The Ainu, Japan’s native aboriginal people, are very much an isolated people, living now only in the northern island of Japan, Hokkaido. They number, as of a 1984 survey, 24,381, continuing a rise from a low point in the mid nineteenth century due to forced labor and disease, and have largely left their old ways and integrated into standard Japanese society, though even the majority of those still reside in Hokkaido. The animistic religion of the Ainu is firmly enmeshed with every other aspect of the culture.
Family and Kinship
Most Ainu organize in groups of nuclear families, the nuclear family being the basic social unit (Encyclopedia). Some groups, however, have extended families, but are not as common. Families are both patrilineal and matrilineal, the sons inheriting the father’s clan and the daughters inheriting the mother’s clan (. Both males and females do not marry cousins, but only from their mother’s family (Encyclopedia). Also, polygyny is practiced by the higher-status males in a community (Encyclopedia). During the bear ritual, relatives of the host in other settlements usually come to participate (Encyclopedia). Marriages traditionally were either arranged or of mutual consent (Museum, Life 1). Also, as a result of the twentieth century’s attempted Japanese integration, often through exogamy, now not even a third of all Ainu have four Ainu grandparents (Bowring 244).
The Ainu traditionally were hunters and gatherers, but rather than wandering nomadically, they settled in one location, on one section of a river, where they could fish and hunt (Museum People). However, in more recent times, Ainu seeking to integrate into Japanese society have taken jobs in Japanese factories, some even leaving the island of Hokkaido to pursue an occupation elsewhere in more urban Japan (Dab 8). During the 70s Ainu revival, many intellectual Ainu saw an opportunity to spread their ideas and oral traditions in print, and were not ignored, providing financial support for the Ainu arts (Dab 10).
As an indigenous and oft-oppressed people, forced back by the Japanese for centuries from their native lands to only the Northern part of Japan’s Northernmost island, the Ainu did not focus on politics outside of their community, especially in Japan’s blindly homogenous culture. “After World War II, the first Ainu political part, the Sinei Undo, had formed and though it only counted 5% of Ainu among its members it was the largest political association of Ainu at the time, and had branches in the major Ainu communities” (Dabb 10). In their settlements, Ainu usually have a single male decision-making leader per settlement, who makes his decisions with the advice of the elders in the settlement (Encyclopedia).
The elders are opposed by shamans, who, frequently being female, allow for more of a sexual balance of power in the settlement. A few groups of small settlements are under the control...