Ainu – The Indigenous people of Japan

Including Sapporo, 80% of place names in Hokkaido have their origin in the Ainu language. These kind of place names show us that “the Ainu have lived in Hokkaido,” but they don’t show us how they lived, or tell us anything about their present way of life.

Ainu Hokkaido
Antique wood engraving of Ainu people

Ainu are an indigenous people of Japan. Wajin, or ethnic Japanese (other than Ainu), settled in Hokkaido in order to fish its waters in the Edo era (17-19th centuries) about 400 years ago. Analysis of excavated earthenware shows that Ainu already lived in and around Hokkaido some 20,000 years ago.

Ainu made their living mainly through hunting and fishing. Trading animal skins and dried fish, it’s known that they traded with what are now Russia, China and Japan’s Honshu. Free trade, however, was banned by wajin during the Edo era. During the Meiji era (19-20th centuries), Ainu culture was destroyed; the use of Japanese language was made compulsory and hunting and fishing, their main livelihood, was restricted by the infrastructure imposed by the country’s modernization policies.

In Hokkaido, there is a national museum featuring the Ainu people. Opening in 2020 April 24th, Upopoy is Japan’s first national museum which exhibits the history of the indigenous Ainu people.