I am becoming increasingly obsessed with the Ainu. This obsession started with a sharp interest in Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost and second largest island (there are 6,852 in total). Hokkaido is much much colder than any other part of Japan, and the people who live there, the Ainu, possess a culture unique to anything else found in the South. I think my interest came from the fact that these people had taken the hardships of their climate and learned to live in harmony with them. I was reminded of the Native Americans, Tibetans, and the Mongolians (all of which are believed to share a common root in “recent” history), and I thought that maybe there was perhaps a link between these people and cultures. I probed, and sure enough, there have been studies that have shown there to be a genetic link between these people.
It is believed by many that the Ainu are an indigenous people of Japan (nobody really knows where the heck the other guys came from, more on this later), and although now isolated primarily in Hokkaido, there are many places in northern Honshu (the main island of Japan) that retain names given in the Ainu language, indicating that the Ainu were one upon a time spread out much further than the confines of Hokkaido. The idea of a unified nation-state, for Japan, like most other countries in the world, is a very new idea in modern history (~700 years for the Japanese, older than most other countries in the modern world). Before this, identities were localized to much smaller areas.
It was not until the late 1800’s that Hokkaido was annexed by Japan and considered a part of the nation. Today, the Ainu are considered Japanese by the government, thereby justifying the country’s claim over these people and their land, however, it appears that these people are highly marginalized in society, as many people do not consider them to be”real Japanese.”
I really love their culture and am contemplating backpacking around Hokkaido for some time to see these people for myself. I might wait until after winter though; the winters in Hokkaido are brutal.
There are some 25,000 Ainu people living in Japan,and although not aggressively oppressed by force, their culture is slowly slipping away and becoming somewhat of a cultural zoo for tourists. It is interesting to note the similar fates shared by the Native Americans, Tibetans, and the Ainu, all originally coming from the cold plains of modern-day Mongolia. Humble people living one with nature, gobbled up by the forces of modernist fear and imperialist expansion. Below is a short clip I found to be quite informational about the modern day Ainu.