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Cultural Traces Around the World

The Ainu - Indigenous People of Japan

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The word Ainu means human in the Ainu language. Ainu mainly reside on Japan’s Hokkaido Island, with a very small number living in Russia. The traditional dress is comprised of a robe covered with geometric patterns. Genetic studies certainly reveal a fascinating picture of the Ainu people’s ancestry. It is thought that the Ainu are descendants of the Jōmon people whose culture flourished between 14,000 BC and 300 BC in what is now modern-day Japan. The Ainu have traditionally had a strong bond with the natural world. In the Ainu belief system, two worlds exist. One is the world of the kamuy or the world of the gods, and the other is the Ainu world. Souls are thought to reside within natural phenomena such as the trees, plants, and animals, and there is an emphasis on living in mutual respect with the kamuy. One place where a deep connection can be made with nature is Lake Akan, a serene crater lake in the Akan Mashu National Park in Eastern Hokkaido. It has been suggested that the traditional Ainu symbiosis with nature is symbolized at Lake Akan by the unique marimo algae balls that appear here. In the Ainu language, the balls are referred to as tokarip or torasampe. Traditional Ainu dance was designated as an important intangible folk-cultural property by the Japanese government in 1984, and was listed as an intangible cultural heritage of humanity by The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in 2009. The traditional style involves a large circle of dancers, sometimes with onlookers who sing an acapella accompaniment. Some dances imitate the calls and movements of animals or insects such as the Crane and Typhoon dance; other dances are in fact rituals. Believing that deities can be found in their surroundings, the Ainu frequently use dance to worship and give thanks to nature. Dancing was also done for entertainment and enjoyment. Another Ainu artform is the Yukar, or epic poetry. Epics, songs, and stories are how the Ainu passed on their knowledge to each new generation. Some of their oral literature, such as Yayerap, Sakorpe, Oyna, or Kamuy Yukar, have melodies. One of the musical instruments that the Ainu play is called the mukkuri. This mouth harp is usually made from bamboo or a single piece of wood. Another instrument is the tonkori, which experienced a revival in the last two decades. It is the only stringed instrument in the Ainu tradition. Oki Kano is widely regarded to be the most prominent tonkori player.
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