The people currently known as the Japanese weren’t the aboriginals of the island.

Native Americans are to the Americas, Africans are to Africa, and Europeans are to, well, … Europe? They are considered to be the natives or aboriginals. However, Japan holds a reputation for being a homogeneous state of its inhabitants. Spoiler Alert: that’s not true! The people who would eventually become the Japanese we know today, weren’t natives; and probably migrated overseas about 2,300 years ago. Well, the aboriginal people of Japan might have been living on the island for as long as human civilizations started. Dear friends, meet the Ainu people.

Related media: AINU: Indigenous Peoples In Japan

A Familiar Story; A Forgotten People

Today, the Ainu are roughly a paltry population of 25,000. That’s quite fair of an aboriginal society. However, the decimation of the Ainu is probably due to centuries of discrimination and forceful assimilation, which has led to most Ainu hiding their identity — or worst, simply not being aware of it. In 2008, the Japanese government officially recognized the existence of the Ainu as an indigenous people, although their distinct language, culture, and religion have survived for millennia.

The Ainu language — yes, that’s a thing — however, is unrelated to any other known dialect in the world, and their culture is pretty much weird in their own rite. (No offense!) And, (you guessed it) they also look physically different from the stereotypical perceived population of Japan. Their hair is quite blonde somehow red, thick and curly, their eyes range from brown to blue, and their skin is paler than the stereotypical Japanese.

And as a result, they’ve been stigmatized for their indifference regardless. As of the time Japan became a country, the Ainu people had been relegated farther north to the island of Hokkaido. But as the dawn of the 20th century, the Japanese government under the Meiji Restoration, had their traditional lands taken away from them; and their language and cultural practices outlawed. Sounds familiar?

The Mysteries Of An Ancient Origin

Whence cometh the Japanese? Obviously, they might have come over from the mainland, looking at how similar they look in common with neighboring Asians. As early as the 14th millennium B.C.E., there were people inhabiting the large central island of Honshu. This period of time is known as the Jōmon, or cord-marked — after the particular patterns on the pottery of the time.

Image: Kaen-Heritage | Some selected pottery artifacts of the Jōmon people.

And we also know that the Jōmon weren’t the last to migrate to Japan; as most people now believe that the Ainu and the Jōmon are one and the same. Does it make sense? If the Ainu were the descendants of an ancient people that predated modern Japanese society, and the Jōmon were inasmuch as the Ainu, then … well, that make sense. One evidence is the fact that both the Ainu and Jōmon were hunter-gatherers — with neither of them practicing widespread agriculture.

A Twist Of Origin And Culture

Image: Anthony Kuhn / NPR | Archaeological workers dig for historical artifacts on the former site of the Jyokyo-ji temple in Kyoto.

Here’s the catch: it seems there isn’t much evidence of Ainu culture that suggests that the Jōmon had mastered pottery; and also, the Ainu built permanent settlements, unlike the Jōmon, and even had tools made of metal. In , archeologists discovered a seed repository in southern Hokkaido. This suggests that the Ainu were practicing agriculture several thousand years ago — an indication that severed the link between them and the Jōmon.

We must confess: we know not where the Ainu originate from, than to say Japan. But we know that their cultural identity is important as much as every ethnic is; and its time they rightfully receive that acknowledgement.

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Written by: Nana Kwadwo, Wed, May 29, 2019.


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