The Ainu are original Japanese aborigines. For hundreds of years their existence was denied and their culture wiped out. In 1998 the Ainu were officially recognized in Japan.
In many countries of the world minority ethnic groups have often been pushed out of mainstream society and ignored, or even eradicated. Examples of this are the Australian Aborigines, The Roma populations of Europe and even the gypsy groups of Western Europe, but the Ainu of Japan are less well known.
The Ainu once inhabited all four of the main Japanese Islands, but they were persecuted and pushed northwards over the centuries. Originally they were native to Hokkaido, Sakhalin and the Kuril Islands. The actual word ‘Ainu’ means ‘human being’.
They are a different ethnic group to the Japanese and tend to have more Caucasian looking features, and far thicker and denser body hair. Unfortunately, these differences have almost disappeared over the years as they have been integrated with the ethnic Japanese.
Woman playing Ainu musical instrument. Source: Creative Commons. Wikipedia.
Between 1600 and 1889 the government of Japan held that the Ainu were just a group of aborigines who could easily be absorbed into the general community. They were not recognized as an indigenous group.
Ainu Museum exhibit. Source: Creative Commons Wikipedia.
Lands that had traditionally been inhabited and farmed by this group were taken by the government and the Ainu were declared Japanese citizens. This was in effect an attempt to strip them of their heritage and wipe out their language, culture and traditions.
The rich farm lands that had been worked by the Ainu were given by the government to any of the Wajin (ethnic Japanese people) who wanted to live on them. The two groups integrated and the ethnic differences of the Ainu, like body shape, hair coloring and texture, language and tradition, all but disappeared.
Ainu Band. Source: Creative Commons Wikipedia.
After the Second World War, in 1946, organizations were formed on each of the islands to fight for the restoration of the rights of the Ainu. The new Japanese democracy offered them legal rights in theory. Under the pressure that these groups put on the government the Ainu were given the right to follow their own traditions and culture and to have their own language.
However, the existence of the Ainu, a minority aborigine group, was still denied by the government. They had more or less said that if such a group existed it would have rights to follow its own culture, but it didn't.
In 1991 the government mentioned the Ainu as part of a document sent to the UN (United Nations), but still maintained that no such group existed in Japan.
In 1997 a law which made financial provision for the promotion of the culture of the Ainu was passed, but it was not until 1998 that the Ainu were officially recognized as a separate ethnic group. However, despite their legal status they are still treated as a group of uncivilized outsiders in their own country, and still have to fight for their rights under Japanese law.