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The Ainu (a word meaning "man, people" in the Ainu language), are an ethnic group indigenous to the northernmost islands of Japan and the Kurile and Sakhalin Islands. There are 24,000 Ainu today, according to Japanese census figures, although Ainu activists place the number as high as 100,000. They are recognized as the aborigines of Japan because they kept to traditional folkways. They may have arrived in the Japanese islands at about the same time as the majority Japanese. However their origin is a source of much scholarly debate at present. They probably replaced the Jomon, a race of pit-dwellers to whom they gave the name of koro-pok-guru (men with sunken places) in Hokkaido. These koro-pok-guru were of such small stature as to be considered dwarfs. The Jomon made pottery with rope markings in the clay while the supposed Ainu ancestors made smooth pottery in different shapes. The Jomon are not known to have used any agriculture, although the Ainu practiced some along with hunting and fishing.

In ancient times they were fierce fighters, able to offer a stout resistance to the incomparably better armed and more civilized Japanese. As the Japanese moved north and took control over their traditional lands, the Ainu resisted, fighting wars in 1457, 1669, and 1789, but losing each time. Japanese policies became increasingly aimed at reforming the Ainu in the Meiji period, outlawing their language and restricting them to farming on government provided plots. Ainu were also used in near-slavery conditions in the Japanese fishing industry.

The Ainu are somewhat taller than the Japanese, stoutly built, well proportioned, with dark-brown eyes, high cheek-bones, short broad noses and faces lacking length. The hairiness of the Ainu has been much exaggerated. They are not more hairy than many Europeans although much hairier than Japanese.

Traditional Ainu culture was quite different from Japanese culture. Never shaving after a certain age, the men have full beards and moustaches. Men and women alike cut their hair level with the shoulders at the sides of the head, but trim it semicircularly behind. The women tattoo their mouths, arms, and sometimes their foreheads, using for colour the smut deposited on a pot hung over a fire of birch bark. Their traditional dress is a robe spun from the bark of the elm tree. It has long sleeves, reaches nearly to the feet, is folded round the body, and is tied with a girdle of the same material. Women also wear an undergarment of Japanese cloth. In winter the skins of animals are worn, with leggings of deerskin and boots made from the skin of dogs or salmon. Both sexes are fond of earrings, which are said to have been made of grapevine in former times, but are now purchased from the Japanese, as also are bead necklaces called tamasay, which the women prize highly. Their food is meat, whenever they can procure it -- the flesh of the bear, the fox, the wolf, the badger, the ox or the horse -- fish, fowl, millet, vegetables, herbs, and roots. They never eat raw fish or flesh, but always either boil or roast it. Their habitations are reed-thatched huts, the largest 20 ft. square, without partitions and having a fireplace in the centre. There is no chimney, but only a hole at the angle of the roof; there is one window on the eastern side and there are two doors. Public buildings do not exist, neither inns, meeting-places, nor temples. The furniture of their dwellings is exceedingly scanty. They have no chairs, stools, or tables, but sit on the floor, which is covered with two layers of mats, one of rush, the other of flag; and for beds they spread planks, hanging mats around them on poles, and employing skins for coverlets. The men use chop-sticks and moustache-lifters when eating; the women have wooden spoons. The Rev. John Batchelor[?], in his Notes on the Ainu (1901), says that he lived in one Ainu habitation for six weeks on one occasion, and for two months on another, and that he never once saw personal ablutions performed, or cooking or eating utensils washed.

There is no historic Ainu literature in the written sense, but there is a rich legacy of oral sagas, called Yukar[?].

No distinct conception of a universe enters into their cosmology. They picture to themselves many floating worlds, yet they deduce the idea of rotundity from the course of the sun, and they imagine that the "Ainu world" rests on the back of a fish whose movements cause earthquakes. It is scarcely possible to doubt that this fancy is derived from the Japanese, who used to hold an identical theory. The Ainu believe in a supreme Creator, but also in a sun-god, a moon-god, a water-god and a mountain-god, deities whose river is the Milky Way, whose voices are heard in thunder and whose glory is reflected in the lightning as well as object gods in pots and trees, etc. Their chief object of actual worship appears to be the bear. Miss Isabella Bird[?] (Mrs. Bishop) writes: "The peculiarity which distinguishes their rude mythology is the worship of the bear, the Yezo bear being one of the finest of his species. But it is impossible to understand the feelings by which this cult is prompted, for although they worship the animal after their fashion and set up its head in their villages, yet they trap it, kill it, eat it, and sell its skin. There is no doubt that this wild beast inspires more of the feeling which prompts worship than the inanimate forces of nature, and the Ainos may be distinguished as bear-worshippers, and their greatest religious festival or saturnalia as the Festival of the Bear. ... Some of their rude chants are in praise of the bear, and their highest eulogy on a man is to compare him to a bear." They have no priests by profession. The village chief performs whatever religious ceremonies are necessary; ceremonies are confined to making libations of wine, uttering short prayers, and offering willow sticks with wooden shavings attached to them, much as the Japanese set up the well-known gohei (sacred offerings) at certain spots. The Ainu people give thanks to the gods before eating and pray to the deity of fire in time of sickness. They think that their spirits are immortal, and that their spirits will be rewarded hereafter in heaven or punished in hell, both of which places are beneath the earth, hell being the land of volcanoes; but they have no theory as to a resurrection of the body or metempsychosis. The Ainu preserve a tradition about a flood which seems to be the counterpart of the Biblical deluge, and about an earthquake which lasted a hundred days, produced the three volcanoes of Yezo and created the island by bridging the waters that had previously separated it into two parts.

The Ainu are now governed by Japanese laws and judged by Japanese tribunals, but in former times their affairs were administered by hereditary chiefs, three in each village, and for administrative purposes the country was divided into three districts, Saru[?], Usu[?] and Ishikari[?], which were under the ultimate control of Saru, though the relations between their respective inhabitants were not close and intermarriages were avoided. The functions of judge were not entrusted to these chiefs; an indefinite number of a community's members sat in judgement upon its criminals. Capital punishment did not exist, nor was imprisonment resorted to, beating being considered a sufficient and final penalty, except in the case of murder, when the nose and ears of the assassin were cut off or the tendons of his feet severed. Little as the Japanese and the Ainu have in common, intermarriages are not infrequent, and at Sambutsu[?] especially, on the eastern coast, many children of such marriages may be seen.

Modern debate on the origins of the Ainu generally considers them Mongoloid, not Caucasian or proto-Caucasian[?] as held earlier. Some consider them Northern Caucasian along with the Ryukyu of Okinawa while the Japanese are Southern Mongolian. Recent genetic and morphological studies claim similiarities exist between the Ainu and American aborigines and between the Ainu and "Japanese" samurai.

Some outstanding research on Ainu culture and Ainu people were carried out by a Polish cultural anthropologist Bronislaw Pilsudski on the verge of 19th and 20th centuries.

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