Ainu: Forgotten indigenous people of Japan

4 Oct
The Statue of Ainu Chief (コタンコロクル像)

The Statue of Ainu Chief (コタンコロクル像)

Have you heard of Ainu?  They’re indigenous people of northern Japan.  Much like other indigenous people in the world Ainu have suffered from oppression and exploitation throughout the history.  During the development of Hokkaido in the Meiji era (1868 – 1912) their way of life changed drastically.  Today Ainu live much like the rest of Japanese.

Growing up in Japan, I don’t remember learning about Ainu in school.  If anything, we learned only that they were indigenous people who lived mainly in Hokkaido.   I have to admit that I know much more about Native American culture than that of Ainu. So when I went to Hokkaido earlier this month, I wanted to visit Ainu Museum to learn more about their tradition and culture.

The museum is known as “Shirooi Porotokotan (白老ポロトコタン)” which means a village of a large lake in Ainu language.  It’s located in Shiraoi, Hokkaido, a beautiful country along the lake and the ocean.

Ainu 5 (640x404)

Traditional Ainu house

Ainu 2 (640x564)

Inside Ainu house

Inside Ainu house

Ainu woman making a traditional clothing

Ainu woman making a traditional clothing

Hokkaido dog

Hokkaido dog

The museum consists of several thatched houses (Ainu don’t live in these houses any more), an animal barn, a botanical garden, and a museum.  In one of the houses Ainu people performed their traditional songs and dances, including iyomante rimse (a ceremonial dance for sending bears’ spirits back to heaven), mukkuri (mouth harp), and tonkori (Ainu zither).  It was a nice way to be introduced to the Ainu culture.

After the performance I visited the museum.  One of the first things I learned was that Ainu lived not only in Hokkaido but also in Russia (Sakhalin and Kuril Islands) and the Tohoku region.  This information raised a new question:  Am I a part Ainu?  Both my parents are from Fukushima prefecture, a part of the Tohoku region.  As far as I know my ancestors always lived in that part of Japan, so it’s possible that my ancestor was Ainu.

Unlike some countries that issue identification papers stating one’s ethnic backgrounds, Japan doesn’t have such a system.  So we don’t know how many Ainu are still living or where they are.  According to the survey conducted by the Hokkaido government, there are about 23,000 – 24,000 Ainu still living in Hokkaido, but this doesn’t include those living outside Hokkaido.  Some believe that the actual number of Ainu in the world could be as much as several times to several 10 times greater than this figure.

Porotokotan (The Ainu Museum)

Porotokotan (The Ainu Museum)

Ainu 3 (640x360)

The museum was interesting and informative.  On the way out I stopped by the gift shop and picked up a small booklet called “Ainu History and Culture” to learn more about them.

Outside the museum several shops selling Ainu arts and crafts stood quietly.  A bus carrying tourists just arrived, bringing some customers to the shops.  The tourists were foreigners just like the rest of the visitors of the museum – Americans, Europeans, Koreans, and other Asian people.  There were very few Japanese visitors except for a group of Japanese children on a school trip.  The indigenous people of Japan seemed to draw more attention from overseas than from its own country.



5 Responses to “Ainu: Forgotten indigenous people of Japan”

  1. Mrs Hicks November 29, 2013 at 5:58 pm #

    Yumi-san, thank you for writing this blog. My husband and I have visited Japan 4 times and next year we have decided to visit the north of Honshu. We will stay in Aomori for five days and will visit the Jomon site and go to Hirosaki, but I would like to see the Ainu Museum. Is it easy to visit Hokkaido and the Ainu Museum from Aomori? I think it takes 2 hours by train to Hakodate on Hokkaido, but Shiraoi seems to be another 3 or 4 hours away. Perhaps we need to make a trip to Hokkaido in the future!

    Your three posts about the Ainu are very interesting.

    • Yumi December 2, 2013 at 10:49 am #

      Hi! Thank you for your message. If you’re traveling from Aomori to Shiraoi, you can take a ferry from Hachinohe, an eastern city of Aomori, to Tomakomai, a town about an hour east of Shiraoi. Click this link to see the post called “The adventure of taking a ferry from Aomori to Hokkaido” for more information. Please feel free to contact me again if you have any other question. I hope you’ll have a wonderful trip!


  1. Ainu: Forgotten indigenous people of Japan, part 2 | Discover Japan - October 21, 2013

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