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The Ainu are one of the Japanese indigenous people who live in Hotukaidou, Japan. Hotukaidou is about 30000 square miles and lies between 41 and 46 degrees north latitude, 140, and 16 degrees east longitude. Looking at a map, it is located along the same longitude as Nova Scotia (Inez, 7). Today, unfortunately, due to expansions of industrialization, economic transformation and Japanese government regulations, there are no longer any traditional Ainu communities in which people’s lives continue to depend on hunting, finishing, gathering and agriculture.

In this paper, I will take the perspective of an older woman who grew up with traditional Ainu ways of life in the early 19th century in Hotukaidou. In other words, I will examine the important key concepts for an older Ainu woman in the early 19th century. One of the reasons for this is to focus on key concepts of a traditional Ainu person’s life. Another reason is that most of the sources that I found were written in the early 19th century, and the people who are interviewed in those books are elders. The last reason is that, since there are different gender roles among Ainu people, I decided to focus on a woman’s perspective.

Ethnographies of Ainu people were written by both Japanese and
 Western scholars. According to the most adequate description that I found, Ainu people are described as follows:  

“The Ainu were, and many still are, saturated with animistic beliefs and these beliefs lead them to have recourse to ritual on so many occasions that some understanding of their relations with the spirit world is necessary for an adequate description of any aspects of their life. Social organization, health and home, hunting and fishing, festivals, disease, psychic ailments, medicines, birth, death and funeral observances-all demand some special reference to religious and magical procedures” (Seligman, 7). 

It is also valuable to note that the Ainu have no priesthood so that the head of a family carries out the traditional rituals. In addition, unlike in other religious traditions, the home is the place of worship for the Ainu people (Sugawara, 92). 

I found that the relationship between gods, human beings and things is the center of an Ainu elder woman’s life. Surrounding this central concept, there are other important key concepts. They are agriculture, sewing, a belt, tattooing, life after death and marriage. Based on my research, these are related to a woman’s main tasks in Ainu tradition, and I believe that these play an important role in an elder woman’s life.

Ainu means “human beings” in the Ainu language. They view the things that are useful to them and the things that human beings cannot change as god, Kamui. For example, they have “nature gods”(fire, wind, and thunder),“animal gods”(bear, fox, owl) and “plant  gods”  (mushroom,torikabuto). They also believe that there are gods for the things that they use in daily life such as kitchen utensils (Hotukaidou Museum, 2001). In the relationship among gods, human beings and things, each one depends on the other two. As gods have a duty to protect humans but retain the right to be compensated for this protection, humans have the right to receive the god’s protection yet are obligated to return their favours. To return their favours, people perform various rituals (Fitzhugh, 198). This concept is the central key concept of life of an elder Ainu woman.

Around this central concept, there is a woman’s task of agriculture. Spirit is the source that determines species, gender, character and ability in a particular being. For example, fishing, hunting and communications with Gods were men’s responsibility (Fitzhugh, 194). Batchelor explained that a woman’s responsibility is to raise crops as part of the housework, and men never took part in agriculture. He also noted that the cereals that the Ainu women raised were deccan grass, foxtail millet, Chinese millet, wheat, buckwheat and beans. Ainu women never fertilize the fields nor actively weed them because they are deemed as against nature and disrespectful to gods (Batchelor, 76). As we can see, there is a clear gender role due to the spirit of gods, and agriculture takes place with the caution of not upsetting the spirit of gods.

Sewing is also an important woman’s responsibility. Ainu clothing is a coat-like garment called the "attus" and every mother teaches her daughter traditional Ainu design motifs and how to make clothing (Fitzhugh, 320). Although originality is important, young girls learn traditional designs seriously because how well they design the family’s clothes will be judged for the rest of their lives. Ainu design also helps to keep away evil spirits (Fitzhugh, 292). Sewing is the woman’s task and this is done as a part of her housework.

                  For an Ainu woman, the belt, Kut, is very important. Kut means “most hidden things”; it is secret and is never seen even by her husband. Kut is vital for an Ainu woman because its design is the special family-specific pattern which was inherited from her mother and grandmother (Fitzhugh, 232). In addition, based on what kind of Kut she has, it proves her descent from a particular animal deity (Munro, 144). Although this Kut is kept unseen and untouched by others, only those who possess the same type of Kut  are allowed to touch it which leads to the notion of the kinship system.

There are many tattooed Ainu women. According to Ainu tradition, there is a good deal of bad blood in women, which must be taken out. Tattooing was therefore introduced as a means of letting some out in order to keep the body strong. Tattoo marks are placed especially upon the lips and arms because these are among the most conspicuous parts of the body. They are put there to frighten away the demons of disease. The wives of gods of heaven are similarly tattooed, so that when demons come and find the Ainu women marked in the same way, they mistake them for goddesses and flee (Batchelor, 50). Some women are happy to be tattooed, but the pain horrifies some of them. However, tattooing is one of the things that all Ainu women are expected to do.

        The age of marriage is 17-18 years old for men and 15-16 years for women,  who are tattooed. At  these ages, both sexes are regarded as adults. At the  wedding ceremony, participants pray to  the god of fire. The bride and the  bridegroom each eat half of the rice served in a bowl, and other participants are entertained (Batchelor, 15). The reason why I think marriage is one of the  key concepts of an elder Ainu woman is that a woman’s tasks change after marriage. After  marriage, a couple starts their  life with a new house and a woman is  expected to do all of the  woman’s tasks for the family, which symbolizes the  states of an adult woman.

The last important key concept of an elder Ainu woman is the concept of life after death. Ainu people believe that there is another world to which every Ainu person goes after death. According to an elder Ainu woman, “For us Ainu there is no heaven or hell. In the world after death, we Ainu live in much the same way as we did in the world of the living”(Hilger, 45). When an Ainu person gets old, a little house is built for her. This house is where she is going to live after she dies. Therefore, before she dies, she starts living in a little house to get used to the new house and to prepare new clothing and items that she needs when she goes to another world (Fujimoto, 33). I found that just as living as an Ainu person is important, dying as an Ainu person is also important. Dying at a very old age is preferred in Ainu tradition.

            Based on books that are written by western and Japanese anthropologists, interviews from Ainu women and web sites that are created by Ainu people, I made a judgement that the central key concept for an older Ainu woman is the relationship with Gods, human beings and things. This is because her everyday life of behaviour is based on this relationship. For example, when she is tattooed, when she grows crops in the field and when she is sewing, she is thinking about the relationship with gods, human beings and things. From the morning when she wakes up to the evening when she goes to bed, this central key concept is always in her mind and her behaviour is based on it.

            I think a belt, tattooing, agriculture, sewing, marriage and life after death are secondary key concepts. This is because although they are important for an old Ainu woman, they only play a role as rites of passage, which means they are occasional incidents. For example, while old Ainu woman is always thinking about the relationship between gods, humans and things, she will think about a belt, tattooing, agriculture, sewing, marriage and life after death when she is in the stage of these rites of passage.

As I have demonstrated above, an elder Ainu woman’s life is related to the relationship with Gods, human beings and things. In other words, everything that Ainu people do is connected to this relationship. They are equal, and the maintenance of their harmony is vital in Ainu tradition. Therefore, key concepts that I mentioned earlier were a woman’s tasks, which are all related to the spirit of gods and protection from evil spirits.


Hideo Fujimoto.1964. Ainu no Haka. Tokyo: Nihonkeizaishinbunsya 

Hitoshi Watanabe. 1973. The Ainu Ecosystem. Seattle: University of Washington Press  

Inez M. Hilger. 1971. Ainu, a Vanishing People. Oklahama : University of Oklahoma Press

 Fred C.C. Peng and Peter Geise. 1977. The Ainu: The Past in the Present. Hiroshima: Bunka Hyoron Publishing Company

 Neil Gordon Munro. 1963. Ainu. New York: Columbia University Press   

A .H. Savage Landor. 1893. Along with the hairy Ainu. London: William Clowes and Sons Limited

Sugawara Kousuke. 1966. Gendai no Ainu. Tokyo: Gendaisya 

The Ven. Dr. John Batchelor. 1971. Ainu life and Lore. Tokyo: Kyobunkwan

 William W. Fitzhugh and Chisato O. Dubreuil. 1996. Ainu. Los Angeles:  University of Washington Press

http://www.ainu-museum.or/jp/nynmon/nyumon.html by Hotukaidou  

Prefecture museum site, 2000.