Ainu Culture in Japan

Ainos of Yezu

The Ainu are an indigenous people who have been living in northern Japan, especially on Hokkaido and the surrounding islands. In the past, members of this community were not able to fully express their distinct culture – a situation that caused many to fear for its long-term survival. During the 1960s and 1970s, Kayano Shigeru (1926-2006), who was born in 1926 in the small village of Nibutani, a rural village in Hokkaido’s Biratori area, was the first Ainu to sit in Japan’s parliament. He inspired a movement to celebrate, sustain, and develop this distinct and lesser-known of the Japanese cultures. Today, this movement continues to gather momentum, in particular among younger members of the Ainu community living in Nibutani, Hokkaido.

An exhibition in London, Ainu Stories: Contemporary Lives by the Saru River, has been curated in collaboration with the people of Biratori, an area located in Saru River basin in the south of Hokkaido. It explores the significance of Ainu culture for this community and the relationships between its people and their surroundings, as well as revealing the historical links between the UK and an Ainu culture.

The Ainu have lived for centuries not only in the north of the Japanese archipelago, but also in northern Honshu, Sakhalin, and the Kuril Islands. Ainu culture, as we understand it today, began to take form in around the 13th century with the introduction of metal implements and lacquerware, through increased contact with neighbouring lands. The Ainu lived by fishing, hunting, and plant gathering. They also played an important role in trade exchanges between what is now Russia and China and the ethnic Japanese to the south, on Honshu. Today, their descendants primarily live in Hokkaido, but many have migrated to other places throughout Japan. The language of the Ainu is unrelated to Japanese, and Ainu culture is distinct from that of wajin, ethnic Japanese. In the Ainu language, anyu means ‘human being’.

Ainu Identity – Robes

One vivid expression of Ainu identity are robes, or amip, the designs of which vary from region to region. Today, these are worn for special ceremonies and for performances of song and dance. These ceremonial practices are vivid expressions of Ainu identity that originally developed as a way of keeping order in the world. There are no priests in the Ainu belief system, instead, rituals are carried out by representatives chosen from community leaders. This belief system is based on the notion that, in addition to the world of humans (anyu), there is another world where kamuy live in human form. In the human world, kamuy can exist as animals and plants. Certain ceremonies enable messages to be sent by humans to the kamuy.

The exhibition is divided into four central themes, which are further brought to life with displays of contemporary Ainu works and film. Ainu Language looks at members of the community in Nibutani, who are particularly dedicated to ensuring the continued life of this largely oral language, named as critically endangered by UNESCO. Visitors to the exhibition can discover examples of the Ainu language in use today. The section on Society and the Environment touches on topics of environmental conservation and contemporary agricultural practices, as well as the largely unknown world of Ainu cuisine. It also explores the consultation with members of the Ainu community on major land construction projects such as the recently completed Biratori Dam.

Ainu Textiles, Song, and Dance looks at Ainu culture through displays and film. Here visitors can discover the importance of song and dance in Ainu culture – not performed for the benefit of others, but taking place as part of normal community life. The richly embroidered robes worn for certain ceremonies are used to illustrate and tell the story of Ainu textiles and crafts.

Woodcarving and Tourism in Relation to Ainu Culture

The final section, Woodcarving and Tourism, observes how Japanese domestic tourism in the 1960s and 1970s inspired and helped the growth of the Ainu woodcarving industry in Nibutani, an area which was already famed for its delicately carved wooden trays, household utensils, and hunting weapons. Today, Nibutani ita (carved trays), together with Nibutani attus (woven bark textiles), are the only officially designated ‘Traditional Crafts’ of Hokkaido. Examples of these objects are on display, including a specially commissioned piece by Kaizawa Toru, whose work is in the British Museum collections.

This exhibition of Ainu culture also documents historically significant connections between the UK and the Biratori area by featuring three figures who forged lasting relationships with the Ainu in the region. They include the missionary Rev John Batchelor (1855-1944) from East Sussex, who arrived in Japan from Hong Kong in 1877. He lived and worked with the Ainu community for decades. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, he engaged with and documented their culture and way of life. The first texts about Ainu language in English were published by Batchelor, including the first Ainu-English dictionary in 1905.

The Traveller Isabella Bird

Also featured is the explorer Isabella Bird (1831-1904). In 1891, this extraordinary traveller was the first female member to be elected as a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society in London. This accolade was partly the result of her 1878 journey, when she set out on an extended exploration of the world. Her two-volume book, Unbeaten Tracks in Japan (1880), records her journey in Japan. However, John Murray, her London publisher also reprinted a copy five years later, as a scaled-down one-volume edition, turning it from the more serious report-like work into a more travel and adventure narrative. In 2017, the academic Kanasaka Kiyonori published Isabella Bird and Japan: A Reassessment (translated by Nicholas Pertwee), to correct the later misinterpretations of her journey.

At the time of Bird’s travel, all foreign travellers and residents in Japan were subject to restrictions on movement. They were only allowed to move freely within 10 ri (about 40 kilometres) of the five treaty ports open to foreign arrivals: Yokohama, Kobe, Nagasaki, Hakodate, and Niigata, plus the two cities of Tokyo and Osaka, where foreigners were also permitted to be. A special permit was required to travel in ito (the interior) beyond these zones. Even then, there were numerous restrictions on where people could travel. Despite these restrictions, Bird decided to travel to Biratori in Hokkaido, as well as sites around the nation’s cultural heartland of Kansai and the Ise Shrine in Mie Prefecture.

The Work of Dr Neil Gordon Munro and Documenting Ainu Culture

Lastly, the exhibition uncovers the story of Scotsman Dr Neil Gordon Munro (1863-1942), the local physician in Nibutani during the 1930s, whose work there earned him the love and respect of the Ainu community. When he first arrived in Japan from India, he became the director of the general hospital in Yokohama. During his tenure, he became interested in Japanese prehistory. Subsequently, he shifted his interested to the living conditions of the Ainu, who had been forced to give up their hunting and gathering lifestyles and often lived in poverty, surviving as subsistence farmers. Munro had a house built in Nibutani and settled there to begin a comprehensive study of Ainu culture. He kept an open house and encouraged those who visited him to share their gossip, sing songs, re-tell legends, and talk of the past. Munro dedicated the last years of his life to the project. To record his experiences, and Ainu culture, he also became a keen photographer and documented life in Nibutani through film. His book, Ainu Creed and Cult was published posthumously in 1962. Many of his photographs are now held in the collection of the British Museum, National Museums Scotland, and the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford.

In 2024, the 55th annual festival of Ainu Culture will be celebrated in its homeland and is the legacy of the Ainu rights advocate Kayano Shigeru.

The exhibition on Ainu cultures runs until 21 April, 2024, Japan House, London,