Education About Asia: Online Archives

Ainu-e: Instructional Resources for the Study of Japan’s Other People

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There is a commonly held misconception in the West that the people of Japan are of one culture, a perfect example of human homogeneity.1 This belief is more than an observation by Westerners: it has been the official position of the Japanese government for almost 150 years. However, there is one recently-recognized indigenous people,2 the Ainu.3

Long an enigma to all manner of disciplines, such as physical and social anthropology, linguistics, ethnology, and archaeology, the Ainu have fascinated scholars and laypersons alike (Fitzhugh and Dubreuil 1999).4 To early Western visitors to Japan, the Ainu were the most exotic people of the North Pacific rim: their language is an isolate, and their physical appearance dramatically different from the Japanese or any of its neighbors. Their abundant body hair and long-flowing beards, rugged muscular bodies, deep-set eyes, and other features led Western researchers to believe the Ainu were “an island of Caucasoids in a sea of Mongoloids” (Harrison 1954: 278–93). As we see in Figure 1, the misconception, based on appearance, was entirely understandable. This 1871 photograph of an Ainu hunter in Hokkaido has absolutely no outward appearance that suggests a person of Mongoloid heritage.5 However, recent DNA research has left little doubt that the Ainu are the direct descendants of the Jomon people, the original people of Japan6 (Horai, et al 1996; Nihon Hoso Kyokai [NHK] 1998).


1. In this case, “Other People” refers to people of an ethnic minority that has traditionally been denied economic or political power (Atkins, R. 1997: 138).

2. The readers who go beyond this article for further research will find multiple spellings for most key words in this article, including Ainu, Hokkaido, and Kurile Islands. Readers should also note that family names of Japanese appear as in the West, last.

3. There are two other minority groups in Japan, the original Ryukyuan people of Okinawa, and the Burakumin, the so-called outcasts of Japan. The Ryukyuans continue to fight for recognition. The significant Korean presence in Japan is not within the scope of this article.