854, 17,810; in 1873, 16,272; in 1903,17,873; and in 1931, 15,969 (Walker, 2001). The marked decrease from 1822 to 1931 was attributed primarily to diseases such as smallpox, measles, and influenza.
Kinship was sex determined, with males belonging to the father's clan and females belonging to the mother's clan. Therefore, brothers and sisters belonged to different clans with different designated obligations and allegiances. Clan membership was granted at the age of puberty, signified by a tattoo and a ceremonial belt. Land was inherited by the first son based upon one's male ancestor or forefather.
The Ainu possess an animist spirituality, believing that everything, even inanimate objects, contains life and spirit. These spirits are known as kamuy, or gods visiting the earthly world. The Ainu believe in nature, animal, plant, and object gods that exist in symbiosis with humans. They trust that the gods will assist humans and therefore must be appreciated in return. For the Ainu, it is appropriate to send kamuy back to their world through prayer and gift-giving. Some argue that the sending ceremony (iyomante) for bears represents the crux of Ainu spirituality and celebrates the return of the bear's spirit to the spirit world. Death is perceived as a separation of body and soul. The tangible body remains in this world, and the transcendent soul goes to the other world where it is met by ancestors and lives a life similar to this world. The other world exists underground, as a reflection, with the same characteristics except in reversed space and time.
Traditionally, the Ainu hunted, fished, gathered, and engaged in subsistence farming. They also vigorously traded and forged alliances with their neighbors. Fishing and hunting were the Ainu's main sources of subsistence. The Ainu built villages by the sea or by rivers for convenient access to salmon and trout. Each village or individual had designated river-fishing territory where no outsiders could fish. The Ainu engaged in sea fishing for tuna and swordfish, and hunting marine mammals using 3-4 m boats. They hunted between late autumn and early summer for bear, Ezo deer, fox, rabbit, and wild birds such as white-tailed sea eagles.
The Ainu practiced subsistence agriculture, supplementing other economic activities. Women usually planted crops such as wheat, buckwheat, and Chinese and foxtail millet. Crops such as Japanese radish, cucumber, leek, and pumpkin were introduced in the Tokugawa era (1603-1868). Potatoes were introduced to Ainu agriculture in 1798 with Japanese influence.
Until the 17th century, the Ainu boasted a robust trading relationship with the Russians and held their own against Japanese incursions into Ezo. Under the Tokugawa government, however, the Matsumae dynasty (1599-1868) exerted monopoly over trade with the Ainu. The Matsumae partitioned Hokkaido in order to increase its control of trade, which proved extremely disadvantageous for the Ainu. They were forced to trade exclusively with the Matsumae, at the dynasty's behest, eliminating any opportunity for the Ainu to trade freely. Hokkaido was further subdivided as followers of the dynasty were granted monopoly over trade. The Ainu relationship with the Wajin (the Ainu designation for the Japanese) intensified. Realizing trade was a limited resource, the Matsumae hired merchants to develop fishing grounds. They, in turn, hired Ainu as cheap labor. The Ainu people lost control of their trading economy and territory and sacrificed much of their freedom as they were forced to labor for their livelihood. Some women were forced into sexual slavery.
The Ainu were important intermediaries among Japanese, Dutch, Chinese, Russian, Manchurian, and Korean markets. As these states developed through trade, especially Japan, the Ainu became redundant trading partners, eventually becoming indentured workers in the coastal fishing towns of Hokkaido. The situation worsened in 1868 when the Japanese government undertook modernization and expansion policies, encouraged Japanese farmers to settle in Hokkaido, and prevented the Ainu from observing their traditional customs.
The Hokkaido Former Aborigines Protection Act, a Japanese parliamentary legislation enacted in 1899, aimed to assimilate the Ainu. The Japanese had been colonizing Hokkaido since modernization began in 1868. Ainu traditional economies, and the land and waterways they utilized were transformed into agricultural land for colonial settlers. By the 1880s, the
Japanese settler population outnumbered the Ainu population. Hastening economic assimilation, Ainu were granted small plots of land. If they refused to cultivate the land, it would be taken away from them, resulting in further Japanese economic control.
Even before the Tokugawa period, the Japanese differentiated themselves from the Ainu, considering them barbaric. During the 19th century, European-influenced Darwinism, revolving around concepts of race and racial inferiority of the Ainu, influenced this discourse, reinforcing the denigration of Ainu according to racial and cultural stereotypes. Changing policies led the Japanese to assimilate the Ainu into Japanese hegemony. By the late 20th century, the Japanese considered the Ainu assimilated. Since the 1960s, similar to other indigenous groups around the world, the Ainu have denied assimilation and fought for recognition as indigenous peoples for rights to resources and political power (Siddle, 1996). The Japanese government recognized the Ainu as a minority group under UN Article 27 in 1991 but denied them status as aboriginal people. In March 1997, the Sapporo District Court awarded the Ainu recognition as an indigenous people of Japan and granted them protection for their aboriginal culture. This cleared the way for the Japanese Diet to pass the Act on the Encouragement of Ainu Culture and the Diffusion and Enlightenment of Knowledge on Ainu Tradition on May 8, 1997. The Ainu continue to fight for political recognition, and for the ability to control their social, cultural, economic, and political development.
Aileen A. Espiritu
See also Bear Ceremonialism
The Ainu Museum website: http://www.ainu-museum.or.jp/
english/english.html Fitzhugh, William W. & Chisato O. Dubreil (editors), Ainu: Spirit of a Northern People, Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1999 Siddle, Richard, Race, Resistance and the Ainu of Japan,
London: Routledge, 1996 Walker, Brett L., The Conquest of Ainu Lands, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001
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