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ainu carving in hokkaido building

In Hokkaido, Get to Know Japan’s Indigenous Ainu Peoples

‘We owe our lives to nature, including to the trees.’ — Debo Akibe, Ainu Elder

Nature looms large in Hokkaido — a land of windswept mountain peaks, volcanoes, and natural hot springs, known as onsen. Surrounded by the ocean, Japan’s most northern prefecture is popular for its natural seafood bounty and an incredible outdoor winter playground ideal for skiing, snowshoeing, and attending some of the country’s biggest snow and ice festivals.

ice glass on beach in hokkaido

The natural beauty of Hokkaido is evident on land and sea. At top, an Ainu carving as seen in a historic building in Hokkaido.(Pixabay photos)

The northern Japanese island is also home to the Ainu, the Indigenous people who were Hokkaido’s earliest settlers.

The Ainu call Hokkaido “Ainu Moshiri” (“Land of the Ainu”) and are believed to have travelled from Mongolia to settle in northern Japan before 300 BCE. As the Yamato Japanese expanded their territory from western Japan northwards during the past 1,500 years, the Ainu were gradually displaced and assimilated into the dominant culture, often in a brutal manner.

As the Ainu were obligated to learn Japanese language and culture, they lost many of their traditions, language, and oral stories, and struggled to preserve their way of life.

In 2019, the government of Japan formally recognized the Ainu as Indigenous people, resulting in a resurgence of their culture and heritage, and a desire by both domestic and international travellers to learn more about the Ainu.

Debo Akibe, an Ainu Elder notes that living in harmony with nature is both the past and the future way of life for his people.

“The Ainu believe that everything in the world has a spirit. Spirits become kamuy,” Akibe notes, using his people’s word for deities. “Everything must be handled with care as there is symbiosis all around us, connecting living things to each other.”

Like Indigenous peoples of North America, Ainu culture is expressed in stories, dance, song, and artwork. In addition to music and storytelling, the Ainu practice arts like weaving, embroidery, wood-carving, and body tattooing. Historically, images of living creatures were reserved for religious regalia like sapanupe crowns (made of wood fiber and partially shaved wood, and worn by men). So instead of wildlife, Ainu art featured complex geometric patterns that were worked into fabric, wood, and women’s tattoos.

The resurgence of Ainu cultural practices in the 21st century is creating pride in the community, and interest by visitors to Hokkaido.

woman plays musical instrument

An Ainu woman plays musical instruments in Hokkaido, the traditional home of the Indigneous group. (Pixabay photo)

Tracing the History of the Ainu in Hokkaido

Travelers to Hokkaido can immerse themselves in the history of the Ainu in several festivals, museums, and experiences.

The foremost place in Japan to learn about Ainu culture, Upopoy, is located as part of the Symbolic Space for Ethnic Harmony in Hokkaido’s Shiraoi district. It was opened in July 2020 as the first national museum dedicated to the history and culture of the Ainu.

The museum is surrounded by a lakeside park that features some reconstructed, traditional Ainu houses and several facilities to experience Indigenous culture.

If the exterior of the Hakodate City Museum of Northern Peoples Museum appears somewhat austere, it’s partly because the building was originally a branch of the Bank of Japan around 1926. You can see its traces in the entrance hall and other spaces in the building.

But inside exhibitions showcase materials and cultural artifacts for northern people, such as the Ainu, living along the Sea of Okhotsk. There are hands-on activities to try, including the Ainu’s traditional papercutting, or make and play their traditional musical instruments. Exhibits show handmade ocean-going sea kayaks, and hunting and cooking tools.

The Hokkaido Museum of Northern Peoples in Abashiri introduces the culture and traditional everyday life of the peoples inhabiting the northern, subarctic regions of the globe, including the Ainu, the Indigenous Inuit of northern Canada, and the Sami and the Siberian peoples. The unique museum illustrates the differences and similarities between the respective peoples through various exhibits.

The Kawamura Kaneto Ainu Museum in Asahikawa exhibits a wide range of traditional Ainu tools and goods, as well as a hut made from bamboo grass. The museum was founded by the local Ainu leader Kawamura Kaneto (1893-1977), an outstanding surveyor in railway construction who also worked on educating people about Ainu culture.

The Ainu Folklore Museum is a small attraction along the shore of Lake Kussharo. The museum has interesting displays and artifacts that highlight various aspects of Ainu life, language, and culture.

And Ainu pride is visible at events like the annual Marimo Festival at Lake Akan and the Shakushain festival in Shizunai, a celebration of dance, art, and culture. The Ainu Art Project was created by a 40-member group who share culture through their rock-fusion band and handmade arts and crafts.

Hokkaido is rich in natural beauty on land and sea, and the Ainu people’s deep roots in this region add to its fascinating history as a special and unique area of Japan.

Note: The movie “Ainu Mosir” is a 2020 Japanese film directed by Takeshi Fukunaga. The movie is a coming-of-age story, where a young man learns of ancient Ainu practices while struggling with modern culture in Japan. It can be viewed on Netflix. 

Photo credits: Pixabay