Long before the people who would come to
be known as "the Japanese" completed their
migrations from the Asia mainland, the islands
of Japan were already inhabited by a race of
people known as the Ainu.

These early hunting and fishing groups were driven
northward in a series of military campaigns waged
against them by the technically advanced warrior
clans from Asia. The Ainu's retreat eventually
ended in Hokkaido where they attempted to
continue their customs, religious rituals
and way of life.

On this northernmost island, in the "snow
country," there still may be found remnants of this
once proud and vigorous people who roamed
the Japan islands long before the
"Japanese" themselves arrived.

Unfortunately, too little is known of these native
people since they have no written language and
once the spoken word is gone, there is nothing
left. Governmental and private efforts to document
the ways of the Ainu also began quite late.

The first comprehensive attempt to study Ainu culture was not undertaken until 1968 and by that time, the Ainu population had already dwindled considerably and they themselves had, in large part, begun assimilating with the Japanese and became absorbed into the general population.

Some anthropologists have viewed the Ainu's round eyes, curly eyelashes and abundant body and facial hair (a feature most notably lacking in most Mongoloids) as evidence of Caucasoid ancestry while others argue for a link with the bushmen of Australia. Today, many anthropologists believe that the Ainu may be a separate race; recent findings suggest that the Ainu may be the last survivors of a people who inhabited the islands of Japan for at least 7,000 years.

"Hairy Ainu" is the phrase Japanese use to
describe these people; today, it is perhaps more
appropriate to term these aborigines of Japan, the
"vanishing Ainu."

Hunting and fishing sustained them and the bear
figured prominently in their festivals and religious
rites as well.The bear was central to their lives; its
meat was their food, its fur their clothing, and from
its bones, they fashioned tools and weapons. In
many ways, the bear and the Ainu shared a
relationship similar to that of the bison and the
Plains Indian of the western United States.

Ainu legends, customs and festivals have no
counterpart anywhere else in Japan and although
the government specifically prohibited certain Ainu
customs and practices which it felt were cruel and
barbaric, many were slow to be abandoned.

One such rather unusual custom was the first
tattooing of a girl's lips at puberty (the process was
later completed at around age seventeen or
eighteen); Ainu women submitted to this facial
coloration to signify that they were ready for
marriage. Men came of marriageable age when
their beards had grown to full length.

Government edicts prohibiting lip tattooing were
issued as early as 1871 but some Ainu women
continued to have it done secretly until fairly recent
times; one can still see women in their sixties and
seventies with the purple lip tattoo.

This custom, now extinct, is rapidly being joined
by many other practices as the Ainu themselves
move along the road to extinction. Perhaps 20,000
people today can claim some Ainu heritage;
however, estimates of full-blooded individuals
range from a few hundred to a few dozen.

Ainu, or those claiming to be Ainu, may still
be seen in various scenic locales in Hokkaido
where hot springs are found and where tourist
bureaus have advertised the scenic beauty of the
region and the comfort of first class hotels.

Here, one can listen to Ainu women sing
their songs and play their bamboo "jaw harps"
while the men can be seen carving wooden
souvenirs for the tourist trade; posing for
snapshots with weekend visitors also
augments the Ainu's income.

For a few dollars, it is still possible for the tourist,
Japanese or Western, to be garbed in full Ainu
regalia and photographed standing proudly
alongside a "real" Ainu and for an additional
sum, they will even add a stuffed bear!