Another Island, Another People: The Ainu of Hokkaido

Hokkaido is home to the Ainu, the native inhabitants of Japan's northernmost island. Not much is known about their origins; it's not even clear whether they're Asian or Caucasian, but they are of different racial stock than the Japanese. They're round-eyed and light-skinned, and Ainu males can grow thick beards and mustaches.

The Ainu arrived in Hokkaido approximately 800 years ago. Living in a harsh environment with few resources, they were skilled at using the plants and animals around them for everything from medicine to utensils. With no metal at their disposal, they carved arrows with wooden "knives" and then dipped them in poison to increase their efficiency. Clothes were fashioned from bark, wild rye, or even salmon skin. Traditionally, they lived as hunters and fishermen, using dogs to help in the hunt and setting up trip traps with arrows to catch wild animals. Animistic, they had gods for every object and phenomenon, whether sun, thunder, fire, or animals. Most important to Ainu culture were bear cubs, kept in captivity before being killed, with elaborate ceremonies held to send the cub's spirit to the next life.


After Hokkaido was opened for development in the late 1800s, the Ainu were forcibly assimilated into Japanese society, and many died with the spread of smallpox, measles, cholera, and other newly introduced diseases. Like Native Americans, they were often discriminated against, and their culture was largely destroyed. Hunting and fishing were prohibited, and male Ainu were taken from their families for forced labor. Eventually, the Ainu took Japanese names and adopted the Japanese language and clothing. Today, there are an estimated 23,000 Ainu still living in Hokkaido, some of whom earn their living from tourism, selling Ainu woodcarvings and other crafts, or performing traditional dances and songs.

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