Ainu of Japan

Location: eastern Hokkaido, Tokyo and other cities
Population: 18,000-25,000
% of population: 0.02%
Religion: indigenous Ainu and Japanese beliefs
Language: Japanese, Ainu

The Ainu are a small indigenous minority group, who were probably once distributed throughout Japan but whose villages are now confined to Eastern Ezo Territory on the island of Hokkaido, the northernmost island in the Japanese group. Today many also live in Tokyo and other Japanese cities. There has been much speculation on the possible proto-Caucasoid origins of the Ainu and they are somewhat different in appearance to majority Japanese, although these differences are fairly small and there are no more than a few hundred “pure” Ainu at most. The Ainu population is estimated at between 18,000 and 25,000 although there may be 25,000 more who have not declared their Ainu identity.

The Ainu were traditionally known as fierce warriors and military campaigns were waged against them during the eighth and ninth centuries, but gradually they were brought under the control of the Japanese, with whom there has been much intermarriage. Japanese migration northward resulted in the outnumbering of the Ainu people; in 1701 the Japanese population of Hokkaido was only 20,000; by 1873 150,000; and today over five million.

The Ainu have suffered to a certain extent from Japanese prejudice. While they have not been regarded as actually unclean (as have some minorities in Japan) they have been viewed with a certain condescension. Ainu culture has been commercialized, perhaps as a means of preserving something of its past, and Japanese tourists visit Ainu reservations to witness traditional dances and purchase examples of native crafts. While this has helped to keep the minority culture alive, it has also reduced the dignity of a once-proud people still further.

In the 1970s, Ainu activists began to put pressure on the government to improve the status and conditions of their people. Although Ainu officially enjoyed the status of Japanese citizens, their living standards had been low and work opportunities poor. Between 1973 and 1978, however, schemes were initiated to help the Ainu, and approximately 15 billion yen was set aside for this purpose. Increased welfare payments were made available to Ainu families as were subsidies to purchase farming and fishing equipment. Extra funds were also put into Ainu schooling and today 80% of Ainu children finish compulsory middle school, 10% more than in 1970.

Despite the improved status of the Ainu, most of them remain landless, and only a small portion of their original tribal lands has been restored to them. Many Ainu have been absorbed into the mainstream of Japanese society. In recent years there have been efforts by Ainu activists to publicize their situation internationally through the UN Working Group on Indigenous Populations and elsewhere.