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Who are the Ainu?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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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.

PublicPeople is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a PublicPeople researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By anon334798 — On May 15, 2013

Jomon/Ainu originated from Lake Baikal. Microlith is one of the biggest proofs.

By candyquilt — On Oct 17, 2011

There are many more ethnic groups in Japan then I expected. It's a wonder how many different groups have wanted to occupy this little island.

Do the Ainu have subcategories within them? I know that the Ainu population in Northern Japan is called Hokkaido Ainu, but apparently, there are also some small Ainu groups in South Japan as well. Are those groups the same as the Hokkaido Ainu?

By burcinc — On Oct 16, 2011

@burcidi-- I've seen old pictures of Ainu and they do look very different from the Japanese. They seem to have very white skin, round faces and lots of hair when compared to the Japanese. Especially the men all had beards. I think the face features resemble the Mongolians and Caucasians the most.

I agree with you that all of this doesn't matter, except if it is a cause of discrimination. I don't know about now, but I've read that the Ainu were discriminated against when the island was taken over the Japanese. Some historians point out old Japanese paintings of the Ainu peoples where their heads were drawn very large and they represented them very hair, almost like bears. This is probably a good evidence that the Ainu were ridiculed and made fun of by the Japanese.

It's really sad to know especially since the Ainu are the original people of the island, and not the Japanese.

By burcidi — On Oct 16, 2011

There's some confusion as to where the Ainu originally came from and which ethnic group they are descendants of. I've heard many different arguments. Some people say that they are the same as the Jomon people, others say that they have nothing to do with Jomon.

Some think that the Ainu are Austronesian in origin, which is a mix of Australian, Polynesian and Malaysian. But again, some people say exactly the opposite, that Austronesian groups have always been specifically in the Indonesia surroundings and never in Japan.

So, I have no clue what the origins of Ainu exactly are. But I do believe that they are distinct from both the Jomons and Austronesians. They are their own ethnic group, which is now very mixed with the Japanese people. Their life in Japan, their livelihood and rights are more important than their ethnic origins.

By FernValley — On Oct 15, 2011

I have a friend who traveled to Japan a few years ago. She said that even in the tourist trade there didn't seem to be a lot about Ainu people, especially not compared to what we think of as "traditional" Japanese culture.

By DentalFloss — On Oct 15, 2011

I was reading about the Ainu and found that the majority of their people have intermarried into mainstream Japanese culture. These days the official Ainu population is only a few thousand or so, and a couple hundred thousand if you count those who have married mainstream Japanese people.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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