The Japanese government is moving ahead with plans to improve relations with the Ainu people, the country’s indigenous inhabitants.
Mostly living in the northern island of Hokkaido, Ainu are believed to descend from people who lived in Japan as early as 13,000 years ago. Their culture is distinct from mainstream Japanese society.
In the 19th century, Japan banned the Ainu language, seized their land, and outlawed their hunting and religious practices. Today the Ainu language is almost completely extinct.
Just under 24,000 people identified themselves as Ainu, in a 2006 study by the Hokkaido prefectural government. However, many of those included were of mixed blood. Also, it is not known how many Ainu live outside Hokkaido.
In June 2008, Japan’s parliament passed a resolution that formally recognized the Ainu as an indigenous people with a distinct language, religion and culture. Today, the Ainu have their own cultural institutions and are working with the Japanese government to maintain their unique heritage.
Harry Fawcett of Al Jazeera English reports from Hokkaido on the struggle to save their way of life.
In February UNESCO presented the Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger, giving an accurate and worrying description of the languages considered endangered (about 2,500). Among these eight belong to the Japanese archipelago. Not a big surprise if we think about the severe policies of linguistic and cultural assimilation carried out by the Japanese government until the end of the WW2, after completing the annexation during the 19th century of the Ryukyu reign (now Okinawa) and the island of Hokkaido inhabited by the Ainu people.
This is a case where the preponderance of evidence seems to be that the Yayoi rice-culture bearers arrived from the continent and predominantly replaced the indigenous post-Jomon culture. The Ainu may be a residue of the Jomon natives, and a non-trivial, though minority, component of the Japanese ancestry can be traced back to the Jomon.
The Ainu Museum in Hokkaido explores the history of the Ainu people:
“Ainu” means “human.” The Ainu people regard things useful to them or beyond their control as “kamuy” (gods). In daily life, they prayed to and performed various ceremonies for the gods. These gods include: “nature” gods, such as of fire, water, wind and thunder; “animal” gods, such as of bears, foxes, spotted owls and grampuses; “plant” gods, such as of aconite, mushroom and mugwort; “object” gods, such as of boats and pots; and gods which protect houses, gods of mountains and gods of lakes. The word “Ainu” refers to the opposite of these gods.
The Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History held an exhibition dedicated to exploring the ancient origin of the Ainu, their evolving relations with the Japanese, and the 20th century Ainu cultural renaissance.