Ainu, aborigines of Japan who may be descended from a Caucasoid people who once lived in N Asia. More powerful invaders from the Asian mainland gradually forced the Ainu to retreat to the northern islands of Japan and Sakhalin and the Kuril Islands in what is now the Russian Far East; today, they reside mainly on Hokkaido. Reduced in number, they traditionally lived by hunting and fishing, which they were gradually forced to abandon in favor of small-scale farming. The Ainu have attracted the attention of tourists, and some make a living by selling reproductions of their cultural artifacts. Physically, they seem related to European peoples, i.e., they have much more body hair than typical East Asians, but intermarriage has introduced Asian traits among them. Contact with the Japanese, who insisted that they not speak the Ainu language and taught them only Japanese history, also led to culture change and assimilation, which the Ainu resisted in the past, with decreasing success. Their traditional religion is highly animistic and centers on a bear cult; a captive bear was sacrificed at an annual winter feast and his spirit, thus released, was believed to guard the Ainu settlements.

See N. G. Munro, Ainu Creed and Cult (1963); I. Hilger, Together with the Ainu (1971).

Ainu couple in ceremonial dress, Hokkaido, Japan.

Indigenous people of what is now Japan. Pushed north by the Japanese people over the last 2,000 years, the remaining Ainu today live principally in northern Hokkaido, Sakhalin, and the Kuril Islands. Once physically and culturally distinct from the Japanese, their origins and their role in Japanese history and prehistory have been the subject of scholarly debate. Many contemporary Ainu claim some connection to the prehistoric Jōmon culture. The Ainu language, which has no known relationship to any other language, is virtually extinct, having been supplanted by Japanese. The Ainu were traditionally hunters, fishermen, and trappers; their religion centred on spirits believed to be present in animals and the natural world.

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