The Ainu people are native to much of northern Japan, including some of the big island of Honshu and particularly the northernmost island of Hokkaido. The Ainu also inhabit Sakhalin, a Russian island north of Hokkaido, and some lived in the Kuriles, an island arc off northern Japan now occupied by Russia.
The Japanese began moving into Hokkaido in the 1400s and took over all of it in the next centuries. The Ainu sometimes cooperated with Japanese settlers, but also sometimes rebelled. The most famous Ainu rebellion was Shankusain’s Rebellion (1669-72).
The Ainu were a hunter-gatherer people, and Hokkaido was rich in wildlife, fish and shellfish. The Ainu did not have a written culture. Men had long hair and beards, among other culture differences from the Japanese. Ainu were animist in religion. There are about 20,000 Ainu today, with an unknown number completely assimilated into Japanese culture.
The Ainu language is headed for extinction, with fewer than a hundred speakers left. In 1997, the UN passed the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which prompted Japan to formally recognize the Ainu as an indigenous people of Japan.
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