Ainu and Spirituality: Forgotten indigenous people of Japan, part 3

21 Nov
Ainu elder circa 1930

Ainu elder circa 1930

“Why have you been writing about the Ainu?” Someone asked me yesterday.

After visiting the Ainu Museum in Shiraoi (白老), Hokkaido, this summer I’ve  written two posts about the Ainu, indigenous people of Japan who still live throughout the country.

There are about 23,000 – 24,000 Ainu in Hokkaido today, but this doesn’t include those living outside Hokkaido.  The exact number of the Ainu living in Japan is unknown.  One reason for this is that some feel the need to hide their identities in order to avoid discrimination.

I decided to look deeper at the Ainu culture, because I knew so little about it.  It seemed strange that the indigenous people of Japan had mostly been ignored by its own country.

I don’t know anyone personally who discriminates against the Ainu.  At the same time I don’t know anyone who is interested in their culture either.  This indifference is perhaps the source of discrimination.

My hope is that sharing the information will help you learn about their unique culture and traditions.

Sakhalin Ainu man

Sakhalin Ainu man

One can not understand the Ainu without learning about their spirituality, since it’s central to their lives.  Their spiritual practices are rich and complex.  They’re different from shinto, the traditional Japanese religion, and they don’t fit the usual definition of animism.

The Ainu felt the presence of the spirits of the dead  in their day to day lives.  They believed that the human lives were protected by the dead spirits who lived in all things that existed in the human world.

At the  museum the first thing on display was a large board depicting different gods –  solar deity, god who rules the fish, god who rules the deer, god who rules the earth, god of fire, and so on.

Ainu gods (640x480)

solar deity

solar deity

“Ainu” means “human” as opposed to “kamuy”(gods).  The Ainu believed that Gods existed everywhere in the world.  This included not only natural phenomenons but also the man made objects, such as the lacquerware boxes which were used for important rituals.

The lacqureware boxes were also symbols of  power and wealth, since the Ainu gained them through trade with the ethnic Japanese.  To acquire one lacqureware box the Ainu had to offer a number of valuable items, such as a hundred of salmons or furs of several bears.  So the house with many lacquerware suggested that the man of the house was a good hunter, and that the family didn’t have to struggle with foods.

Inaw, prayer sticks made of woods, were also very important spiritual icons.  There were many different kinds of inaw.  Some were offered as gifts to gods or used to communicate with gods, while others were considered gods themselves.

Ainu house with lacquerware and inaw

Ainu house with lacquerware and inaw





The life of the Ainu was guided by their deep sense of spirituality.  On every occasion prayers were offered and various ceremonies were held.  “Iyomante” is one of the most important Ainu ceremonies and perhaps the most misunderstood one.  In the future post I’ll write about iyomante, the spirit-sending ceremony.


Ainu History and Culture

The Ainu and Their Culture: A Critical Twenty-First Century Assessment

Ainu History and Culture

Our Land Was a Forest: An Ainu Memoir

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6 Responses to “Ainu and Spirituality: Forgotten indigenous people of Japan, part 3”

  1. olympiatim March 2, 2014 at 1:02 pm #

    Hello. Thank you for writing this great post on the Ainu. I am an American who lives in Japan and am interested in both mainstream Japanese (Wajin) culture and Ainu culture. I have been interested in the Ainu people since I was a kid. I am glad that you as a Japanese person have an interest in the Ainu and have sought to know more about them. I wish that more Japanese people would take an intersest in these indigenous people of Hokkaido the way that you have . Unfortunately it seems, from what I have observed, that most people don`t know much about them at all. Also, it would be great if people in Japan who have Ainu heritage (if they are aware of having it) would be proud of it and celebrate it instead of hiding it. I am looking forward to visiting Ainu communities in Hokkaido such as Shiraoi and Nibutani in the future. Please continue to educate Japanese people and foreigners as well about the Ainu!

    • Yumi March 3, 2014 at 8:43 am #

      Thank you so much for your comment. You are right in that most Japanese don’t know much about the Ainu people and their culture. There is a general sense of indifference toward them, which I believe has contributed to discrimination against them. I hope you will have a chance to visit Shiraoi and go to the Ainu museum there. It’s an interesting place.


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