Isabella Bird, Unbeaten Tracks in Japan, 1880.

“…they are uncivilizable and altogether irreclaimable savages, yet they are attractive …I hope I shall never forget the music of their low sweet voices, the soft light of their mild, brown eyes and the wonderful sweetness of their smile.”

Victorian traveller Isabella Bird had some misconceived notions about the Ainu, but anyone who has ever listened to their hauntingly beautiful music will agree that they are a people not easily forgotten. The Ainu’s roots are uncertain – some believe they come from Siberia or Central Asia, and they are thought to have lived on Hokkaidō, the Kuril Islands, Sakhalin and northern Honshū since the seventh century. The early Ainu were hairy, wide-eyed (even today you can notice such differences in full-blooded Ainu) and lived a hunter-gatherer existence, but their culture – revolving around powerful animist beliefs – was sophisticated, as shown by their unique clothing and epic songs and stories in a language quite unlike Japanese.

Up until the Meiji restoration Japanese contact with the Ainu in Hokkaidō, then called Ezochi, was limited to trade and the people were largely left alone in the north of the island. However, when the Japanese sought to fully colonize Hokkaidō, the impact on the Ainu was disastrous. Their culture was suppressed, they were kicked off ancestral lands, saw forests cleared where they had hunted, and suffered epidemics of diseases from which they had no natural immunity. Their way of life went into seemingly terminal decline and assimilation seemed inevitable after a law of 1899 labelled the Ainu as former aborigines, obliging them to take on Japanese citizenship.

Over a century later, against all odds, fragments of Ainu culture and society remain. Around 25,000 people admit to being full- and part-blooded Ainu (although the actual number is thought to be closer to 200,000). A tiny piece of political power was gained when Kayano Shigeru (1926–2006), an Ainu, was elected to the House of Councillors – the second house of Japan’s parliament – in 1994. A landmark legal verdict in 1997 recognized Ainu rights over the land and led to the New Ainu Law of 1997 which aimed to protect what is left of Ainu culture and ensure that it is passed on to generations to come. In 2008 Japan’s Diet also passed a resolution recognizing Ainu, for the first time in 140 years, as “an indigenous people with a distinct language, religion and culture”. Generally, there is more interest in and sensitivity towards this ethnic group from the Japanese who visit tourist villages such as Poroto Kotan and Akan-kohan. The best place to get an accurate idea of how Ainu live today is at Nibutani.

Worth seeking out for a broader understanding of the Ainu and their relationship to similar ethnic groups are the museums of Northern Peoples in Hakodate and Abashiri. The Sapporo-based Foundation for Research and Promotion of Ainu Culture (wwww.frpac.or.jp) produces the useful free booklet Payean ro, which outlines Ainu cultural facilities across Hokkaidō – it’s available at several tourist offices across the island.

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