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(ī`no͞o), 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 HokkaidoHokkaido
, island (1990 pop. 5,643,515), c.30,130 sq mi (78,040 sq km), N Japan, separated from Honshu island by the Tsugaru Strait and from Sakhalin, Russia, by the Soya Strait. It is the second largest, northernmost, and most sparsely populated of the major islands of Japan.
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. 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).

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



a people on the island of Hokkaido, Japan. Population, approximately 20,000 (1967 estimate). They speak Japanese and the Ainu language. The Ainu, who until the 18th century also lived in Kamchatka and until the beginning of the 20th century on southern Sakhalin and the Kurile Islands, were assimilated by the Nivkh and the Itel’men; some of them were moved to Japan. In language and physical characteristics the Ainu greatly differ from the Japanese, but they do display a resemblance to the population of Southeast Asia. Their ancestors in the early Neolithic period apparently migrated from there to Japan, where they formed one of the oldest sectors of the population. The Japanese colonization of Hokkaido in the middle of the 19th century destroyed the traditional way of life of the Ainu, which was based on a settled hunting and fishing economy. On the island of Hokkaido the Ainu are gradually being assimilated by the Japanese.


Narody Vostochnoi Azii. Moscow, 1965.




the language of the Ainu, spoken principally on the island of Hokkaido (Japan).

Dialects of the Ainu language were also spoken on the Kurile Islands, on the Kamchatka Peninsula, and on the island of Sakhalin in the 18th and 19th centuries, but only isolated speakers of Ainu still live on Sakhalin. The exact number of speakers of Ainu is unknown, since the Ainu are being readily assimilated by the Japanese and use the Japanese language. The Ainu number about 20,000 (1967). The Ainu language features an absence of opposition of voiced and unvoiced consonants (b, d, and g appear only as positional variants, or allophones, of p, t, and k between vowels); the system of consonants is in general poorly developed. The Ainu language is agglutinative in structure, with suffixation predominating. It should be noted that indication of the singular or plural is optional in Ainu grammar, which places the Ainu language close to languages of an isolating structure. Ainu has a unique counting system based on twenties—90 is designated as “five twenties minus ten.” The genealogical ties of Ainu are not established. A considerable number of geographic terms on the Japanese islands can be traced to Ainu.


Dobrotvorskii, M. M. Ainsko-russkii slovar’. Kazan, 1875.
Pitsudski, V. Materials for the Study of the Ainu Language and Folklore. Kraków, 1912.
Batchelor, J. An Ainu-English-Japanese Dictionary, 4th ed. Tokyo, 1938.
Batchelor, J. A Grammar of the Ainu Language. Tokyo.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
References in periodicals archive ?
Resolution calling for the Recognition of the Ainu People as an Indigenous People of Japan (English translation).
Ainu elder Saki Toyama puts it this way: "The Japanese government and all of Japan must recognize that the Ainu people are still here, and that we are stronger than ever." Being granted indigenous status is a huge step in a country that was, until 1997, officially monoethnic, and the numbers of self-proclaimed Ainu in Japan could jump as the stigma once associated with this so-called "primitive" race fades.
TOKYO - The Ainu Association of Hokkaido on Wednesday asked the government at a panel meeting of experts discussing Japanese policy on the Ainu to set up a new law to support the livelihoods of Ainu people, the head of the panel said.
The Ainu people inhabited Hokkaido (Ezo), Sakhalin, northern Honshu, and the Kurile Islands prior to Japanese and Russian territorial expansion.
However, it remains to be seen if this movement will move beyond a "museum culture" to something more meaningful in the daily lives of Ainu people.
Moreover, Morihiro Ichikawa shows how evolving international norms helped move Japan to recognize special rights for the Ainu people, but those rights remain vague and untested.
With the Meiji revolution, the budding modern state of Japan annexed the Ryukyu Kingdom and changed it into the Okinawa prefecture, as part of a colonial expansion advanced similarly in Hokkaido (previously known as the land of the Ainu people), Korea and Taiwan.
The Ainu people, mostly inhabiting the northern island of Hokkaido, were denied a place in Japanese culture, while Okinawans, occupying the southernmost group of islands, were supposed to preserve some traces of ancient Japanese culture.
An added highlight to this year's festival was a presentation by the Ainu people who are the Indigenous people of Japan.
The Ainu people of Japan, a long-oppressed minority population, have an even more baffling heritage.
Their were able to tour Sapporo on Wilcox and Weisberg own, seeing the botanical garden, a museum of the indigenous Ainu people, and two modern art museums.