History and Culture of the Ainu

By Penelope Morris

One common misconception many people have about Japan is that the majority of its culture consists of anime and other pop culture trends; however, with even a small amount of further research, one can see that one of the most beautiful things about Japan is its juxtaposition of old and new, of traditional and modern, of secluded temples and bustling cities. While these two elements seem to coexist peacefully, there is one part of Japan that has been somewhat left out of the balance: the Ainu. 

During class in Japanese Tamago, we have been learning about different regions of Japan and their subcultures, and recently we “travelled” to the land of the indigenous Ainu people. The Ainu are descendants of migrants from what is now Mongolia and are the original inhabitants of Hokkaido, the northernmost of the major Japanese islands. Similarly to Native Americans’ experience in the United States, they have gone through harsh discrimination from the government: after the Jomon period, Japanese began to expand their territory northward from western Japan, and the Ainu were forced to either assimilate or be displaced to Hokkaido. More recently, during the Meiji period, they were granted the status of “former aboriginals,” but were still not treated equally. In the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, a series of progressive steps have been made, including a 1997 law for the provision of funds to promote and research Ainu culture, a 2014 manga featuring Ainu characters, and finally in 2019, the formal recognition of the Ainu as an indigenous people of Japan.

Although the Ainu have been discriminated against, they have maintained a unique culture. To start, their language is quite different from Japanese, and is classified as “nearly extinct” by the UN. Additionally, Ainu craftsmen are known for their beautiful wood carvings and traditional robes, which are made from the inner bark of elm trees. 

One aspect of Ainu culture that I found particularly interesting was the practice of women tattooing their lips. The marks, called shinue, are started when a girl is young with just a small spot on the upper lip and are added to with age. While the reason women began applying shinue is unknown, some theories include that they are viewed as a symbol of beauty, a means of protecting the body after death, or even a way to prevent being kidnapped by Japanese. Unlike modern tattoos, they are created by rubbing soot of burnt tree bark into an incision in the skin. During the Meiji era, the practice was banned, and though it never recovered its former popularity among the Ainu, some modern women like Ainu artist Mayunkiki (see first link below) wear shinue to show and connect to their cultural heritage.

An Ainu woman wearing shinue and traditional clothing. Image credit to Sora News.

Despite the many struggles they have gone through, the Ainu still fight today to be acknowledged for the recognition that their unique and endangered culture deserves. If you’d like to learn more about the Ainu, here are some articles and videos:

https://dajf.org.uk/event/the-meaning-of-tattoos-for-ainu-women

https://www.tofugu.com/japan/ainu-japan/

https://soranews24.com/2016/02/23/everything-you-wanted-to-know-about-the-ainu-with-photos-and-video

3-11: Ten Years Later

To mark the 10th anniversary of the Great East Japan Earthquake on 3-11-2011, the students in our online Japanese Tamago program used video and other resources to learn about the horrific events that unfolded that day. The goal was to help our DC students connect with the experience and the residents of Tohoku, and to try to imagine themselves in the moment. Here are some of their immediate responses.

By Zoe Roell

Ground splits
Black waves
Homes fall
Lives collapse
Wreckage
The world grieves

By Hallie Munsat

In 2011, an earthquake and tsunami occurred on the pacific coast of Tohuku in Japan. The magnitude of the earthquake came to be 9.0-9.1. This terrible tragedy turned out to be the most recent deadliest earthquake. It left almost 16,000 people dead, about 6,000 injured and 2,500 people missing. Now ten years after the fact it’s still left many people unstable emotionally and financially. I cannot even begin to imagine what being in that situation is like. It’s bad enough to experience it in the moment, it’s worse to live with it for the rest of your life. This was an event that couldn’t really have been prevented. It’s terrifying to go through things you can’t control and it takes time to process things like that. We have to be gentle to ourselves and others during hard times and we have to be there for each other to listen, and to support. Because of the severity of this event, many people in the same community went through the same thing. There’s always someone to listen to or understand because no one is alone.

By Penelope Morris

At first, I almost couldn’t believe that three events that would by themselves have been horrific to deal with, all happened simultaneously and hurt so many people. But the damage was right there in front of my eyes.

By Kourtney Beauvais

My initial reaction to the film of 3/11 was shock. I wasn’t aware of how fast the devastation occurred, and couldn’t imagine what it would feel like to be there. With the recurring earthquakes, I assume that the residents of the area had very conflicting emotions, flicking back and forth between hope and desperation and fear. It makes me wonder if they were thinking about what was happening in the present, what the future consequences would be, or a mixture of both. It was also saddening to think of the feeling of loss, not only of belongings and a familiar landscape, but of their family, friends, and community.

By Sakarrio Moore

I’ve never experienced any tragedy of this magnitude, and I literally can’t imagine the physiological response of people who lived there. I just feel so sorry. I imagine that in the instant, people would have just felt as if the world itself was against them.

By Akesh Mallia

My reflection on 3-11 is that it was really heartbreaking to see so many lives impacted by something as uncontrollable as nature. I thought it was especially scary when the tsunami hit the people trying to escape by car, those people couldn’t even evacuate. And the impacts of the natural disasters are very much still present today, especially with the nuclear meltdown which I think shows the scale of the earthquake. I hope safety measures and public awareness measures are being put in place to prevent this type of event from happening again. 

By Owen Strasberg

I found it interesting how initially even though the situation seemed very chaotic, people were handling it calmly (like when everyone was evacuating). It was sort of scary though to think that whatever high ground people stayed at was where they would have to be for the whole thing, and you would just have to hope it was safe enough.

By Dara Lira

If I previously lived in Japan, I would probably not pay much attention to the earthquake at first. However, as the day progresses, I would become more scared, confused, disturbed, and shocked at the events unfolding before me. A matter of life or death such as this terrifies me, and I can hardly imagine what this was actually like, especially seeing as I’ve never been in an earthquake before. 

By Chamiya Carnathan

The amount of earthquakes that appeared continuously during March 11 was mind blowing to me. I can’t imagine how scary the situation must have been for everyone inhabiting that area. Earthquakes are common in Japan and I wonder if the inhabitants living in the affected area thought that it would be a regular occurrence. I truly cannot imagine the fear of earthquakes that were that large being struck down on me. The biggest takeaway that I gained from watching the video and map is that you have to go to high ground. Don’t worry about taking pictures and videos or watching what’s happening. Worry about your own safety and go to high ground.

By Camila Marryshow

If anyone had known March 11, 2011 would have submerged entire towns in water along with thousands of other civilians fighting for their lives, there would have been preventative action to protect the people along Japan’s east coast. But there was no way of knowing the events that would unfold within those 24 hours. 

Employees worked to earn their pay to support themselves and their families. Graduations occurred. Earning diplomas, congratulating friends, and celebrating achievements of other students would soon be replaced with sheltering in place under desks, evacuating school and office buildings, and rushing to higher ground to ensure safety. Some walked away with missing friends while others without families to provide for. Some could not walk away from their cars with water impeding their ability to escape while others would never walk the Earth again. The tsunami stripped towns of commerce, buildings, history, and many of its residents. 

Within 24 hours, several earthquakes evolved into a 9.1-magnitude earthquake that generated waves many meters high devastating hundreds of square miles of Japanese land. Over 120,000 buildings were destroyed. More than 100,000 people lost their homes. Nearly 20,000 people died. 

The Tohoku region of Japan along with other coastal areas have worked over the past ten years to rebuild Japan and provide housing to those who are in need. The survivors who witnessed the events of that day will be able to not only recount the suffering numerous people endured, but can speak of the recovery and progress the Japanese people have made from the rubble of the tragedy.