Who are the Ainu?

The Ainu (literally “humans/people” in the Ainu language) are an indigenous people from Northeast Asia’s Sea of Okhotsk region. Traditionally, the Ainu homeland—known as Ainu Mosir—included the very southern part of Kamchatka, the Kuril Islands, Sakhalin, Hokkaido, and the northern extreme of Honshu, encompassing parts of present-day northern Japan and eastern Russia. Thought to have a direct line to Japan’s earliest civilization, the Jōmon, the “classical” Ainu culture first emerged around the thirteenth century and grew from contacts between the Satsumon culture of northern Japan and migrations of the North Asian Okhotsk people.1 Positioned between Japan and the continent, international contact was a key part of Ainu society, and between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries the Ainu dominated the Santan trade which ferried people, goods, and ideas between China and Manchuria, Kamchatka, and Japan.2

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Map of Ainu Mosir–the traditional Ainu homeland (Hokkaido, Sakhalin, Kuril Islands)

By the late nineteenth century, colonial expansion completely upended this trade. The region was carved into Japanese and Russian territories, and cross-island communities were cut off from one another. Throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, many Ainu communities were subjected to forced assimilation and migration, war, poverty, and discrimination. In the 1960s, however, a new generation of Ainu leaders took charge. Inspired by indigenous rights movements abroad, these young activists made a concerted effort to revitalize many traditional customs and petitioned the Japanese government for greater recognition.3 In the early part of the twenty-first century their activism finally came to fruition, when the Japanese government recognized the Ainu as an indigenous people and officially secured this status in national law under the 2019 Ainu Promotion Act.4

Today some 30,000 individuals self-identify as Ainu. Many continue to live on the island of Hokkaido, although tens of thousands more live across Japan, Russia, and in other communities throughout the world.5 While deep scars left by the colonial policies of the previous centuries remain, thanks to the efforts of community leaders, Ainu culture is currently experiencing a revival. Today, many in the community take pride in their unique heritage and distinct cultural identity, and while a great deal of work remains to be done, new government initiatives have been implemented to protect and promote Ainu cultural traditions for future generations.6


1.) William Fitzhugh, “Ainu Ethnicity, A History,” in Fitzhugh, Dubreuil, and Arctic Studies Center, Ainu: Spirit of a Northern People, (Washington D.C.: National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution, 1999): 18-19.

2.) Shiro Sasaki, “Trading Brokers and Partners with China, Russia, and Japan,” in Ainu: Spirit of a Northern People: 86-87.

3.) Richard Siddle, “The Limits to Citizenship in Japan: Multiculturalism, Indigenous Rights and the Ainu.” Citizenship Studies 7, no. 4 (2003): 454.

4.) Sayuri Umeda, “Japan: New Ainu Law Becomes Effective,” Global Legal Monitor, Library of Congress Law, August 5, 2019, Accessed February 14, 2021, https://www.loc.gov/law/foreign-news/article/japan-new-ainu-law-becomes-effective/.

5.) Ann-Elise Lewallen, The Fabric of Indigeneity: Ainu Identity, Gender, and Settler Colonialism in Japan, (Santa Fe, N.M.: University of New Mexico School for Advanced Research, 2016): 5.

6.) Umeda, “Japan: New Ainu Law Becomes Effective,” 2019.

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