What to know about the Ainu tribe of Japan….

Imagine a tribe where women were culturally right to tattoo a mustache on their faces, in a country where others find the same act offensive to the extent that it was outlawed.

That is possibly one of the strangest traditions that the Ainu tribe has. They are the indigenous people of Japan who live primarily in Hokkaido, the northernmost island of the country.

The people of Ainu have a rich and unique culture that is closely tied to the natural world.

It is worth noting that Ainu culture and language are entirely unique and apart from Japanese culture.

Ainu culture is much less technologically evolved than Japanese culture, so when the two cultures collided as the Japanese settled in Hokkaido, it set off many decades of quite severe oppression of the Ainu people and their culture. They vigorously fought for their rights to practice their cultural customs and preserve their language and traditions. In 1997 they won a landmark legal case that granted them the right to practice centuries-old traditions that were outlawed by the Japanese for about 100 years. In 2007 new legislation was introduced to normalise relations and repeal legislation over 100 years old that was highly discriminatory against the Ainu people.

As recently as April 2019, the Japanese government finally legally recognised the Ainu as an indigenous people of Japan!

There are estimated to be about 25,000 Ainu people left in Japan, but of course, the Ainu population has mixed with Japanese people for many years so some people estimate as many as 200,000 people in Japan have some Ainu connection in the ancestral bloodlines. In terms of native speakers of the Ainu language, as few as 100 people were left who could understand this isolated unique language (with no written system). But these days, many people with an Ainu cultural background and learning their ancestors’ language are helping to preserve it for future generations.

Here are some of the most important cultural traditions of the Ainu people:

  • Bear ceremony: This ritual sacrifice of a bear is a way of thanking the kamuy for their blessings. The bear is considered to be a sacred animal, and its meat is not eaten.
  • Embroidery: Ainu embroidery is known for its intricate patterns and bright colours. It is often used to decorate clothing, household items, and ceremonial objects.
  • Wood carving: Ainu wood carving is known for its realistic and stylized figures of animals, humans, and mythical creatures. It is often used to create religious objects, tools, and furniture.
  • Music and dance: Ainu music and dance are often performed at festivals and ceremonies. They are typically accompanied by drums, flutes, and other traditional instruments.
  • Language: The Ainu language is unrelated to Japanese. It is a declining language, with only a few thousand speakers remaining today.

The Ainu are a fascinating and resilient people and their traditions are a testament to their strong sense of community.

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