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Ainu Culture

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Sirokanipe ranran piskan Konkanipe ranran piskan. This Ainu poem is about an owl deity. It roughly translates to “Fall fall, silver drops, all around fall fall, golden drops, all around” (Selden). The Ainu worshiped all aspects of nature as gods, believing animals were spirits temporarily visiting the earth. The Ainu are an ancient people of nature, living in close communities and are now a minority of Japan.

The Ainu used to live in Honshu, Japan’s main island, but have since been limited to a smaller area by the Japanese. They now dwell mostly in Russia’s Sakhalin and Kuril Islands and Hokkaido (Peoples of the World). Hokkaido is Japan’s northernmost island. It is 32,247 square miles, measuring twice the size of Switzerland and making up one-fifth of Japan (Selden). Hokkaido is decorated with beautiful coasts, mountains, lakes and rivers. There are two major mountain ranges in Hokkaido, the Kitami in the north, and Hidaka in the south (Selden).

One estimated population of Ainu is 25,000 (Selden). The exact number is and will most likely remain unknown due to intermarriage between Ainu and other ethnicities. Also, large numbers of people are unaware of or hide their heritage to avoid racism and discrimination (“Ainu People”). Most Ainu speak Japanese, leaving the Ainu language nearly forgotten except for the very few fluent and partial speakers (Selden). The Ainu are believed to have originated in the Asian mainland, Siberia and the Southern Pacific (Selden).

In the nineteenth century, the Japanese government wanted Hokkaido to be economically developed (Selden). The Japanese in the south began moving up into the Ainu territory, disrupting what had been a peaceful co-existence between the two cultures. The Ainu showed little resistance at first, but several wars did break out (“Ainu People”). There was little victory for the Ainu, and the Japanese took most of the land. Now, however, some of the Japanese want to protect what is left of the culture (Peoples of the World).

The Ainu, as a people, were peaceful, but could not stay that way forever. Kosamainu, an Ainu warrior, lived in eastern Hokkaido. He led the Ainu rebellion against the mainland Japanese that were ruling the southern tip of Hokkaido, called Matsumae. He and his army of rebels destroyed ten of the twelve Japanese bases before Kosamainu was killed in 1457 (Selden). Samkusainu, another Ainu warrior, organized the Ainu in the southern half of Hokkaido during the 1669 uprising. He was not nearly as successful as Kosamainu. His group of men was wiped out after two months by the Japanese in Matsumae (Selden).

Ainu families were nuclear, with parents and children living together under one roof. When the children were grown and married, they lived on their own. They were considered adults at the age of fifteen or sixteen (“Life of the Ainu”). When girls hit puberty, their arms, hands and lips were tattooed. This was done in a long process over several years, generally by their grandmothers. When the tattoos were complete, the girls were fit for marriage. However, this practice was outlawed in 1871 by the Japanese government (“Life of the Ainu”).

When babies were born, they were given “temporary names” that lasted until they were two or three years old (“Life of the Ainu”). These names were to “ward off the demon of ill-health” (“Life of the Ainu”). “Ayay,” “Poyshi,” “Shinon,” and “Shipo” were some of the commonly used names. Children received permanent names when they were older. Sometimes they depicted characteristics and behaviors the child had. Others held the parents’ hopes for the future. These names were always unique. Children wore very little clothing before age five (“Life of the Ainu”). What clothes they did wear were old and worn. The soft fabric was good for their skin, and the worn-out cloth protected them from gods and demons of illness (“Life of the Ainu”).

Marriages were often family decisions. Some parents made arrangements with others, and those getting married were given no opinion in the matter (“Life of the Ainu”). Other times, the children found each other and fell in love. Sometimes, the daughter’s parents made her live in rooms separated from them called “tunpu” and would pick her husband from her visitors (“Life of the Ainu”). At the weddings, prayers to the goddess of fire are said to keep the family and home well and happy (“Life of the Ainu”). A small ceremony of eating rice is performed between the bride and groom, officially wedding them (“Life of the Ainu”).

The actual event of becoming engaged is rather interesting and very different than the western tradition of rings. The would-be groom would go to the home of the girl he is aspiring to marry. There, she would prepare him a bowl of rice, as she would any other time. He would eat only half of the bowl and hand it back. If she were to eat the rest, she would accept the engagement. If she set the bowl



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