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The Ainu (a word meaning "human" in the Ainu language), are an ethnic group indigenous to Hokkaido and the northern part of Honshu in Northern Japan, as well as the Kurile Islands and the southern half of Sakhalin Island. There are over 150,000 Ainu today, however the exact figure is not known as many Ainu hide their origins or in many cases are not even aware of them, their parents having kept it from them so as to avoid racism. 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.

In ancient times they were fierce fighters, able to offer a stout resistance to the better armed. As the Japanese moved north and took control over their traditional lands, the Ainu often gave up without resistance, but there was occasionally resistance as exemplified in wars in 1457, 1669, and 1789, which each time were lost by the Ainu. 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 in general 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. Instead of using chairs or tables, they 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.

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

They believe there are many floating worlds and that "Ainu Mosir", or the land of the humans (as opposed to "Kamui Mosir", the land of the gods), rests on the back of a fish whose movements cause earthquakes. The Ainu believe that everything in nature has a "kamui" (spirit or god) on the inside. 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. The Ainu people give thanks to the gods before eating and pray to the deity of fire in time of sickness. They believe 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.

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. Intermarriages between Japanese and Ainu 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 the Ryukyu Islands, while the Japanese are believed to be Southern Mongolian. Recent genetic and morphological studies claim similiarities exist between the Ainu and Japanese.

Perhaps the only book relating the epic songs of the Ainu in English is "Songs of Gods, Songs of Humans: The Epic Tradition of the Ainu", North Point 1982 and University of Tokyo Press 1979, by Donald L. Philippi.

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