Who Are The Ainu People?

by Justin Sevakis,

Eric asked:

I'd watched the first episode of Golden Kamuy, and that anime and even its original manga had mentioned about the people of Ainu in Japan in which I know they're somewhat similar to the Native American Indians in the Americas or Australian aborigines. Can you tell me more about them?

Ainu people are a race native to Hokkaido, Russia, and Northeast Honshu (the main island of Japan). There aren't many Ainu left these days -- officially 25,000 (with another few hundred in Russia), although the actual number may be much larger, as many Ainu have assimilated into Japanese society generations ago. Native Ainu have lighter skin and more body hair than native Japanese. Their culture, language and mythology are entirely unique.

Ainu were a hunter-gatherer society that emerged about a millennia ago, possibly as a coming together of several other native ethnic groups. In fact, they are believed to be the last living descendants of the Jomon people, who populated Japan as early as 11,000 B.C. Over the centuries the Ainu people fought with China and other tribes, but it wasn't until the Muromachi period (1336-1573) that they found themselves in a full-out war with Japan. They lost, their leader was killed, and many were placed under Japanese control.

Over the centuries the relationship between the Ainu and Japanese varied between peaceful and violent. Trade between the two cultures took root during the Edo period, and with it came more exposure to each other, Japanese attempts at exerting authority, and violent clashes. But the Ainu were no longer self sufficient -- they became more and more dependent on trade with Japan to survive. By the time the Meiji Restoration came in 1868 their numbers had greatly dwindled, and the Japanese government moved to annex Hokkaido and assimilate the Ainu into the broader population. Their land was colonized by the Japanese, who moved to modernize it. Many of these were men, who took Ainu wives.

In that way, Japan effectively erased the Ainu from existence. They were forced to take Japanese names, and cease their ancestral practices. The government did not recognize them in any way. The remaining Ainu were forced from their land and faced brutal discrimination. The remaining leaders encouraged mixing bloodlines with Japanese so that their future children wouldn't have to suffer.

It wasn't until 1997 that the law forcing the Ainu to assimilate was repealed, and not until 2008 that Japan officially recognized the Ainu people. "The government would like to solemnly accept the historical fact that many Ainu were discriminated against and forced into poverty with the advancement of modernization, despite being legally equal to (Japanese) people," states the declaration. However, no official apology and no land has been given back, and the remaining Ainu population is generally poor and politically disenfranchised. Today, only a handful of people (perhaps as few as 15) can speak the native Ainu language, and many of the dialects have been lost.

The Ainu people have their own religion and legends based on the natural world. Their creation myth is unique: that prior to solid land there was nothing but swamp, and was made orderly by God's first creation, a water-wagtail bird. God built the solid land on top of a massive trout. This is to explain tidal waves and earthquakes: both are a result of the great fish's natural movement. (Two gods stand guard with a hand on it to keep it from thrashing about too much.) Crows, otters, bears, flying squirrels and many other animals play important roles in Ainu legends.

The plight of the Ainu and their contentious place in Japanese society have made the entertainment industry skittish about depicting them at all: Isao Takahata's 1968 film Horus, Prince of the Sun was originally inspired by Ainu legends, but the producers changed the setting to Scandinavia to avoid controversy. In recent years, there has been increasing action by the Japanese government to preserve Ainu culture, however late and insignificant those efforts might be, as part of a general push towards multiculturalism in Japan. Between that and activism on the part of the remaining Ainu people, Ainu culture is slowly moving out of the shadows.

It's exceedingly rare for anime to have Ainu characters, or even acknowledge their existence. It's pretty cool that Golden Kamuy has finally opened the door to depiction of this culture in manga and anime form.

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    Justin Sevakis has worked in the anime business for over 20 years. He's the original founder of Anime News Network, and owner of the video production company MediaOCD. You can follow him on Twitter at @worldofcrap.

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