The Ainu, At the Origins of Japan

The Ainu people lived on the Japanese archipelago as far back as 1300 BCE. Beginning in the Meiji era (1868-1911), they became victims of systemic marginalization by the dominant Yamato ethnic group and found themselves increasingly sequestered to the northernmost island of the country, Hokkaido. These original inhabitants were primarily fishers and hunters, following in traditions centered on animism.
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American Museum of Natural History, New York, USA
This ethnic group also developed artisanal practices of remarkable beauty and distinctive style, emphasized in work in carved wood, hides and textiles. Women were responsible for clothing production in their communities, excelling especially in the production of the village chiefs’ garments. The clothing of the Ainu attests to the complexity and uniqueness of the techniques used in weaving and embroidery. The shape of their loose jackets is reminiscent of the kimono.
The basis of traditional dress was originally composed of a plant material named “attush,” a fabric woven on backstrap looms composed of fibers from elm bark, a sacred tree for the Ainu. The collection of this bark was a tedious task, reserved strictly for men. The long strips of bark were soaked in water for ten days or so to soften them before being cut into filaments to be spun. Each piece was then ennobled with cotton applications of indigo before being embroidered with decorative stitching.
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American Museum of Natural History, New York, USA
These decorative touches, in circular and sinuous patterns, contained symbolic protective properties. Their complex interlacing was displayed on the outside of garments, on the sleeves, collar and bottom hem in order to prevent spirits from entering and possessing the body of the wearer. These primitive arabesques appear as fascinating labyrinths with almost hypnotic power. Attush was gradually replaced with cotton imported from the main island of Honshu.
While their population greatly dwindled during the 20th century, the Ainu still live today in Japan. Men and women continue to wear their traditional clothing during religious rituals and community ceremonies such as weddings and funerals, a testament to the richness of their long misunderstood and discredited cultural heritage.
Cover Photo: Ainus wearing their traditional clothes, Ainu Museum, City of Shiraoi, Hokkaido, Japan.