Importance of the Ainu People in Japanese History

Updated on October 12, 2015
A woman gives a demonstration of Ainu music in traditional garb.
A woman gives a demonstration of Ainu music in traditional garb. | Source

Who Are the Ainu?

The Ainu were a composite society of indigenous peoples who inhabited most of Hokkaido and the surrounding islands, historically. Like the Native Americans, the Ainu are the indigenous inhabitants of Japan, and some groups are still living today and practicing the cultural traditions of their ancestors. Due to ethnic prejudice, many people of Ainu descent have hidden their roots and very few still speak the Ainu language. Sadly, that prejudice has even infiltrated the academic field of history in many ways.

Importance of the Ainu

The Ainu are generally viewed by Japanese scholars and historians as peripheral and unimportant to Japanese history. In fact, they are typically omitted from standard histories of Japan. But in reality, the Ainu were continuously engaged in cultural, economic, and environmental exchanges with Japan which were deeply relevant to the development of both Japanese and Ainu societies. That interaction was a critical event which must be recognized and examined in order to form a full picture of the history of Japan.

This graphic depicts the territories known to have been occupied by the Ainu historically.
This graphic depicts the territories known to have been occupied by the Ainu historically. | Source

The Ainu and the Formation of the Japanese State

One of the reasons that the Ainu are so important to the history of Japan is that they inhabited an area that became part of present-day Japan. The Ainu lands, referred to as Ezo at the time, included most of Hokkaido and its surrounding islands; not an insignificant chunk of territory. But Japan did not exist as a nation at all during the Edo Period, and its formation as such was not inevitable. Rather, the expansion of Japanese control into Ainu lands took place primarily through trade and pacification wars.1

The Ainu and Foreign Trade

Ainu trade was much more critical than it is typically credited for by many present-day historians. Ainu groups were engaged in significant international trade with Russia, China, Korea, and sometimes independent pirates. During the Sengoku Period, daimyo and political leader Toyotomi Hideyoshi demonstrated his awareness of this substantial foreign trade, having been informed by a missionary, Luis Frois. Frois explained to him that the Korean, Tartar, and Jurchen people often interacted and traded with the Ainu in Ezo.1 This knowledge motivated Hideyoshi, and later his successor Tokugawa Ieyasu, to slowly tighten trade restrictions on the Ainu during the late Sengoku and early Edo era.

Hideyoshi Tightens Restrictions on the Ainu

One of the first ways in which Hideyoshi extended his authority over Ainu trade was to issue the right to raise shipping duties to a loyal family in southern Hokkaido, the Kakizaki family. He granted daimyo Yoshihiro a vermilion-seal order, which was a document of the highest authority, that permitted him to collect shipping levies in Ezo.1 This executive order brought Ainu lands partially under the taxation of Hideyoshi's state with the unsubtle threat of 100,000 warriors to enforce the levies and crush any opposition.1

Tokugawa Ieyasu Further Restricts Ainu Trade

After Hideyoshi's death, the Kakizaki family offered themselves to Tokugawa as vassals and changed the family name to Matsumae. Under Tokugawa, the Matsumae gained further control over Ainu trade. They were granted exclusive trade rights in a black-seal order directly from Tokugawa Ieyasu.1 This order prevented anyone from trading with the Ainu without the expressed consent or explicit permission of the Matsumae Shima-no-kami,1 effectively cutting off the Ainu people from free access to foreign trade. It also prevented any Japanese person from crossing into Ainu territory without Matsumae permission; in order for the Ainu to continue to trade freely with Japanese people, they would be forced to travel into Japanese territory, becoming subject to Japanese laws. These restrictions on people who considered themselves free and independent of the Japanese state made military conflict inevitable.

Example of an Ainu knife made from carved deer antler and metal.
Example of an Ainu knife made from carved deer antler and metal. | Source

The Ainu Become a Military Threat

The Ainu became militarily significant as a threat to the Japanese state when the Matsumae family became embroiled in the in-fighting of leaders of separate Ainu groups. This fighting broke out as a result to the Matsumae trade restrictions. The harsh economic policies and unfair exchange rates culminated in the Ainu leaders lashing out.1 The Ainu depended heavily on trade and still viewed themselves as a free people who could trade with whom they pleased when they wished.1 As trade exchanges became increasingly unfair, Ainu groups began to fight amongst themselves for access to fisheries, hunting grounds, and other sources of raw materials. The Matsumae moved in to control these disputes in order to protect their gold mines and restore order, allying themselves with one of the Ainu factions, the Onibishi. Their rivals, Shakushain and his supporters, extended their rivalry to include the Matsumae family, becoming a threat to the Japanese state. In response, the Edo shogunate ordered vassal Matsumae Yasuhiro to lead the Matsumae armies against Shakushain. The Tokugawa government clearly viewed Shadushain and his rebellion as a threat to the stability of the Japanese state in general, and responded accordingly.

Strategic Importance of the Ainu Lands

Hokkaido was also a militarily strategic location for the rest of Japan, and its position made it desirable for Hideyoshi and Tokugawa to control. Many Tokugawa officials feared that Jurchen and Tartar unification wars in Orankai would spill over into Ezo resulting in social upheaval and a foreign military threat.

Hideyoshi had further reason to be interested in Hokkaido. During the Sengoku Period, Ezo was believed to be connected to the Eurasian continent by land, making it ideal for his planned invasion of Korea.1 He saw it as imminently valuable to his dream of conquest and imperial rule over mainland Asia, which motivated a great deal of his political interactions with the Lords of Ezo, and specifically the Kakizaki family.1

This is a traditional Japanese writing set, which was necessary for creating bureaucratic documents. The animal hair for the brush and adhesive for the ink would both have been produced by the Ainu during the Sengoku and Tokugawa periods.
This is a traditional Japanese writing set, which was necessary for creating bureaucratic documents. The animal hair for the brush and adhesive for the ink would both have been produced by the Ainu during the Sengoku and Tokugawa periods. | Source

Economic Importance of the Ainu

The Ainu also produced trade goods which were very influential to Japan's economy. They acquired trade goods primarily through hunting, gathering, and fishing. Their animal products were of particular significance; bones, fur, and other items were used in creating a vast array of artisan goods. For example, Japanese calligraphy brushes required hair from horses, raccoons, goats, and other animals in order to create the perfect shape. The process of constructing the brushes also required the use of soft leather animal skins. Ink and resin were made with animal byproducts as well. The black pigments for writing and calligraphy were mixed with boiled glue from animal bones, which caused the ink to adhere to the paper. Products like ink and paper were indispensable to the growing bureaucracy of the Tokugawa era, and helped with its maintenance on a basic level.

The Ainu and the Japanese State

Despite many political and economic embroilments, Ezo was still considered separate from Japan. One shogunal official noted that the Matsumae lords were more 'chiefs of Ezo Island' than Japanese officials and that Matsumae was basically 'outside our country'.1 This ambiguous status meant that the Ainu lands were considered domestic for some purposes, and foreign for others. For example, the Matsumae were vassals of Tokugawa, but they did not have the same administration structure as other vassals. The unique relationship of the Ainu lands to the Tokugawa government during this period is truly fascinating.

Do you think the Ainu are important to Japanese history?

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  1. Walker, Brett L. The Conquest of Ainu Lands: Ecology and Culture in Japanese Expansion,1590-1800. University of California Press, 2006.

Questions & Answers


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      • profile image

        Jay 10 months ago

        Anna, I don't think any scholars now doubt that Ainu were living in northern Honshu. Did you notice the map that Kirwan put up on the page? I'm not sure who came to Honshu itself first, but Ainu settled the north first. As for the island itself, I've yet to see any article that claimed definitive one way or another (I last looked into it in 2005, so either my memory is foggy on this or I've missed new information).

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        anna 4 years ago

        The Ainu are the indigenous people of Hokkaido and the surrounding islands, not the indigenous people of Japan. When you say they are the indigenous people of Japan, you make it sound like the Japanese (Yamato) people came over from some other place and colonised it... The Yamato people are indigenous to Japan. They colonized the northern island which we now know as Hokkaido, where the Ainu people are originally from.

      • Christy Kirwan profile image

        Christy Kirwan 4 years ago from San Francisco

        Thanks! I have a degree in History, so I find a lot of this stuff really interesting! I often write history Hubs on subjects I studied in college. Glad you enjoyed it-- and you're absolutely right, a lot of the relationships between the Japanese state and the Ainu are VERY similar to the systematic disenfranchisement of Native Americans in the U.S. It's a sad history, but one that needs to be acknowledged.

      • tillsontitan profile image

        Mary Craig 4 years ago from New York

        Another interesting hub Christy. Where on earth do you come up with these intriguing subjects?

        There are many similarities between the American Indian and the Ainu People.

        Voted up, useful, and interesting.