- Japanese: アイヌ (ainu)
The Ainu are an indigenous people of Japan, mainly associated with Hokkaidô, though as late as the Edo period, a few hundred Ainu still lived in the Nanbu and Tsugaru domains in Tôhoku. Closely related groups also inhabit Sakhalin and the Kuril Islands.
Today, there are less than 20 native speakers of the Ainu language, though tens of thousands, mainly living in Hokkaidô and Tokyo, claim partial or full Ainu heritage. The Ainu were formally recognized by the Japanese government as an indigenous people in recent years, though social programs and the like for the Ainu are centered exclusively in Hokkaidô, making it difficult for Ainu in Tokyo or elsewhere to benefit.
As in many indigenous cultures around the world, in their own language, the word "Ainu" simply means "human being" or "person." The relationship of the Ainu to the Emishi or other indigenous groups pushed back from Eastern Japan to Tôhoku, and eventually to Hokkaidô, in earlier periods is unclear, as is the relationship of the Ainu and the Japanese ("Yamato people") to the Jômon/Yayoi divide.
That said, the term "Ainu" is generally used only in discussions of the 14th century and beyond. Ainu/Emishi history is generally divided into the following periods:
- Jômon (before 100 BCE)
- Zoku-Jômon (lit. "continued Jômon"; 100 BCE - 800 CE)
- Satsumon culture (800 - 1300 CE)
- Ainu (1300 CE to present)
From the 16th century or so (or perhaps earlier) onwards, Ainu society was organized into small communities called kotan. There was no overall Ainu chief or king, or any sort of government administration or bureaucracy; the kotan was, more or less, the largest social (or political) entity in Ainu society. There is, however, a concept of an overall Ainu homeland, called Ainu moshir, incorporating all the many Ainu lands; the geographical boundaries of this homeland have never been precisely identified, and are considered blurry even by the Ainu themselves.
Kotan were self-organized, usually locating themselves near a river or seashore. They did not "own" land in any manner resembling modern concepts of ownership, with written contracts, legal codes, and/or systems of inheritance. Rather, so long as a plot of land was under cultivation by an individual, family, or kotan, others would respect the claim or "rights" to that land.
The men of a given kotan would hunt and fish in their area, chiefly bear and salmon, while the women farmed, mainly millet, beans, barley, wheat, sorghum, and vegetables. They would usually burn the field first, creating ash which served as fertilizer, and would then cultivate a given plot for a year or two before allowing that area to return to nature, and turning to a different plot of land to claim as theirs to cultivate for a period. The Ainu, especially in Sakhalin, bred dogs, which they used for a variety of purposes, including as hunting companions, sled dogs, and for their fur/skins and their meat.
Ainu never engaged in rice cultivation traditionally, but purchased rice from the Japanese, who called themselves Wajin (和人), among other terms, to identify themselves in contrast to the Ainu Other. This term, wajin only first appears in extant texts in 1799, however, while the Ainu term shamo, used to refer to the Japanese, appears as early as 1467.
The Ainu also used the word shisam, meaning literally "the great and nearby," to refer to outsiders, and words such as kur and utar to refer to other Ainu groups (e.g. from a different region) or other indigenous tribes, e.g. the Nivkh, Uilta, or others from the nearest parts of the Asian mainland, or from Sakhalin and the Kurils. People from Ainu lands (Ainu moshir) were known as yaunkur (the clans from the land), while others were known as rebunkur (clans of beyond the sea). The term yaun shisam ("neighbors of the land") was used to refer to Japanese, Americans, and Russians, among others. Americans and Russians, along with other Westerners or Europeans, were also known as fuure shisam, or "red neighbors"; this is possibly a reference to hair color, similar to the Japanese term kômô ("red hairs"), used in the Azuchi-Momoyama and Edo periods to refer to the Dutch "barbarians."
Ainu men often wore their hair and beards long. Their clothes were wrapped with the left side on top, the opposite of Japanese customs, and they wore fur boots, which were quite unlike the straw sandals (zori or waraji) Japanese were used to. They had no written language, though Japanese scholars later developed a system of representing Ainu sounds in Japanese kana through the introduction of a handful of new symbols.
Japanese expanded into Tôhoku as early as the 8th-9th centuries, and into Ezo by the 15th century, if not earlier, establishing small centers of control and either pushing the Emishi further north, or assimilating them. Some of these Japanese leaders were agents of the Yamato state; some sought independence from the Yamato state; and some were in fact Emishi chiefs or their descendants who had taken on Japanese identity. Meanwhile, those Japanese who sought to break from the Yamato state and to establish their own independent polities in the north were sometimes designated "Emishi" by the center.
The mid-15th century saw a new surge of instability in Tôhoku and Ezo, as Japanese traders, fishermen, trappers and the like made further inroads into Ainu territories. Japanese and Ainu got into conflict, and some studies indicate that the Ainu won most of these scattered skirmishes. The zone of Japanese control shrank, and receded, for a time; at the opening of the 17th century (the time of the establishment of the Tokugawa shogunate), it was the Kakizaki clan who controlled the only remaining Wajin (Japanese) territory on the island of Ezo. Controlling that territory from Matsumae castle, they came to be known as the Matsumae clan, and remained the only daimyô on Ezo, in control of the northernmost han in the realm, throughout the Edo period.
Though the Japanese had had some interactions and dealings with the Ainu (or Emishi) of Hokkaidô in earlier periods, it was in the Edo period that directed policy was first aimed at the island of Hokkaidô, then called Ezo.
For most of the Edo period, the Japanese continued to directly control very little of the island, but the economic benefits, and political or discursive benefits of having Ezo (and its people, the Ainu) within Japan's sphere of influence was of importance to the shogunate. Relations with the Ainu were handled almost exclusively by the Matsumae clan beginning in 1604, the only clan to be based on Ezo. Japanese and Ainu engaged in trade, with the Ainu providing items such as furs, fish, hawks for hunting, as well as items obtained from the Asian continent, in exchange for lacquerware, swords, and other Japanese craft-goods. Many of these Japanese craft-goods were actually rather out of reach for the average Japanese peasant of the time, so the fact that Ainu had access to them is actually quite significant. Ainu chiefs also met with the Matsumae lords, and with shogunate officials, in two separate audience rituals, known respectively as uimamu (J: omemie, "audience") and omusha; both of these rituals included the exchange of gifts, and thus resembled tributary relations to some extent. However, samurai authorities explicitly did not recognize the Ainu as a sovereign people, i.e. as a country, in the same way that they recognized Korea, China, or Ryûkyû; instead, Japanese rhetoric of the time emphasized the notion of the Ainu as living under the protection (撫育, buiku) of the samurai authorities, and represented these rituals as indicating Ainu gratitude for that protection.
In the early Edo period, Ainu who had been living among Wajin were encouraged, or even forced, to relocate, deeper into Ezochi. They were forbidden to speak Japanese, or to dress in the Japanese fashion, and were discouraged from farming. As the shogunate's constructions of its ideological legitimacy developed, it became increasingly desirable, even necessary, that the Ainu be a foreign, exotic, people who paid tribute or otherwise formally recognized the superiority, or centrality, of Japanese civilization. A system or tradition was thus established in which Ainu chiefs regularly visited Matsumae, bringing gifts and paying respects to the samurai lords; the Matsumae clan saw this as a paying of tribute, in the ideological mode of Chinese or Japanese political worldview, but it is not clear that the Ainu saw it in that way, as an expression of submission or subordination.
For lengthy periods of time in the Edo period, there was a degree of fluidity of movement between Ainu and Japanese society, with some Japanese moving out beyond the borders of Matsumae han, and essentially joining Ainu society, while some Ainu shaved their beards, cut their hair, and adopted Japanese customs and lifestyle. (Some Ainu also maintained, to a degree, their Ainu identity and lifestyle while living within Japanese society.) It is said that some Ainu even fought alongside the samurai armies of the Matsumae clan (then called the Kakizaki clan) in the Sengoku period, being known especially for their poisoned arrows. Tessa Morris-Suzuki points out the significance of this conception of Japanese as something people could become - something grounded more in culture and societal behavior than in racial or ethnic identity.
Indeed, as the Japanese began to sense a threat from Russian encroachment in the 1730s-40s (when Ainu on Shumshu and other northerly islands quite close to Kamchatka began to be Russified), and especially around the 1790s-1800s, "Japanization" of the Ainu was pursued with greater fervor. The Ainu may have been considered outsiders, and on the periphery, but it was still considered "our" periphery in the eyes of the Japanese, a place and a people with whom the Japanese had a long relationship, and from whom the Japanese got fish, furs, and much other important commerce; there was a fear of losing all of this to the Russians, who were actively building Russian Orthodox churches in the Kurils and elsewhere, and converting the native peoples. The shogunate's assimilation efforts were directed, therefore, not at the Ainu living closer to Matsumae-chi, but at those living nearest the areas of Russian encroachment, in order to solidify the Japaneseness of the Ainu there. Intermarriage was encouraged, and ceremonies celebrating "kaizoku no shûgi" (改俗の祝儀, "the improvement of customs") were held, in which Ainu were given Japanese-style dress and haircuts. A volume on Confucianism, intended for the purposes of transformational moral instruction, became one of the first books ever translated into the Ainu language. Though attributed to Muro Kyûsô, this was actually Muro's translation of a work by Tei Junsoku, a Ryukyuan (i.e. non-Japanese, "barbarian")scholar-official.
Since Japanese society was highly stratified, however, assimilating Ainu into it meant assigning them a place within the system, and signs of their new status; most Ainu were given castoff peasants' clothing, but their village headmen, elders, and the like were often given haori or other elements of a higher-status costume, signs of a status position above peasants but below samurai officials. By around 1800, Ainu constituted only about half of Ezo's population.
Some shogunate officials and other thinkers and writers suggested that the shogunate ought to seize Ezo, the Kuril Islands, and Sakhalin, in order to fend off the Russians and claim the Ainu (and the economic benefits they represented) more securely for Japan.
Indeed, in 1799, and again in 1807, the shogunate laid claim to lands in these areas, returning them to the responsibility of the Matsumae clan only in 1821, after fears of Russian encroachment subsided. At that time, policies or attitudes about the Japanization of the Ainu were reversed. Discursively, it lent greater power and legitimacy to the Matsumae clan, and to the shogunate, to appear to have a foreign people submitting themselves to Japanese dominion; the Shimazu clan of Satsuma han engaged in similar discursive activities in their relations with the Kingdom of Ryûkyû.
Though continuing to exert direct control over only a very small portion of the island, in the 18th century the Matsumae clan began licensing Japanese merchants to establish commercial operations in Ainu lands, setting up small permanent outposts of Japanese settlement, and cottage industries such as fisheries, where Ainu served as hired labor. Ainu were in fact pressured to work for the fisheries, and discouraged - through intimidation and other forceful methods - from engaging in farming; Ainu agriculture noticeably declines in the 17th-18th centuries. This, combined with severe increases in prices for Japanese goods frustrated the Ainu, who saw this as a betrayal by people who had, up until then, kept to their own territory, traded fairly and amicably, and treated the Ainu with respect. Several Ainu rebellions would occur over the course of the Edo period, one of the largest or most famous being Shakushain's Revolt in 1669-1672, but all were eventually suppressed.
The Ainu continued to trade not only with the Japanese, but with various mainland Asian peoples, throughout the Edo period. Though the volume of this trade is unclear, some amount of goods from Russia, and from indigenous tribal groups such as the Nivkh and Uilta, were then in turn traded to the Japanese.
Bakumatsu and Meiji Period
The first agreements between Japan and Russia as to a defined national border between them were made in 1855; Ezo was renamed Hokkaidô and formally incorporated into the territory of the modern Japanese state in 1869.
Ainu were sparsely settled across the vast land area of Hokkaidô, which was thus seen by Japanese as, essentially, a "clean slate" or terra nullius. Discussions or debates of prior decades were revived, with some suggesting the government take a relatively hands-off approach, allowing private interests (merchants/firms) and individual settlers to develop the land, and allowing Ainu to assimilate in an organic, gradual manner. Others argued that a more direct, focused effort of colonization be undertaken.
The colonial government agency was established in 1869/8, with Horace Capron, a former US Secretary of Agriculture who played a prominent role in suppressing Native American opposition to American expansion, as one of the chief advisors. After a series of surveys and investigations, the Western experts who had been brought in by the Japanese government disagreed widely. Capron took the lead, suggesting a directed effort to bring in Japanese settlers to colonize Hokkaidô; deciding that the land was no good for growing rice, he advocated a more American way of life, raising wheat, eating bread, and living in Western-style brick homes with Western-style furniture and a largely Western-style diet. This latter set of suggestions was ultimately not followed, however, as lifestyle in Hokkaidô was instead adapted to conform to more Japanese norms - even if the land were indeed better for raising wheat and other grains rather than rice, a hardier strain of rice plant was instead developed, and other elements of Japanese culture and lifestyle were introduced (or imposed).
When the koseki system of family registers was established in 1872, the Ainu were included into it, with a family register being drawn up for each Ainu family. However, Ainu were not recognized at this time as regular Japanese citizens, but were instead labeled in the family registers as "former natives" (kyû-dojin).
The government banned a variety of Ainu practices, including tattooing, in 1871, and obliged all Ainu to speak Standard Japanese. In 1876, efforts began to force Ainu to adopt Japanese-style names, and the following year, the government began to claim Ainu lands as government property.
In 1875, Japan and Russia revised their formal agreements regarding borders and territorial claims; the Kuril Islands came under Japanese control in exchange for Japan relinquishing its claims to Sakhalin. The Japanese authorities discovered, however, that the Ainu of the Kuril Islands had been Russified. The inhabitants of Shumshu and Paramushir were forcibly relocated to Shikotan, one of the southernmost Kuril Islands, nearest to Hokkaidô, and efforts were made to assimilate them into Japanese culture and customs. However, the relocation resulted in disease, depression, and famine, and the community shrank dramatically; still, they retained their Russian names, dress, and customs, and even managed to convert a number of Japanese to Russian Orthodox Christianity.
The Meiji government's policies towards the Ainu seem ambiguous, confusing, or hypocritical in terms of the implications for the racial ideas behind them. Ainu were dispossessed of their lands, and their traditional systems of land rights & hunting/fishing rights eradicated. Salmon fishing was prohibited, and river fishing remains illegal today, with exceptions made for traditional practices. Under the Former Natives Protection Law of 1899, the seized lands were then reapportioned by the state, divvied up to the Ainu, who were given up to five hectares of land to farm, along with tools, seed, and other materials. The Ainu were forced to assimilate and adopt Japanese customs, and were officially designated in 1878 as kyûdojin (旧土人), or "former aborigines," a term meant to highlight that Ainu identity was a thing of the past, and that they were now "Japanese." However, the "former Ainu" were at the same time acknowledged as a special, different, group worthy of government concern and welfare, their financial assets seized by the state and re-apportioned to programs aimed at ensuring their "welfare." Beginning in 1901, Ainu students were separated out from Wajin students, and placed in separate classes or schools. Even as the Ainu were encouraged to become Japanese citizens, to assimilate into the newly created and supposedly homogenous Japanese identity, and to be seen as Japanese, they continued to be treated as Other in many contexts and venues. At a 1903 domestic exposition in Osaka, mirroring the St. Louis World's Fair which would take place the next year on a more international stage, Ainu were put on display alongside Taiwanese aborigines, Koreans, and others, in a "Pavilion of Mankind," essentially, a "human zoo," where Japanese visitors could see how less civilized people look and how they live.
By this time, numerous Orientalist writings had emerged describing the Ainu as Japanese people, or Jômon people, of the past. Scholars in the emerging field of Japanese archaeology, among other fields, argued that the Ainu were either fully ethnically Japanese, or of the same ethnic ancestry, and had maintained the culture and lifestyle of an earlier era; it was believed that the Ainu could serve as a treasure house of (pre-)historical culture, from which the Japanese could (re-)learn how to live more in harmony with nature, and otherwise learn how to moderate those effects of modernization seen as spiritually or culturally detrimental. Very similar discourses circulated concerning Okinawa, Taiwan, and Korea, as storehouses of an earlier form of Japanese culture.
Despite knowledge of Ainu agriculture, Japanese scholars cultivated a discourse in which the Ainu were represented as existing in the hunter-gatherer / fishing-trapping, pre-agricultural stage of societal development, thus emphasizing their primitiveness and distance from the "modern" Japanese. The fiction of Ainu primitiveness, including the myths that Ainu never developed agriculture or metalworking, was considerably aided by the significant decline in Ainu agricultural activity and metalworking in the face of Japanese pressure and economic competition in the Edo period.
Though deprived of their traditional hunting & fishing grounds, and of their financial assets, Ainu were at least promised a certain amount of land - five chô per household - by the government; the government ran out of land to give out ten years later, in 1909. The program had further problems as the land given to the Ainu to farm was not always the most fertile or arable land, and as the Ainu were not used to farming, at least not in the manner or with the particular crops that the Japanese now encouraged. Many crops failed, leading to famine, underdevelopment of the land overall, and widespread poverty, issues which set the foundation for continued underdevelopment and economic issues in Hokkaidô today.
Some number of Ainu traveled to Tokyo as early as the 1870s, or perhaps even earlier, for education or other purposes. Total figures are unclear, but anecdotes are given, for example of 38 Ainu relocated to Tokyo in 1872 to be educated (& "civilized") at an agricultural school established explicitly for that purpose on the grounds of Zôjô-ji. Five succumbed quickly to disease, and by 1873 only five remained in attendance at the school; it was closed the following year. Some individuals traveled to Tokyo or other regions on their own at this time, such as Chiri Mashiho and his sister Chiri Yukie, who traveled to Tokyo to attend Tokyo Imperial University. However, most Ainu migration in the pre-war period is seen through a lens of colonialism, assimilation policies, forced migration, and so forth.
Post-War & Today
The Hokkaidô Ainu Association was established in 1946, and remains today the largest and most prominent Ainu association in the world; it changed its name to Hokkaidô Utari Association and established the first Ainu Community Center (seikatsukan) in Hokkaidô in 1961. The Hokkaidô Tourism Alliance was also founded in 1946.
From the Meiji period onwards, and especially in the 1950s-60s when there was a "Hokkaidô tourism boom," demand for souvenirs and the like spurred the (re)creation of much Ainu art, including especially wood-carved objects. Relatedly, Ainu traditional dances were officially named Intangible Cultural Heritage in 1984. Fujito Takeki and Sunazawa Bikki are counted among the pioneers in the revival or renaissance of Ainu arts.
Ainu migration to Tokyo and other mainland urban areas picked up in the 1950s-1960s, with many Ainu relocating to such areas in search of work, or for other typical modern immigrant reasons. In these decades, roughly 30% of Ainu in the Kantô worked as day laborers or seasonal workers. Most of these Ainu individuals relocated to Tokyo alongside friends, or in order to join relatives already resident there. However, it was not until more recent decades that any significant number of people seem to have begun to identify with a broader "Ainu in Tokyo" or "Ainu diaspora" community, beyond the immediate circles of their friends and family. The first such group, the Tokyo Utari Association, was founded in the early 1970s, and though it collapsed by 1980, it was replaced by the Kantô Utari Association. By 1997, there were four major Ainu associations in Tokyo, which came together to negotiate with the metropolitan government for the establishment of a formal Ainu community center.
Ainu organizations held a series of high-profile protests outside the National Diet in 1992, demanding the revocation of the Former Natives Protection Law of 1899. This came after Prime Minister Nakasone Yasuhiro, in 1986, made comments asserting Japan's ethnic homogeneity, angering many in Ainu, Okinawan, Zainichi Korean, and other communities. The Former Natives Protection Law was finally repealed in 1997, and replaced with a Cultural Promotion Act, recognizing for the first time minority ethnicities within Japan, and acknowledging the importance of promoting Ainu culture and ethnic pride. However, this Cultural Promotion Act mandated no specific actions, and guaranteed no special privileges or rights. Japan was a signatory in 2007 to the United Nations' Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, but like many countries added stipulations that the Declaration did not apply to their own (Japanese domestic) situation. It was only the following year, on 6 June, 2008, that both houses of the Japanese Diet unanimously adopted a resolution to recognize the Ainu as an indigenous people, and nominally at least entitled to the rights the UN Declaration stipulates. A Council for Ainu Policy Promotion was formed in 2009.
Some sources estimate that roughly 10,000 Ainu live in the Kantô region (the greater metropolitan & suburban area around Tokyo and Yokohama) today, and that there are likely more Ainu outside of Hokkaidô than within the prefecture. Mark Watson estimates that only about forty Ainu individuals are particularly active in Ainu cultural/political organizations in Tokyo, but is sure to point out that, as is the case for people of any ethnic identity, this does not make the others - whose lives are more strongly dominated by the demands of family, work, and other social associations & activities - any less Ainu. While Ainu in Hokkaidô continue to face numerous serious challenges, and while issues of colonialism, displacement, and dispossession remain serious and worthy of both political and academic attention, scholars such as Mark Watson argue that a truer appreciation of Ainu identity, livelihood, and culture in the 20th-21st centuries requires attention to the "diaspora" as well. Considering the Ainu people in this way also means not dismissing Ainu issues as being only of local concern (i.e. in Hokkaidô), and seeing them instead as being of national, or even international, importance.
As is the case for many indigenous peoples around the world, Ainu struggle with others' assumptions that indigenous identity is situated exclusively in a given space (Hokkaidô) and time (pre-modern/primitive), such that Ainu identity would be antithetical to modern or cosmopolitan life. As Watson writes, "Ainu, it is assumed, would not survive or ... would not want to survive as Ainu in the city" (italics added). Indeed, Ainu living outside of Hokkaidô are legally regarded no differently from Wajin (Japanese), and receive no special privileges, benefits, or indigenous rights. They are ineligible for membership in the Hokkaidô Utari Kyôkai (the largest Ainu association), and are thus omitted from surveys and studies on Ainu socio-economic conditions. Similarly, only Ainu living in Hokkaidô receive benefits from the Hokkaidô Utari Welfare Countermeasures welfare scheme, first enacted in 1974.
- Morris-Suzuki, Tessa. "Creating the Frontier: Border, Identity, and History in Japan's Far North." East Asian History 7 (June 1994). pp1-24.
- Morris-Suzuki, Tessa. Re-Inventing Japan: Time, Space, Nation. M.E. Sharpe, 1998. pp9-25ff.
- Mark Watson, "Tokyo Ainu and the Urban Indigenous Experience," in ann-elise lewallen, Mark Hudson, Mark Watson (eds.), Beyond Ainu Studies, University of Hawaii Press (2015), 72.
- Morris-Suzuki. "Creating the Frontier." p15.
- David Howell, "Is Ainu History Japanese History?," in ann-elise lewallen, Mark Hudson, Mark Watson (eds.), Beyond Ainu Studies, University of Hawaii Press (2015), 109.
- Tessa Morris-Suzuki, "The Frontiers of Japanese Identity," in Stein Tønnesson and Hans Antlöv (eds.), Asian Forms of the Nation, Psychology Press (1996), 45.
- Howell, "Is Ainu History Japanese History?," 106.
- Including as early as the late 15th century, when the Andô clan and Takeda Nobuhiro, ancestor of the Matsuemae clan, were active in Ezo.
- Arano Yasunori, "Foreign Relations in Early Modern Japan: Exploding the Myth of National Seclusion," Nippon.com, 18 Jan 2013.
- Morris-Suzuki, "The Frontiers of Japanese Identity," 51.
- Morris-Suzuki. Re-Inventing Japan. p22.
- Morris-Suzuki, "The Frontiers of Japanese Identity," 54.
- Morris-Suzuki, "The Frontiers of Japanese Identity," 56.
- Morris-Suzuki. "Creating the Frontier." p13.
- Schirokauer, et al, A Brief History of Japanese Civilization, Wadsworth Cengage (2013), 134.
- Morris-Suzuki. "Creating the Frontier." p21.
- Morris-Suzuki. "Creating the Frontier." p14.
- Andrew Gordon, A Modern History of Japan, Oxford University Press (2013), 74-75.
- Gallery labels, National Museum of Japanese History (Rekihaku).
- Morris-Suzuki. "Creating the Frontier." p16.
- Gallery labels, "Ainu Treasures," East-West Center. Feb 2013.
- In fact, even when scholars acknowledged Ainu agriculture, incorporating it into their theories of Ainu primitiveness, they still overlooked or chose to ignore the fact that Ainu methods - which they were portraying as primitive - were in fact little different from those practiced in parts of Matsumae-chi, Sado Island, and certain other remote rural areas of Japan. (Morris-Suzuki. "Creating the Frontier." p21.)
- Watson, 74-75.
- Gallery labels, National Museum of Japanese History.
- Watson, 76.
- Watson, 77-80.
- Watson, 80.
- Watson, 78-79.
- Gallery labels, "Ainu Treasures," East-West Center Gallery, Feb 2013.
- Watson, 69-71.