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How the Most Mysterious Ethnic Group in the World Lives in Japan

The Ainu, or the Aynu, is an East Asian ethnic group indigenous to Japan. They love bears and they introduced the world to samurai culture. This ethnic group is so ancient, that even the Chinese are relatively young in comparison. And scientists still have no idea where the Ainu came from.

We at Bright Side absolutely adore mysteries, which is why we decided to collect the most impressive facts about the most mysterious people in the world.

  • The Ainu people appeared in Japan and Russia in the thirteenth century B.C.E. At the time, there was a prehistoric land bridge between America and Asia. To put this time period in perspective: the oldest Egyptian pyramid was built in the twenty-seventh century B.C.E.
  • Before the nineteenth century, the Ainu people almost didn’t come into contact with anyone aside from other ethnic groups that appeared at the same time. So they’re probably the oldest ethnic group in Europe and Asia.
  • The classic Ainu people are more like Europeans than Mongolians.
  • But at the moment, the Ainus are hard to tell apart from the Japanese. It’s because the Ainus were often discriminated against in Japan, which is why they tried to get married to the Japanese to make sure their children were safe.
  • Scientists still don’t have a clear answer as to where the Ainu people originated from. One theory says that they’re related to Caucasian people and another suggests a relation to Jomon, Okhotsk, and Japanese cultures.
  • Old Ainu people look very similar to portraits of Leo Tolstoy.
  • Male Ainus had (and some still have) long hair and long beards that they never shaved.
  • The Ainu women would get tattoos that were done gradually. At the age of 6 or 7, girls would get a tattoo on their upper lip that was altered over time. As a result, they would have something that looked like the Joker’s smile. It was believed that the ritual protected girls from evil spirits that tried to get inside the body through the mouth. Additionally, the “smile” indicated that the girl was ready for marriage.
  • In the nineteenth century, these tattoos were prohibited by the Japanese government, but some people still got them in secret.
  • The last Ainu woman with a tattoo on her face died in 1998. Today, you can see girls with the “smiles” that are drawn on for various cultural events.
  • Aside from the “smiles,” Ainu women had other tattoos that looked like geometric shapes that were supposed to protect them from evil spirits and diseases.
  • Since the moment the Ainus appeared on the Japanese islands, they always did the same things: hunt, fish, and gather.
  • They lived in pit houses, also known as chise. The largest were up to 376 square feet and had a fireplace in the center.
  • Bears played an important role in the lives of these people. Bears hunted, gathered berries, and caught fish not far from the places where the Ainus lived, which is why they developed spiritual beliefs around this animal. They even drew the god of the mountains in the form of a bear.
  • Archaeologists think that ancient Ainus even brought bears from Hokkaido with them.
  • Thanks to the Ainu people, samurais appeared in Japan. The Japanese that came to the islands formed a state, and the Ainus continued to live in tribes, sometimes attacking their more organized neighbors. So, several centuries later, the Japanese war squads that protected the northern borders formed what was later known as the samurai culture.
  • Not very long ago, the Ainus lived on a big part of Hokkaido, but at the end of the nineteenth century, the Japanese started to spread out more. On the one hand, the Ainus had their own land, didn’t pay taxes, and had their own hospitals and schools. On the other, many rituals (especially the ones that were really violent) were banned. As a result, the Ainus started to lose their cultural identity. The people that had existed for thousands of years came dangerously close to disappearing completely.
  • It wasn’t until the 21st century that the Ainu people returned to their cultural identity. In 2008, the Japanese government declared the Ainu indigenous to Japan and encouraged people to end the discrimination of this group. And in 2019, a law about this was adopted.
  • There are a lot of words in the Japanese language that were adapted from the language of the Ainus.
  • Currently, the Ainus are trying to restore their cultural identity. They even have their own flag. The blue background symbolizes the sky and the sea, and the white figure stands for the snow. Above all this, there is an arrow of an Ainu hunter. It’s red because it’s covered in the poison that the Japanese government prohibited them to use.

What other ethnic groups would you like to learn more about? Tell us in the comment section below!