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  • Day671

    Ainu and Arctic people

    July 13, 2019 in Japan ⋅ ⛅ 24 °C

    I could really get into this whole anthropology thing...if I could ever manage to keep all the people straight and their timelines. It's like dinosaurs. They're cool, but I can not keep them straight and only know that they were in the Jurassic period thanks to the movie.

    I think it's cool because I've been lucky enough to be in just a few northern places in the world and, not to paint everyone with the same brush, but man oh man, are there similarities between the Northern Indigenous peoples! Japan is/was no different. Like North America, Japanese from the Honshu island did their best to ignore, force assimilation and generally wipe out the indigenous groups as they colonized into the northern islands, like Hokkaido. The Japanese government even hired American consultants to help the "assimilation" process; these consultants wise and experienced as they were fresh off their own country's actions to deal with the North American Native population. The indigenous people even called the ethnic Japanese "colonizer" or "one whom you cannot trust"---sounds so familiar right?

    In fact, it wasn't until 2008 that the Japanese government actually officially recognized that there was indeed, a distinct ethnogroup that had inhabited the northern island of Hokkaido. These people are called Ainu. This roughly translates to "human".

    There is evidence of human habitation of Hokkaido 20,000 years ago from peoples that walked down from Siberia and Russia. By the end of the last ice age, they had become hunter gatherers known as the Ainu. They look so different from the Japanese that they sometimes were mistaken for Caucasian. ....but their DNA is Mongoloid. Surprise, surprise....nope, not for me at least. The pictures of these people are so freaking reminiscent of what I saw in the Mongolian nomads and the North American Inuit it was uncanny. Deep set eyes, prominent cheekbones---features not associated with the Asian ethnicity. In the museum we visited, there was a recording of a woman speaking Ainu (one of very few left that can speak the traditional language). As I walked by, I thought it was Inuktitut. The rhythm, cadence and low guttural sounds seemed similar to a novice like me. It gave me pause.

    Like many groups intertwined with nature, the Ainu were animistic/shamanistic in beliefs and were deeply connected with the largest predator on the island, the brown bear. They have found carvings and ceremonial bear skull burials dating back thousands of years. I love how each culture seems to have their own central animal talisman that forms an important part of their belief system. The Ainu relied heavily on the salmon and fish, just like the bears. They lived side by side. Today, the bear is still very important in Ainu culture and it symbolizes their resilience and toughness, like the bear.

    If you look at a map of Japan, the Russian archipelago islands nearly kiss Hokkaido and it is easy to understand how flow of people occurred there. There are still many Ainu people living and recognized in Russia. Today, in Japan, the culture is learning how to live with a hint of diversity after more than a hundred years of efforts to focus on homogeneity. The few thousand Ainu that are left are now attempting to save any of the culture and memories that are left while learning how to be proud of their heritage rather than ashamed.

    I am always drawn to these stories and learning about these things because, to me, it further represents how we may feel our life experiences are painfully unique but they are not. We are all quite human and quite intertwined.
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You might also know this place by the following names:

Izumi, 和泉

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