Ainu: Hokkaidō's Indigenous People

The Ainu draw their ancestry back to the earliest settlers of Hokkaidō, while a distinct Ainu culture is believed to have emerged around 700 years ago. They were hunters, fishers and gatherers, settling along salmon runs and coastal plains. Men wore long, bushy beards and women had distinctive blue tattoos on their hands and faces – especially around the lips, which gave them the appearance of always smiling.

Their gods, called kamuy, were found in the natural world, in the rocks and trees and especially in the animals around them. Of all their gods, the most important was kim-un kamuy, the god of the mountains – known in Japanese as higuma (Ussuri brown bear). Ritual ceremonies, called iyomante, were held to send spirits – of sacrificed bear cubs but also of plants and broken pots – back to the realm of the gods. Days began with prayer to the deity of fire, apehuci kamuy, who resided in the hearth.

While the Japanese and the Ainu had been trading partners for centuries, as the Japanese empire grew in military and economic might, the balance of power gradually shifted in favour of the southern nation. Following the formal annexation of Hokkaidō in 1869, the new Meiji government signed the Hokkaidō Former Aborigines Protection Act in 1899. Though well-meaning in name, it banned traditional practices, such as hunting and tattooing, along with the Ainu language. Ainu were given plots of land (typically small and ill-suited to cultivation) and instructed to take up the lives of sedentary farmers. Those who held out suffered discrimination; many who managed to assimilate feared being 'outed', leading many Ainu to bury their ancestry as deeply as possible.

Today there are roughly 25,000 people in Japan who claim Ainu descent. With the general cultural upheavals of the 1960s, more and more began to speak out against entrenched discrimination and poverty, finding pride and common cause with other indigenous peoples fighting for recognition and justice around the world. A number of community centres were founded; this coincided with a period of increased domestic tourism to Hokkaidō, and many Ainu found work performing their culture for tourists – singing folk songs for tour groups and selling traditional handicrafts. For some members of the community this was a breakthrough, an opportunity to draw positive recognition to their culture and, perhaps more importantly, to make a living. For others, these watered-down cultural displays were at best a distraction from the social justice movement and, at worst, a step backwards.

The way forward for Ainu descendants remains a thorny path. There are still battles being fought on the political front: after decades of lobbying, the Former Aborigines Protection Act was repealed in 1997, and as recently as 2009 activists finally succeeded in winning the passing of a Diet (Japan's national parliamentary body) resolution recognising the Ainu as an indigenous people of Japan.

There is also the question of what it means to be Ainu. There are only a handful of people who can still speak the language (though there are radio programs to learn), and traditional cultural practices can feel frozen in the past, especially to the younger generation who were raised like modern teens. There are, however, artists, musicians and chefs tinkering with the old ways, breathing new life into them. By all means, if you're able to catch acts like Oki Dub Ainu Band (www.tonkori.com) or Marewrew (www.facebook.com/marewrew) live, do!

Akan National Park, which has Ainu kotan (villages) in both Akanko Onsen and Kawayu Onsen, is the best place in Hokkaidō to see Ainu culture in a contemporary context. The villages, with their folklore museums and restaurants serving Ainu dishes, are definitely touristy – though that is the modern reality. Akanko Onsen has a stage, Ikor, for traditional folk music performances; Kawayu Onsen is the home base of modern Ainu musician Atuy, who runs the fantastic pension (and occasional performance space) Marukibune.

If you're interested in digging deeper, visit the Hokkaidō Ainu Center in Sapporo. In addition to exhibitions on history and culture, there is a reading room with pretty much every book published in English on the Ainu.

The Blakiston Line

It was an Englishman, Thomas Blakiston, who first noticed that the native animals of Hokkaidō are different species from those on the southern side of the Tsugaru straits on Honshū. Blakiston lived in Japan from 1861 to 1884, spending most of his time in Hokkaidō in Hakodate, and his name is now used to describe the border in the distribution of animal species between Hokkaidō and the rest of Japan – 'the Blakiston Line'.

While Hokkaidō had land bridges to north Asia via Sakhalin and the Kuril Islands, southern Japan's land bridges primarily connected it to the Korean peninsula. Bears found on Honshū are Asiatic black bears while Hokkaidō's bears are Ussuri brown bears, found in northern Asia. On the southern side of the straits, Japanese macaque monkeys are found on Honshū as far north as Aomori, but not in Hokkaidō. Among other species north of the Blakiston Line are Siberian chipmunks, Hokkaidō red squirrels, the ezo-jika (Hokkaidō deer), kita-kitsune (northern fox), northern pika and Blakiston's Fish Owl.

The Ainu Legacy of Place Names

While precious few people today can speak the Ainu language, the old tongue has left an indelible print on the map of Hokkaidō. You'll notice that many mountains are not 'san' or 'yama' (as they are in Japanese) but 'nupuri' – as in Niseko Resort's famous Annupuri – the Ainu word for 'mountain'. 'Nai' and 'pet' are the words for river; Wakkanai literally means 'cold water river' in Ainu. Rishiri-tō is actually redundant: both 'tō' (Japanese) and 'shir' (Ainu) mean the same thing – island.