Shinrit Eoripak Ainu Kawamura, right, holds a cup filled with sake during a blessing ceremony at a camp site in Date, Japan, on July 6, 2008. (Franck Robichon/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

Their story is a depressingly familiar one. An indigenous people live as hunter-gatherers practicing animist beliefs, before settlers sweep across their land, bringing disease and discrimination and almost wiping out their culture. 

On Friday, the Ainu people in Japan took a step out of the shadows with a new bill approved by the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and Komeito party coalition. Once it is passed by parliament, it will finally recognize them as indigenous and ban discrimination against them.

“It feels like we woke up now from a truly deep sleep,” Tadashi Kato, chairman of the Ainu Association of Hokkaido, told state broadcaster NHK. “It is significant in that it will lead to building a society where we cohabit together. We think this is the first step.”

Before their assimilation into the wider Japanese population, Ainu men were known for their bushy beards, fair skins and deep-set, wide eyes under beetle brows. Ainu women would tattoo themselves around their mouths and sometimes on their forearms. 

Today, just 13,118 people identify as Ainu on the northern island of Hokkaido, but only a handful speak the language. Smaller numbers live on the Russian island of Sakhalin and the disputed Kuril Islands. But there may be many more people with significant Ainu heritage in Japan whose origins have been obscured by a desire to escape discrimination.

The exact origins of the Ainu are a subject of academic debate, but they are thought to have links to three cultures: the ancient Jomon culture that dominated the islands of modern Japan from 1,400 to 300 B.C.; the later Satsumon culture centered on the north of the main island of Honshu and the northern island of Hokkaido; and the Okhotsk culture from Russia’s far east.


An Ainu man in traditional clothing stands in front of “Inaw,” sacred offering sticks for the gods, in Akan town, Hokkaido province, Japan, Nov. 20, 2007. (Everett Kennedy Brown/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)

Genetically, they are most closely related to the native tribes on India’s Andaman Islands, as well as people in Tibet and northern Myanmar, as well as the Ryukyuan people of Japan’s southern island of Okinawa. They are thought to have been descended from some of the earliest humans to leave Africa and settle in Asia.

Ainu legend claims that they “lived in this place a hundred thousand years before the Children of the Sun came.” That may be an exaggeration, but what is clear is that waves of Japanese settlement pushed them to the margins of northern Hokkaido. 

From the 13th century on, the Ainu fought a series of unsuccessful wars and rebellions against Japanese domination, while epidemics of smallpox and other diseases also decimated the population. 

Under Japan’s Meiji Restoration in 1868 and its plans to modernize the country, Hokkaido was formally annexed, and an 1899 law classified the Ainu as “former aboriginal people.” They were given Japanese citizenship but forced to adopt Japanese names. Their land was taken away, their language outlawed and cultural practices such as animal sacrifices and tattooing banned. 

While many Japanese settlers may have compelled Ainu women to marry them, the Ainu themselves promoted intermarriage to escape discrimination. As a result, few pure-blood Ainu are alive today.

Japan finally began to acknowledge the existence of the Ainu as an ethnic group in recent decades, under domestic and international pressure. The 1899 law was repealed in 1997, and funds were provided to promote Ainu culture, helping to revive their language, dance and music.

In 2008, Japan’s two houses of parliament passed a joint resolution recognizing the Ainu for the first time as “an indigenous people with a distinct language, religion and culture.”

The new draft bill aims to give some legal weight to that symbolic gesture. 

It recognizes the Ainu as an indigenous people for the first time in legislation and lists its objective as “realizing a society that will respect the pride of the Ainu as an ethnic group.” It sets aside money to promote Ainu culture and makes it easier for Ainu people to log in state-owned forests and catch salmon in rivers, NHK reported.

The Asahi Shimbun newspaper said the government was partly motivated by international pressure to recognize the rights of indigenous people, but also by its own desire to use Ainu culture to promote tourism in Hokkaido. It aims to attract 40 million foreign visitors in 2020 when Tokyo will host the Summer Olympics and Paralympics.

According to a survey by the Hokkaido government, only 33 percent of Ainu attended university, compared to 46 percent of the general population, while 36 percent said they had either faced discrimination or knew someone who had.

The word “ainu” means human, as opposed to “kamuy,” the spirits or gods that dwell inside living things, but the people also refer to each other as “utari,” or comrade. The Ainu were among the native populations of eastern Asia who practiced arctolatry, or bear worship.

“It is important to protect the honor and dignity of the Ainu people and to hand those down to the next generation to realize a vibrant society with diverse values,” chief cabinet secretary and top government spokesman Yoshihide Suga told reporters.

Akiko Kashiwagi contributed to this report.