The Ainu are an indigenous people native to Japan, with origins which date back at least as far as the Jomon period, a crucial time in Japanese prehistory in which a number of cultural advances were made. Today, the Ainu are found primarily in the Northern regions of Japan, and the exact population currently living in Japan is not fully known, due to the fact that some of them conceal their heritage due to racial discrimination. It is estimated that around 50,000 Ainu are alive today.
These native Japanese have a rich culture, language, and set of traditions which are entirely distinct from those of the Japanese people. They are also physically quite different, with physical traits which link them closely with native Tibetans, including a tendency to grow much more body hair than many other native Asian peoples. In addition to being found in Japan, the Ainu can also be found in parts of Russia.
When settlers first arrived in Japan, they began pushing the Ainu out of their native lands, causing them to drift slowly to the North in an attempt to protect themselves and preserve their culture. Over the centuries, the Ainu have come increasingly under Japanese control, and they have often been treated with derision by the Japanese government and Japanese people. Despite this, cultural exchange between the Ainu and Japanese people has led to increasing conformity with Japanese values and traditions among the Ainu, to the dismay of some, and many Ainu have intermarried with Japanese people.
The Ainu at one point spoke their own language, which was entirely distinct from Japanese, although they speak Japanese today in order to function in Japanese society. Their religious beliefs are animist, and most made a living as hunters, fishermen, and farmers, producing a distinctive cuisine which is quite different from Japanese food. The Ainu also have their own traditional dress, distinctive style of architecture, values, and cultural traditions. Today, many Ainu rely on the tourist trade for an income, producing traditional crafts for sale to visitors.
Some Ainu dislike the term Ainu, which means “people” in their language. They would prefer to use the term Utari, which means “comrade.” In some official documents and publications, both terms are used, reflecting a desire to respect indigenous Japanese and their traditions, but the term “Ainu” is much more widespread and commonly understood. The conditions under which the Ainu live and have lived historically are often a topic of discussion among people who are concern about racial tensions in Japan.