Ainu Mosir 'Land of the human beings' - Japan's first people

An Ainu woman's lip tattoo is a rite of passage into adulthood.

An Ainu woman's lip tattoo is a rite of passage into adulthood.

The contemporary view of Japan is that it is among the world’s most homogenous societies with a strong sense of national identity and little or no ethic and cultural diversity. It has a very small percentage of foreign residents.

Ten years ago, following the 2007 United Nations declaration of rights for Indigenous people, Japan’s government officially recognised its first people - the Ainu – for the first time.

The Ainu have called the northern part of Hokkaido their homeland for over 30,000 years when it is thought that they crossed a land bridge from eastern Russia. Ainu Mosir literally means ‘the homeland of the people’ or ‘the land of the human beings’

First contact came with the Wajin or ethic Japanese who occupied the mainland island of Honshu in the 13th century.

Today there are an estimated 20,000 Ainu people.

Sakhalin Ainu men, photographed by  Bronisław Piłsudski

Sakhalin Ainu men, photographed by Bronisław Piłsudski

They have an oral tradition, their spiritual beliefs are centred around the worship of nature and the notion that everything has a spirit or god within. They are hunter gatherers and their traditional language is on the verge of extinction with an estimated 15 to 100 speakers.

Among the unique aspects of their culture is the place of the bear in their belief system as the sacred animal. Their appearance is distinctly different from other Japanese people. The men grow long beards and do not shave and the women have facial tattoos. There are also distinct physical differences in their body shape and facial features.

An Ainu leader circa 1880

An Ainu leader circa 1880

The Ainu culture, beliefs and lifeways share so many similarities with Indigenous people from other parts of the world. The recent recognition of their unique place in the Japanese identity may save the culture from extinction and will finally allow their identity to be promoted and shared with the rest of the world.