The Japanese culture is often considered to be monolithic and ethnically homogeneous. The Japanese share the same history, the same language, the same creation myth, and a general worldview, but in particular, they share all those anthropological processes which give people the sense of who they are, and how they became what they are. Yet, the image of Japan as a monolithic culture stems from an endless search for identity, both cultural and national. In such a context, cultural minorities who opposed the imperial ethno-nationalism were segregated in their own geographic and ethnic enclaves.
One of those lands was the northern Michinoku region (modern Tōhoku) that were inhabited by populations known as Emishi. According to 8th-century chronicles, Emishi were hunter-gatherer tribes who lived in pits in winter and in huts in summer, they drank blood, and concealed arrows in their topknots. They spoke their own language, and were physically different in appearance, being “hairy” (kebito, 毛人),”bearded”, and tattooing their body.
These “eastern barbarians” were warriors of fierce temper, skilled archers, who rode and traded their fine horses. They developed a unique style of warfare which consisted of horse archery and hit-and-run tactics. The first Japanese attempts to subjugate them were unsuccessful because of Emishi military skills, but the imperial armies were able to assimilate Emishi strategies and defeat them at the end of the 8th century. Some tribes became fushu (allies), while others remained hostile (iteki). The contrast with these “frontier” peoples characterized the evolution of Japan from an emerging force to a unified empire.
While most Emishi groups were culturally incorporated into the Japanese empire, some of them moved further north: from the center of the modern Tōhoku region, where the settlements were mostly concentrated, to the Shimokita peninsula, and eventually to Hokkaidō. In the 11th century, indigenous people living on the northern island were recognized as Ezo, that is, the inhabitants of Ezochi (Hokkaidō): they were the ancestors of the Ainu.
Japan’s far north became a land of critical identity processes, where its inhabitants had to face down the overwhelming influence of Imperial Japan. But it was also a land of cultural creativity, where both the Emishi and the Ainu established their “humanities” in relation to the historical context and the geographical environment.
An Ainu legend narrates that a long time ago there was a husband and a wife. Suddenly, the husband died, leaving his wife alone without children. One day, a spirit with the external form of a man appeared to the wife and informed her that she would have a son and would no longer be alone. The spirit was the god of the mountains (a bear) and their son became the father of many children. Therefore, many of the Ainu living among the mountains were descendants of the bear.
The Ainu believed that all the things have a kamuy (spirit or god). Among kamuy, one of the most important is Kim-un-kamuy, the kamuy of bears and mountains. This legend and all the other Ainu representations of the bear attest the deep connection of the Ainu and their ancestors with Hokkaidō, that is, they all shared the same land with the ferocious predator. The bear is converted into a symbolic structure of the Ainu culture, and it becomes part of their identity.
While Emishi culture died out centuries ago, the Ainu language and traditions are now critically endangered, according to UNESCO. The Ainu have been ignored, exploited, discriminated against, and compelled to assimilate into the Japanese society. Their identity has been completely denied by the Japanese ethno-nationalism. Being Ainu should have been a significant aspect of one’s subjectivity, but it ended up being the illusory image of a negated and vanishing culture. Nowadays, the Ainu are still fighting for their existence and only in 2008, they were recognized as indigenous people of Japan.
Yet, Emishi, Ezo, and Ainu are all indigenous peoples of Japan. Although the Emishi culture began to disappear during the 11th century, and their last descendants became part of the Japanese warrior class, the Emishi and their descendants had a central role in the shaping of a Japanese identity. The common image of Japan as a monolithic culture actually derives from cultural diversity, conquests, and assimilation. And it’s really important to listen to all the voices of this diversity.
The Ainu identity is passed on through talking and performing. With Tribalingual you help revitalize the Ainu culture by learning their worldview and language. You can explore their hidden stories and traditions, talking directly with our first-hand cultural experts, and you can prevent the disappearance of a culture that would deprive our humanity of its richness and diversity.