The Ainu: Indigenous Archaeology in Japan

Contrary to the pervading myth that Japan is a homogeneous society, Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost island, is home to the indigenous Ainu people. While there is some controversy over their ancestry, they are thought to be closely related descendants of the Jomon people, who arrived in the Japanese archipelago via land bridge during the Jomon Period (about 14500-300 BCE). The Jomon people’s mixing with the Yayoi (likely migrants from continental East Asia) created the Yamato (or Wajin), which makes up the majority of modern Japan’s population.

Figure 1. An Ainu woman with a traditional mouth tattoo.

The Yamato drove the Ainu farther and farther North to Hokkaido, taking control of the area during the Tokugawa Shogunate (the Edo Period, 1803-1867 CE). In 1899, the Meiji Period imperial government began enforcing assimilation through the so-called Hokkaido Former Aborigines Protection Act, nearly driving the Ainu to extinction, until Japan lost World War II. As a result, many Ainu people had to hide their heritage for fear of discrimination and were stripped of much of their culture. Today, the Ainu language is on UNESCO’s endangered language list, and a 2013 survey shows about 16,786 self-identifying Ainu remaining in Hokkaido (though the actual number is estimated to be higher).

It was not until 1997 that the Japanese Diet replaced the Meiji government’s policy with the Ainu Culture Promotion and Dissemination of Information Concerning Ainu Traditions Act, which promoted cultural practices such as carving and dancing. In 2008, the government finally formally recognized the Ainu as a Japanese indigenous people.

As the stigma around the Ainu slowly began to wane and interest in their culture grow, more Japanese academics at Hokkaido University began to study them. Following its creation of the Center for Ainu and Indigenous Studies in 2007, the university conducted an excavation at Rebun Island, led by Indigenous Studies Professor Hirofumi Kato, off the northern coast of Hokkaido. There, archaeologists have been able to recover evidence of about 4,000 years of daily Ainu life. Thanks to sand calcium-rich from shell fragments, organic materials have been well-preserved, allowing archaeologists to study the ancient Ainu diet. Other such research has led to Takuro Segawa’s theory that the Ainu were involved in significant trade with the Japanese mainland and Northeast Asia, discrediting the image of the Ainu as an isolated people.

Figure 2. The Hamanaka 2 excavation site at Rebun Island.

Still, archaeological research on the Ainu needs reform, says Kato, as “Ainu studies have been undertaken ignoring the native point of view, and most studies have depended on descriptions of Ainu culture by non-native scholars” (Kato 2017). Moving forward, he emphasizes the need for more collaboration with local Ainu in research, as well as thorough consideration of their perspectives, especially in cases involving ancestral Ainu remains. “It is fully understood today that archaeology is a powerful tool for the creation of cultural identities in the past”, Kato writes, and “it should also be understood that archaeologists cannot operate in the absence of partnerships with host communities” (Kato 2017).





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Ōnishi, Hideyuki. “The Formation of the Ainu Cultural Landscape: Landscape Shift in a Hunter-Gatherer Society in the Northern Part of the Japanese Archipelago.” Journal of World Prehistory, vol. 27, no. 3/4, 2014, pp. 277–293.,

Nishimura, Yo. “Archaeologist awarded for Ainu trade theory.” The Japan Times, The Japan Times Limited, 1 March 2016, https:/A/

“Further research, museum, park, augur well for increased understanding of Ainu people, culture.” Hokkaido University, Hokkaido University, 26 December 2016,

“Law, the ainu, and changing perceptions.” Hokkaido University, Hokkaido University, 20 December 2016,

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Morris-Suzuki, Tessa. “The Ainu: Beyond the Politics of Cultural Coexistence.” Cultural Survival, Cultural Survival, December 1999,

“Archaeology of indigenous people: Reading stories buried in the Earth.” Hokkaido University, Hokkaido University, 15 April 2019,

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Kato, Hirofumi. “The Ainu and Japanese Archaeology: A change of perspective.” Japanese Journal of Archaeology 4 (2017): 185-190. 2019. Web. 22 Sept. 2019.


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2 thoughts on “The Ainu: Indigenous Archaeology in Japan

  1. You quote Kato, writing, “it should also be understood that archaeologists cannot operate in the absence of partnerships with host communities.” How do you feel about this? Do you think people can conduct archaeology on spaces they are unfamiliar with? Why is diversity important in archaeology?

    • Before conducting research on a new space, archaeologists should familiarize themselves with its history and people as much as possible and stay aware of internal bias as they do so. As long as they make their utmost attempts at this, I believe that they can conduct archaeology on unfamiliar spaces. Including the people related to or living in these spaces, as Kato pushes, is also vital, especially when they belong to marginalized communities such as indigenous peoples. Doing so would not only help the archaeologists understand the community’s perspectives, but encourage its members to pursue archaeology themselves, diversifying the field. That diversity would in turn allow for many different approaches and viewpoints in archaeology, as well as archaeological studies of a community by its own people to minimize ethnocentric and – in the case of indigenous peoples like the Ainu – colonial bias.

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