The second largest minority group among Japanese citizens is the Ainu, who are thought to be related to the Tungusic, Altaic, and Uralic peoples of Siberia. Historically, the Ainu (Ainu means human in the Ainu language) were an indigenous hunting and gathering population who occupied most of northern Honshu as late as the Nara period (A.D. 710-94). As Japanese settlement expanded, the Ainu were pushed northward, until by the Meiji period they were confined by the government to a small area in Hokkaido, in a manner similar to the placing of native Americans on reservations. Characterized as remnants of a primitive circumpolar culture, the fewer than 20,000 Ainu in 1990 were considered racially distinct and thus not fully Japanese. Disease and a low birth rate had severely diminished their numbers over the past two centuries, and intermarriage had brought about an almost completely mixed population.
Although no longer in daily use, the Ainu language is preserved in epics, songs, and stories transmitted orally over succeeding generations. Distinctive rhythmic music and dances and some Ainu festivals and crafts are preserved, but mainly in order to take advantage of tourism.
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