The Complicated Untold Story of Japan's Ainu People

Japan’s culture is deep and complex. That’s especially true for the Ainu people in the country's northern island of Hokkaido.

Historical photograph of a party of Ainu women in Monbetsu, Hokkaido, Japan, 1902.

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Every Wednesday on the Lost Cultures: Living Legacies podcast, host Alisha Prakash, Travel + Leisure's associate editorial director, explores a unique cultural identity around the world and shares how you can learn more about it on your travels, too.

The modern traveler’s vision of Japan typically consists of buzzing city streets in Tokyo, slow sips of sake in Kyoto, and trains so fast that they whiz by in the blink of an eye. But this is far too simplistic for a culture so rich in history. Japan’s culture is deep, complex, and sometimes complicated. That’s especially true for the Ainu people in the northern island of Hokkaido and the surrounding areas — an indigenous culture that predates even the idea of Japan itself. It’s a culture that’s faced great hostility. However, the people have fought back over the centuries to ensure their future generations would be heard. 

"When I talk about the Ainu, especially my interest, after the Meiji Restoration, after the colonization board was established, I cannot really tell the story without having tears or getting too emotional because it's just so sad," Dr. Kinko Ito, a professor at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock with a Ph.D. in sociology, shares. "There is an image of the Ainu, like powerless people, but this is an interesting thing…In spite of all the exploitation and oppression and bad things happening to them, they survived, and then they also thrived." 

Through thousands of years of forced assimilation, the Ainu still managed to preserve their culture, distinct language, and oral histories, which travelers can learn more about as well in dedicated museums and learning centers. 

"I see the value in these institutions as slowly helping the Japanese government kind of come to terms with its colonial past. Hopefully, there will be a day in which Ainu and the word 'discrimination' don't often go together,” Dr. Kirsten Ziomek, an associate professor of history at Adelphi University with a PhD in Japanese history, says. "The goal isn't to erase the past, but the goal is to move forward to a place of acceptance of what was done in the past — that that was wrong, that how we treat people who are different from what we stereotypically think represents Japan is important, and that we recognize Japan has this complicated history. It has a diverse population...There are populations within Japan that are not as represented, and they suffer from discrimination or negative attitudes. And so, I think that the importance for these institutions is [to help] everyone be aware that Japanese history is complicated."

To learn more about the Ainu, listen to Ito, Ziomek, and Prakash dive deep into the culture in Lost Cultures: Living Legacies, available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Amazon Music, and everywhere podcasts are available.

Editor’s Note: Please be mindful that this transcript does not go through our standard editorial process and may contain inaccuracies and grammatical errors.

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