Every eight to ten months, we run across a story more-or-less identical to this one lamenting the declining visibility of Japan’s Ainu minority. It’s certainly a sad tale, given that forced assimilation was the nation’s official policy throughout much of the twentieth-century. Yet the Ainu have received equally callous treatment from the West, particularly at the notorious 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis. There, a bevy of Ainus were “imported” to hang out at an ethnographic exhibit, much like zoo animals. (See above for a pair of Ainu shamans who were displayed in such a manner.) This exhibit took place just as Japan was emerging as Asia’s great power, and caused American racial theorists to fret over the plight of “Caucasians” such as the Ainu indicated that whites were “not biologically predestined to superiority.” (In a stroke of evil genius, the fair’s organizers also had the Ainu and other ethnic minorities square off in a bunch of quasi-athletic contests; Nate DiMeo has a great piece about those racial games here.)
Though the World’s Fair marked the Ainus introduction to most Westerners, the people actually first came in contact with Dutch explorers in 1634. This was during the period when Japan was close to exploration, but the Ainu’s home island of Hokkaido still wasn’t entirely under the shogun’s control. The Dutch were thus able to meet some curious fishermen, and jot down their initial impressions:
This people appears to have intelligence. Their beards are long, black, and strong. They have brown skin and their heads are shaved with the exception of a tuft of hair the size of two fingers, which rests at the front of the head. They put their hands together below their heads as a greeting. They are dressed in bear skins armed with bows and arrows…
They seem to have no government, no writing or books, and no one seems able to read or write. There appears to be bandits in some places who dominate the people. Most people have scars on their heads where they have been wounded.
Each man has two wives, who make clothing and cook for him…Both men and women like strong drink and very easily become drunken. They look wild, but they are so sincere and straightforward in their dealings with strangers that they must be considered civilized.
If you have a few moments, this brief documentary video sheds a bit more light on Ainu history and customs. Fun fact: contrary to the assumptions of American racialists, the Ainu’s DNA betrays no hint of Caucasian ancestry. But they do seem to share some genetic markers with the inhabitants of the extremely distant Andaman Islands. A result of pre-modern seafaring, or a long-ago landbridge?