The Culture and Recent History of the Ainu, Hokkaido Museum

The Ainu are an indigenous people of Japan. “Ainu” means “human being” in the Ainu language. The Ainu have lived not only here in Hokkaido, but also in regions such as Sakhalin (Karafuto) and the Kuril Islands, developing a variety of cultures. When the Meiji government brought Hokkaido into Japan’s domain, settlement and development had a drastic impact upon the Ainu ways of life and culture. Facing these challenges, the Ainu have persevered, carrying on their cultural heritage to this day.

The Ainu in Contemporary Society
Morning at Sapporo Station
This picture was taken at Sapporo Station during one morning in 2014. People are headed to work or school. Ainu living in Sapporo start their day out in a similar fashion, commuting to work or school, or heading out shopping. Some people unfamiliar with the Ainu may have the preconception that the Ainu live in separate, isolated communities. In fact, the modern-day Ainu people are part of the same communities as the other residents of Japan.

The Ainu in Contemporary Society
Today, most of the Ainu population of several tens of thousands, perhaps more, live in Sapporo and other communities across Hokkaido. A large number of Ainu have also moved away from Hokkaido to live in other cities such as Tokyo or Osaka for school, work, or marriage.

Generally, the lifestyle aspects such as clothing, diet, dwelling, and occupation of the modern Ainu do not signifcantly difer from most other residents of Japan. Each Ainu person has a unique perspective of the traditional culture and history which composes his or her heritage. Some eagerly pass on traditions, so that the Ainu culture can be cherished in the future. Many are not so conscious of their heritage in their daily lives, but consider their history and culture to be of great importance.

The Story of One Ainu Family
This exhibit depicts a fctional Ainu family, following a frst-person narrative of an elementary school student who hears the story of his family’s history from his grandfather and grandmother. The goal of this exhibit is to share peoples’ way of life from the Meiji period (1868-1912) up until now from the perspective of the Ainu.

Here is an example of a fctional husband and wife fve generations ago born during the end of the Edo period. They would have lived a traditional life, learning wood carving and embroidery. At a young age they would have been hired by a Japanese to fsh, experiencing harsh working conditions and many difculties. Around the time they married, the era would have shifted to the Meiji period (1868-1912). As their lifestyle began to undergo great change, they would have made eforts in order to live in this new era, such as working in agriculture and having their children learn to read and write Japanese. This husband and wife, their friends, acquaintances, and children would work in agriculture, fshing or hunting. Others would have supported road and railway development as surveyors, while others would have used their knowledge of horses to work in horseracing. In this manner, they would select their profession, way of learning and way of life, while undergoing many difcult and challenging experiences. I will learn about the people of various eras as well as their way of life and way of thinking through the stories of my family told by my grandfather and grandmother.

Regional Diferences in Ainu Culture
When discussing Ainu culture, one must use an approach of multiculturalism and multicultural understanding. However, the key is to remember that there is not just one uniform Ainu culture. Actually, there are many. Sakhalin Ainu and Hokkaido Ainu use diferent vocabularies and grammar, and have diferent oral traditions and names. The language of the Kuril Islands Ainu is also unique. Even within Hokkaido, various diferences can be seen between regions.

Regional Diferences in Ainu Language
This map illustrates the diferences seen among the Ainu of Hokkaido and Sakhalin in language, oral traditions, main genres of songs and dance, as well as the names used for these and traditional garments.

Let’s compare the word used for “lullaby” in several diferent regions. The word ifunke is used in Obihiro, Asahikawa and Shiraoi, but in Mukawa Town Mukawa and Hidaka Town Monbetsu it is iyonruika. In Biratori Town, located between Mukawa and Monbetsu, the Ainu word for lullaby is iyonnokka. On Sakhalin and other areas it is iyunke or yunke.

The Traditional Culture and Ways of Life of the Ainu
An Old Ainu Home Restored
The dwelling exhibited here is a historical residence that has been restored under the instruction of Yaichiro Hama (1916-91), who was born and raised in Shiraoi, Iburi, Hokkaido. The restoration was slightly scaled down to suit the height of the museum’s ceilings. Items exhibited here include actual and restored items used as part of the Ainu daily life between 100 and 200 years ago. Today, the Ainu do not necessarily live in a similar fashion, but there are people who are working to learn and convey traditional techniques as well as others who are attempting to use these in modern times

The traditional diet of the Ainu is based on foods obtained by hunting in the hills, fshing in the rivers and seas, foraging in felds and forests for plants and nuts, and farming the lands. Fishers and hunters relied on thorough knowledge of their prey, crafting traps to capture salmon and trout in the rivers or brownbear and Hokkaido sika deer in the hills. The Ainu cultivated their own foxtail millet and Japanese millet, and also used rice, salt, and miso which were obtained from the Wajin. These resources were carefully used to avoid waste – for example, the meat and fat of a brown bear became food, while the pelt became furnishings or trade goods.

The traditional garments of the Ainu were made of materials such as animal hides, fsh skins, or cloth woven from the fbers of tree bark or grass stalks. When cotton became available through trade, the Ainu began to decorate clothes with cotton cloth strips or thread, and produce clothes primarily made of cotton. These traditional clothes are no longer worn in contemporary daily life. However, it is becoming more common to see traditional Ainu clothing at ceremonies and during song or dance presentations at events.

According to the beliefs of the Ainu, a spirit dwells within every being in this world. These spirits are respected as Kamuy, and can be found in the animals and plants nature provides, the fre, water, and tools that are indispensable in daily life, or even things beyond human control, such as weather or epidemics. Ainu belief holds that this world exists due to the interaction and relationship between Kamuy and human beings. This belief is related to the Ainu awareness of how to protect themselves, their families and their health.

The dwelling exhibited here is a former residence that has been restored under the instruction of Mr. Yaichiro Hama (1916-91), who was born and raised in Shiraoi, Iburi, Hokkaido. The restoration was slightly scaled down to suit the height of the museum’s ceilings. The hearth occupies the center, and there are places designated for sitting, sleeping, and keeping valuables or ritual tools. It is said that the hearth coals were never allowed to go cold. Over time, the fre warmed the earth, and the walls and roof reeds acted as insulation, sheltering the inhabitants from Hokkaido’s cold winters.

Dugout Canoe and Marek
This dugout canoe was actually used many years ago in the Chitose region. These canoes were used to fsh on rivers or as a mode of transport to cross rivers. Exhibited inside the canoe is a gaf-like spear called a marek, which was used to catch salmon and other fsh individually. The monitor shows a video clip of a dugout canoe and marek being used to catch fsh.

Touching Fabric Used in Traditional Ainu Garments
Fabric woven from the bark of Manchurian elm is one of the materials used by the Ainu people to make traditional garments. Here, you can touch and feel the fnish of the actual fabric. You can also look over the fabric to observe how the embroidery seen on Ainu traditional garments was attached.

Ainu Oral Tradition
See and Hear the World of Ainu Culture
Here, you can view video footage of actual Ainu oral traditions and performing arts. Subtitles are provided only in Ainu and Japanese, but you can still enjoy the performance as you watch and listen to the sounds. The large monitor features short video clips introducing some of the main oral literature, dances and musical instruments of the Ainu people. The small monitor provides more in-depth information about various types of stories and songs, as well as diferences between regions. You can also watch an animated short flm about Ainu tales.

The Ainu have cultivated much oral literature, as well as various performing arts and other aspects of their culture using the Ainu language.

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As opposed to the reading a written text, oral literature produces a richness in artistry and entertainment for the audience, who further pass on these traditions to the following generation. Various forms of Ainu oral literature exist. For example, mythic epics have repeated refrains, making them endearing even for frst-time listeners.

Traditional songs, dances and instruments of the Ainu have been passed down by each region and household through ceremonies and daily life. Dancing and singing together is not only an enjoyable pastime, but is also believed to please the kamuy. Traditional instruments such as the mukkuri, a jaw harp made of bamboo, and the tonkori, a fve-stringed instrument of the Sakhalin Ainu, are still played quite often even today

Beginning in the Meiji period (1868-1912), due to Japanese policies intended to assimilate the Ainu through Japanese language education and other means, many Ainu became reluctant to speak their language in public or teach it to their children. As a result, the Ainu language has disappeared from their daily lives. This trend was accelerated by the emergence of new forms of entertainment, such as radio and TV, which has resulted in fewer and fewer opportunities to listen to stories or sing and dance together.

Despite this, there were Ainu, as well as Wajin researchers, who preserved these stories and songs by recording or writing them down. There were still others who carefully preserved these traditional songs and dances in their communities and homes. Entering the 1970s, a number of initiatives sprung up to recover and pass on the Ainu language, oral traditions and performing arts. Today, whenever we experience oral traditions or traditional performing arts of the Ainu, we must not forget this background and history from the Meiji Period (1868-1912) onward, and we must be aware that the eforts to restore and pass on these important forms of cultural heritage are still far from complete.

History of Recording and Researching the Ainu Language
Even during the time when the Ainu language was no longer spoken, over the years many people, Ainu and otherwise, have continued to record and research the Ainu language. In this corner, you will fnd an introduction of some of the noted researchers and other people who have preserved the writing of the Ainu language and recorded tales and songs from elders in various communities. On display you will also fnd various artifacts that tell the history of recordings and research, such as memos written about Ainu tales and traditional life, a record from the 1930s, and the microphone used to record it.

Try Your Hand at Playing the Tonkori
Here, you can try your hand at playing the tonkori, a fve-stringed instrument traditionally used by the Sakhalin Ainu. Softly pluck the strings to hear the sound it makes. Photographs describe how the tonkori is held and played.

Recent History of the Ainu
Poster for a Speech by Ainu Youths
During the Meiji Period (1868-1912) the Japanese government began settling and developing Hokkaido, which greatly impacted the culture and way of the life of the Ainu. Forced to live in challenging conditions, the Ainu endured and paved the way for the future. This photograph was taken around 1930 and shows a poster created to inform the general public about a speech to be given by Ainu youths at the Sapporo Clock Tower. The poster calls on the Japanese people to change their discriminatory preconceptions and draws attention to the issues associated with policies on the Ainu people.

The Meiji Government annexed Hokkaido and began to settle and develop the land. During this time the use of rivers and land was strictly controlled. This had an adverse impact on the Ainu way of life, which had primarily involved hunting and fshing. Towns were built and tonden-hei (farmer-soldiers) came to live, forcing some Ainu communities to relocate from their ancestral lands. After the start of the 1890s, a large infux of settlers began arriving in Hokkaido. Soon the settlers far outnumbered the indigenous Ainu in every municipality of Hokkaido. Assimilation policies unilaterally negating the traditional Ainu way of life also became stronger around this time.

As various aspects of their lives changed, the Ainu made continual eforts to adapt to the new era. Many Ainu across Hokkaido focused on agriculture or fshing. There were still others who proactively campaigned for schools to be set up to educate their children and others who campaigned for the rights to their ancestral lands that had been taken from them. In the 1910s, Japanese language was mostly used to voice opinions about correcting discrimination and prejudice against the Ainu people and discuss views about the future. Ainu authors began to publish books and Ainu volunteers created magazines.

Meanwhile, Ainu men were conscripted to serve in the Russo-Japanese War and World War II, while many others were mobilized to support the war efort.

After the end of World War II, as Japan democratized, the Ainu began to campaign to protect their lands and living. In the latter half of the 1960s, social and political debate began to take place, providing momentum for rethinking the way Ainu culture was perceived. The Ainu people themselves began to record and preserve their traditional culture to pass down to future generations. In this manner, the history of the Meiji, Taisho and Showa eras is linked directly with today.

Voices of Ainu in History
Heard here is the voice of Yamao Mukai, the frst Chairman of the Ainu Association of Hokkaido, established in 1946, speaking slowly and carefully while giving a speech. Around this time the association demanded that expansive pasture lands administered by the Imperial Household Agency be returned to the Ainu. The association asserted that these ancestral lands originally belonged to the Ainu, and must be returned to support their mainstay industries of agriculture and fshing.

The other voice is of Kitaro Nishihira, who was born on Sakhalin. In 1905, after victory in the Russo-Japanese war, Japan took control of Sakhalin, placing the indigenous Ainu and Uilta peoples under the control of Japan. However, Japan left Sakhalin after losing World War II and most of the local Ainu and Uilta population had no other choice but to immigrate to Hokkaido. These people faced great hardship before their move in addition to the trials of building a new life in a new land. This voice recording recalls life in those turbulent times.

Hokkaido Museum
Hokkaido Museum, aka Mori no Charenga, is a museum introducing the nature, history and culture of Hokkaido.Hokkaido Museum opened in Sapporo, Hokkaidō, Japan in 2015. Located within Nopporo Shinrin Kōen Prefectural Natural Park.

Most of the permanent exhibitions are history-related, including archeology, and folklore-related. Educational activities are being conducted in both the humanities and natural history fields.

The museum integrates and replaces the Historical Museum of Hokkaido, which opened in 1971, and the Hokkaido Ainu Culture Research Centre.

It also collects and preserves materials that represent a precious treasure of the people of Hokkaido, and conducts exhibitions, educational activities and events.