Analysis of Trends in Life of the Ainu People and Their Language


There are a number of interesting aspects of the Ainu people of Japan. To begin with, the word “Ainu” connotes “human” (Poisson, 2002). These people consider everything that is valuable them or beyond their control as “kamuy,” which implies “gods” (Poisson, 2002). Thus from time immemorial the Ainu people spent their time performing various ceremonies to appease the kamuy or gods (Poisson, 2002). Interestingly what the Ainu people revered as gods were items that today would be considered common such as fire, water, wind and thunder, which they referred to as nature gods (Poisson, 2002). On the other hand, the Ainu people referred to bears, foxes, gram-puss and spotted owls as animal gods (Poisson, 2002). To them, there were plant gods such as aconite and mushroom, as well as object gods like boats and pots (Poisson, 2002). So anything that was not a god was human, hence the name “Ainu” (Poisson, 2002).

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The Ainu people initially lived in the Japanese territories in the North of Honshu, Hokkaido, the southern part of Karafuto and the Kurile Islands (Yamashita, Bosco, and Eades, 2004). In spite of the wide distribution of the Ainu people, it has been noted that the Ainu language did not have a clear origin (Yamashita, Bosco, and Eades, 2004). Many theories have thus been postulated to trace the language’s origin, one being that it is a derivative of an old Asiatic language (Yamashita, Bosco, and Eades, 2004). That aside, the most notable thing about the Ainu language is that its use is steadily declining, as are the populations of the indigenous Ainu people (Poisson, 2002). Hence, in a bid to preserve the old language, language scholars in Japan are committed to keeping in writing all genres of the Ainu language (Poisson, 2002).

The disappearance of the Ainu people, as well as the Ainu language, can be traced back to the past regime in Japan, which seemed to alienate the Ainu people, considering them non-Japanese (Kramer, 2003). For instance, during the Meiji era (1867-1912), an increasing number of Japanese colonized Hokkaido and Honshu, oppressing and exploiting the Ainu. In addition, the Ainu people were discriminated and forced to perform hard tasks which led to there eventual attrition (Yamashita, Bosco, and Eades, 2004). The subsequent regimes (Taisho and Shouwa) were not friendly to the Ainu people either. Additionally, even the regime that reigned after 1989 did not have proper consideration for the Ainu people. Thus as Henders (2007) noted, discrimination against the Ainu people is pervasive even today and is a major social problem.

The results of discrimination of the Ainu people have been dramatic: the few Ainu people who still exist are afraid to speak the Ainu language and opting for Japanese (Henders, 2007). In addition, the education system in Japan encompasses Japanese and other foreign languages (Yamashita, Bosco, and Eades, 2004). All these coupled with the fact that the Ainu people would want to be identified as Japanese have caused a major decline in use of the Ainu language. The language is the on the verge of extinction as other languages in Japan gain popularity.

The insidious social and economic marginalization of the native peoples of Japan is a clear indication that the legal framework to protect individuals’ rights is profoundly inadequate. This evidenced by the fact that Japan does not have any clear policies to address racial and ethnic discrimination (Yamashita, Bosco, and Eades, 2004). As such, the talk about cultural and ethnic homogeneity in Japan would remain a mirage if some languages are allowed to collapse at the expense of popularizing others.

What other factors have contributed to the decline in use of the Ainu language and in general the population of the Ainu people? These and an analysis of how other people perceive the Ainu people form the basis of discussion of this paper. The paper gives the history of the Ainu people and an analysis of how various regimes have shaped the Ainu people’s society and the Ainu language.

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Historical background of the Ainu People and language

The Ainu People are a native population of Japan. By the year 1999, there were between 24, 000 to 50, 000 Ainu people living in Hokkaido, which is the northernmost main island of Japan (Ishikida, 2005). Their origin can be traced by analyzing the culture of the people of Hokkaido and the Northern parts of Japan as early as the ninth century (Ishikida, 2005). The Ainu had so much love for Hokkaido that they referred to it in their own language as Ainu mosir, which means “quiet land of humans” (Kramer, 2003) The culture of the Satsumon people is widely spread across Hokkaido and Kurile, and is closely related to that of the Ainu people. Therefore, the Ainu are commonly identified with the Satsumon culture (Poisson, 2002).

Economic and social activities

The Ainu had a form of social organization based upon patrilineal and matrilineal kinship groups that had clear social distinctions (Ishikida, 2005). A community leader was chosen from among the people based on inheritance and ability. This leader served as the guide in all activities of the community (Ishikida, 20050. In order to preserve the aspects of their culture such as language, the community participated in activities that brought them all together such as worship, narrations and other language-based activities (Poisson, 2002).

In order to be economically and socially viable, the Ainu people lived on traditional practices such as hunting, gathering and fishing in the river and mountain waters of Hokkaido and Kurile (Ishikida, 2005). The rich resources from the rivers and mountains enabled the Ainu to venture into small-scale trade (Poisson, 2002).

Trade opened up the rather intact and closed community to other communities in Japan such as the Japanese. According to Ishikida (2005), the fifteenth century witnessed a lot of trade between the Ainu traders and the Japanese traders. This would later result in chaos since the Ainu people felt that they were being exploited by the Japanese (Poisson, 2002). Consequently, revolts between the Japanese and the Ainu were commonplace in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries (Ishikida, 2005).


In spite of the conflicts between the Japanese and the Ainu over trade, social relations were not utterly severed as the two communities practiced intermarriage (Yamashita, Bosco, and Eades, 2004). As the two communities mingled, it became evident that the minority Ainu would be suppressed by the dominant Japanese. The results were indeed not surprising- as one would have expected, the Ainu progressively got assimilated into the Japanese language and culture and general way of life.

Part of the evidence that the Ainu were slowly transforming was the decline of the community’s traditional settlement, referred to as kotan (Yamashita, Bosco, and Eades, 2004). Additionally, the traditional Ainu huts, which were referred to as chise, acquired new models from the Japanese’s style, thus slowly killing the original model (Yamashita, Bosco, and Eades, 2004).

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Decline in use of the Ainu language

The dominance of Japanese over the Ainu slowly caused the new generations of the Ainu to be accustomed to Japanese. Hence, only the old generations of the Ainu people were fluent in the Ainu language. Although such occurrence can be attributed to the mingling between the two communities, that alone could not have contributed to the mass decline in use of the Ainu language.

As discussed in the following sections, the leadership of the Japanese (the different) empires contributed a great deal to shaping the Ainu community and language. Hence, the current system in which the Ainu people and particularly the Ainu language are endangered is a culmination of what was set in motion by various Japanese leadership regimes many years ago (Miyaoka, Sakiyama and Krauss, 2007).

Role of various Japanese regimes in endangering the Ainu language

Modern Japan (1868 to present) can trace back to 1867 when the Meiji administration commonly known as Meiji era came to power. This regime came up with policies that changed the communities in Japan. Other regimes such as the Taisho and Shouwa too played their part in defining the language and culture typical of modern Japan (Miyaoka, Sakiyama and Krauss, 2007).

According to Henders (2007), in order for a group of people to be recognized as an ethnic entity, it must display differentiation from other groups. Thus, the formation of minority groups such as the Ainu connotes the existence majority groups. In this respect, although the Ainu are believed to share a language and culture (thus an ethnic group) their attributes make them a modern phenomenon (Kramer, 2003). For instance, the Ainu in the pre-modern Japan system were not collectively identified as a community; rather there were several small groups with distinct identity, linguistic dialect and ecological preferences. The minority groups such as Shumuk, Menashik, Sarunk, Abashiri Ainu, Peniunku, Tokachi Ainu, Yoichi Ainu, Ishikari Ainu and Uchiura Ainu were all distinct as small ethnic groups. In essence, the all-inclusive “Ainu” community was not identifiable before the Meiji era (Kramer, 2003).

From the above discussion, it is evident that the sense of “belonging to a particular community” was inculcated by concept of modern state making. Henders (2007) noted that the feeling of being “Japanese” or “Ainu” was invoked by the Meiji era since prior to that national identity was not shared. It is only after the realization of the modern state in the Meiji era that the Ainu language and community was noted to have influence on the Japanese society.

Role of the Meiji regime (1868-1912)

Traditionally it had been very difficult to completely assimilate the Ainu into the Japanese culture. The Ainu had been very resistant in spite of attempts by regimes such as that led by Tokugawa to assimilate them (Ishikida, 2005). Hokkaido was not the original name of the region that the Ainu inhabited. As earlier mentioned, the Ainu called it Ainu mosir meaning “quiet land of humans” (Kramer, 2003); but the Japanese initially referred to it as Ezochi, which means “land of the barbarians, the Ainu.” However, dissatisfied with the position taken by the Ainu in refusing assimilation to the Japanese, Emperor Meiji decided to destabilize the now one ethnic community of Ainu.

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Among the strategies used by Meiji were to rename Ezochi with a more befitting Japanese name that excluded the Ainu, hence it became Hokkaido. While Ezochi or Ainu mosir island had been associated with the Ainu communities, it now became an entity linked to Japan. In addition, the Meiji era declared the Ainu people as “commoners” of Japan. This system clearly “Japanized” the Ainu and they had no option but to be assimilated into the Japanese culture. In order to show the full Japanese occupation of Hokkaido, the Japanese empire encouraged immigration of Japanese into the Hokkaido island as claimants of what initially belonged to Japan (Kramer, 2003).

Imposing the Japanese culture

After the Japanese’s full occupation of Hokkaido, the Ainu had no option but to progressively acquire the Japanese culture. Nonetheless, this was not optional- the Meiji empire banned the use of Ainu language and encouraged the adoption of Japanese culture and lifestyle (Kramer, 2003). Thus, the Ainu people abandoned their own lifestyle. In addition, in the year 1871, the Ainu settlers were given houses and farming tools designed the Japanese way, and were prohibited from using hunting arrows, instead encouraged to use hunting rifles in 1876 (Noguchi and Fotos, 2001). Furthermore, hunting of the deer, which was a very popular activity among the Ainu as a source of food, was banned in 1889 (Noguchi and Fotos, 2001). With all these atrocities, the Ainu slowly lost what they held, including their language.

The Japanese’s full occupation of Hokkaido was encouraged by creation of the Colonization Commission (Kaitakushi) to allow the Japanese to settle in the island of Hokkaido, which was declared to be unoccupied under the Land Regulation Ordnance, in spite of the fact that it had over 20, 000 Ainu people (Noguchi and Fotos, 2001). In order to further streamline the Ainu people into the Japanese culture, the Meiji Empire banned traditional tattooing among the Ainu people (Noguchi and Fotos, 2001).

The process of assimilation reduced the diverse characteristics of the Ainu people into one Japanese system. Henders (2007) notes that the Ainu had previously existed as a heterogeneous group with considerable linguistic and cultural diversity, but were conflated as an aboriginal group that became the target of compulsory assimilation to the Japanese language and general culture.

Creation of a monolithic Japan through education system

Although the Japanese language had been under influence from other languages brought in by settlers such as the Spanish and Chinese, Emperor Meiji wanted to create a strong unified and wealthy nation (Ishikida, 2005). He believed that one way of facilitating this was through the use of a strong language. Hence, minority groups such as the Ainu were to be among the first causalities. On realizing that the western countries had advanced technologically, Japan adopted the western system of education nationwide in 1872 and within a short period enrollment was almost at a 100 per cent level (Noguchi and Fotos, 2001).

In 1873, the Education Ministry of Japan published a language guide (kotobazukai) which contain phrase sheets and glossaries for use in teaching children “standard Japanese” so that they would not be influenced by other language dialects (Noguchi and Fotos, 2001). The Japanese leadership argued that there was need to standardize language so that people across the country could comprehend and make statements based on a generally understood lexicon (Noguchi and Fotos, 2001).

Although the standardization process would harbor some difficulties, the leadership generally accepted to adopt the dialect of Tokyo as the standard language (Ishikida, 2005). Consequently, when the Ministry of Education in Japan published a bulletin in 1887, its introductory part had been written in a colloquial style in line with the Tokyo dialect(Noguchi and Fotos, 2001). Using this procedure, the Japanese government was able to familiarize children and young adults with the Japanese lexicon. Therefore, the Ainu language would not be applicable in the Meiji administration.

Ban on use of Ainu language

The Japanese formed the Assimilationist (Aborigine) Protection Act in 1899, which facilitated dominance of Japanese over the Ainu people. This added to the 1869 elimination of the rights of the Ainu (Miyaoka, Sakiyama and Krauss, 2007). Furthermore, in 1899 the Meiji administration banned the use of Ainu language in schools, particularly those set up for Ainu children (Noguchi and Fotos, 2001). The children were forced to communicate at all times strictly in Japanese (Poisson, 2002). This forestalled the growth of the Ainu language among the young people in Japan. Indeed, as Miyaoka, Sakiyama and Krauss (2007) noted, the ban on use of Ainu language marked the progressive decline of popularity of the language.

The rapid in-migration of Japanese into Hokkaido also meant that there would be no intergenerational transmission of language among the Ainu people since they were now living as a mixed people with the Japanese (Miyaoka, Sakiyama and Krauss, 2007). This is the reason why only old people, that is, the generations that initially had been accustomed to the language, were able to speak fluent Ainu. This situation persisted until the end of the Meiji era and into the Taisho administration.

Role of the Taisho regime (1912-1926)

The Taisho regime met a lot of resistance its bid to maintain the status quo of discrimination of the Ainu people and their language. Activists criticized the kind of education given to Ainu children in the schools created for them claiming that the education was inferior (Fishman, 2001). Thus, the earlier curriculum was banned. Nevertheless, the process of educating Ainu children had a lot of impact on the Ainu children in that by 1920 only the elderly Ainu people could not speak fluent Japanese (Fishman, 2001) (the rest had been assimilated into the Japanese language through school education).

The banned Ainu education curriculum was however re-introduced in 1916 under the Second Regulations for the Education of Former Native Children clause of the Ministry of education. This clause was again abolished in 1922 (Fishman, 2001).

Criticism of the government from activists such as Iboshi Hokuto was prevalent during the Taisho era. For instance, in 1925, a speech by the activist and poet Iboshi Hokuto to the linguist Tokyo Ainu Gakkai (that is the Tokyo Ainu Study Group) necessitated the formation of a group that would later be involved in the reclamation of the Ainu people’s culture and language (Fishman, 2001). There were subsequent attacks on the government for encouraging “a dying race” stereotype. These attacks were linked to calls for restoration of endangered people in other countries such as the Aborigine People of Australia (Fishman, 2001). In general, while the Taisho administration aimed at perpetrating dominance over the minority Ainu in order to seal the hopes of survival of their attributes such as language, activists were out to defend the Ainu people’s rights.

Role of the Shouwa regime (1926-1989)

In spite of the efforts by the Shouwa regime to form a unified Japanese nation, there were persistent calls to liberate the Ainu and restore their freedom to their language (Miyaoka, Sakiyama and Krauss, 2007). However, the government maintained its stance. Hence, in 1980, it issued a declaration that no linguistic minority groups were in existence in Japan at that time (Fishman, 2001). This was in reference to the 1980 Report on Human Rights provision from the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (Fishman, 2001). According to Article 27 of this report, tribute was paid to minority groups in the world, hence it stated that the minority groups have a right to enjoy their own culture use their own language. Therefore, in defensive response to the report, the Japanese government was categorical that there were no such minority groups in Japan (Fishman, 2001).

In further opposition to the government, a renowned folklorist, Shigeru Kayano introduced the first Ainu language class in Nibutani, Hokkaido (Fishman, 2001). Although there is no report on how the government reacted to the event, one can surmise that Shigeru was obviously not in good books with the government. On the other hand, numerous groups to fight for the rights of the Ainu people were being formed. One such group was the Hokkaido Utari Association (Fishman, 2001). This group proposed a New Law for The Ainu (Ainu Minzoku ni kan suru Horitsu), which in 1984 recommended the revival and upholding of the Ainu Language (Fishman, 2001). The group wanted their proposal to supplant the 1899 Act on aborigines, which was initiated by the Meiji regime (Fishman, 2001).

Much to the chagrin of the pro-Ainu language activists, the Japanese government did not relent in its stance. This was elaborated in 1986 when the then Prime Minister Nakasone delivered a speech that bludgeoned the Ainu people’s interests. The Prime Minister was categorical that Japan was a racially harmonized nation, sanctified with an absence of minority communities and therefore possessed the “highest level of intellectual competence.” This satirical speech implied that the Ainu people were not recognized in their own right but were “Japanese” (Fishman, 2001) Therefore, to say that the Ainu language had a place in the Shouwa era would be an exaggeration of facts (Fishman, 2001).

Present status of the Ainu people and language (from 1990)

Persistent cries by activists to the government to stop atrocities have prevented or at least reduced the level of discrimination towards the Ainu people. In 1992, the Ainu people received and international acknowledgment when their representative, Giichi Nomura addressed the UN General Assembly in a function dubbed the “UN International Year of the World’s Indigenous People” (Ishikida, 2005). The Ainu people from Nibutani, Hokkaido were represented (Ishikida, 2005).

Further attention has been given to the issues concerning the Ainu people. For instance, numerous cultural and ethnic movements coupled with media attention to the attributes of the Ainu have promoted and ameliorated the public interest in language, heritage and culture of the Ainu people. Thus, there a sense that the Ainu are not discriminated against, although in essence most of them have been assimilated into the Japanese culture and therefore have nothing to do with the Ainu tradition or language (Ishikida, 2005).

The New Ainu law and the future

The 1899 Aborigine Protection Act has progressively been redefined. Activists have been calling for a new law that would help the society to realize and appreciate the pride of the Ainu people in terms of their language and culture (Ishikida, 2005). According to the proponents of this act, there is need for the implementation of procedures for the support of Ainu culture and awareness related to Ainu traditions, and the education of the nation, referring to the state of Ainu traditions and culture from which the Ainu people find their cultural delight (Ishikida, 2005).

In the year 1997, the Hokkaido Government collaborated with the Hokkaido Development Agency and the Ministry of Education of Japan to approve the establishment of the Foundation for Research and Promotion of Ainu Culture (FRPAC) (Ishikida, 2005). The major objective of the foundation is to further the development of diverse national cultures through the safeguarding and support of the Ainu language and traditional culture, as well as the distribution of knowledge on Ainu traditions (Ishikida, 2005). The Foundation further improves the education of the Ainu by providing teaching opportunities for Ainu language instructors through exhaustive courses on effective instruction methods. The courses are based on the grammatical features of the Ainu language and are prepared in collaboration with Ainu language researchers (Ishikida, 2005).

According to a 1999 survey conducted by the Hokkaido Government, 23,767 persons identified themselves as Ainu (Poisson, 2002). Until today, many Japanese citizens fear discrimination for being Ainu and for that reason, they do not identify themselves as being Ainu. Despite the recent positive developments and the enthusiasm of younger people to learn Ainu, the language must be regarded as being nearly extinct. This is because many Ainu are rapidly becoming Japanese (Kramer, 2003). Ainu children cannot speak Ainu because even their parents are not speaking it (Kramer, 2003). Many activities of research on the Ainu language have shown that less than ten speakers are proficient in that language (Ishikida, 2005).


The Ainu people faced a lot of discrimination from the Japanese and particularly the past regimes. Forced assimilation caused the Ainu to acquire the Japanese lifestyle hence the decline in use of the Ainu language. In spite of the current efforts to revive the Ainu culture and language, not much can be achieved in a short time since the Ainu have been deeply assimilated into Japanese, and fear of discrimination still haunts them. Hence, they cannot proudly identify themselves with their language and culture.


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  2. Henders Susan J. Democratization and Identity: Regimes and Ethnicity in East and Southeast Asia. New York: Lexington Books, 2007
  3. Ishikida, Miki Y.Living Together: Minority People and Disadvantaged Groups in Japan. Tokyo: Universe, 2005
  4. Kramer, Eric Mark. The Emerging Monoculture: Assimilation and the “model Minority”. New York: Greenwood Publishing Group, 2003
  5. Miyaoka, Osahito; Sakiyama, Osamu and Krauss, Michael E. The Vanishing Languages of the Pacific Rim. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007
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