4 May 2011, 14:48

The Ainu: one of Russia’s indigenous peoples

The Ainu: one of Russia’s indigenous peoples
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Although the Ainu are not on the official list of Russian peoples or ethnic groups, some of our compatriots insist that they are Ainu, and with good reason. According to the latest population census, conducted in Russia in October 2010, more than 100 Ainu people make their home in this country.

Although the Ainu are not on the official list of Russian peoples or ethnic groups, some of our compatriots insist that they are Ainu, and with good reason. According to the latest population census, conducted in Russia in October 2010, more than 100 Ainu people make their home in this country. It was held until recently that the Ainu live nowhere but in Japan. But the Ainu, or the Kamchatka-Kuril people, live where they have always lived, even if denied recognition for a number of historical reasons.

Alexei Nakamura leads the Ainu community of the Kamchatka peninsula. At least one hundred Kamchatka Territory residents said they were Ainu during the latest census, Alexei Nakamura says, but the Ainu still remain officially unrecognized in Russia.

“We’ll request the Kamchatka Territory government to solicit the Federal Government on the basis of the census records for a decision to include the Ainu, or the Kamchatka-Kuril people, on the list of the indigenous peoples of the North and the Far East,” Alexei Nakamura said.

The Ainu are a mysterious people of the Far East. In the olden days they inhabited the Islands of Japan, Sakhalin, the Kuril Islands and the southern part of the Kamchatka Peninsula. When Russian path-breakers reached the easternmost part of Russia back in the 17th century, they were surprised to see that the natives looked like residents of the southern part of European Russia, like Persians, or Indians, or even Gypsies, in short, anyone but the Mongoloids. The Russian pioneers dubbed them Woolly Kuril people, while their self-designation was Ainu, which means “Man”.   

Ever since, researchers have been trying to resolve the innumerable mysteries of the Ainu, but have made little progress so far. Although the Ainu people are gatherers, trappers and hunters, they’ve made mind-boggling progress in culture and the arts. Their folklore, carved figurines and sculptures, their melodies and dances are extraordinarily colourful and singular. The ornaments they used for their kitchenware, fabrics and carved figurines made it possible for researchers to advance a hypothesis that the Ainu once came to their current place of residence from the remote Polynesian islands.

The most striking feature of the Ainu is that they are markedly different from the Japanese in appearance. The Ainu speak their own language that is unrelated to either Japanese or any other Asian language.

Some 1,500 Ainu lived in Russia at the end of the 19th century. But when Russia was defeated by Japan in the war of 1904-1905, and the southern part of Sakhalin Island, as well as all Kuril Islands went to the jurisdiction of the Land of the Rising Sun, the greater part of the Ainu fell under Japanese influence. The Ainu were given Japanese names and surnames. Following 1945 almost all the Ainu moved from the Kuril Islands and Sakhalin to the neighbouring Japanese island of Hokkaido.

Those who stayed behind on Sakhalin, - a population of several hundred today, - claim that they are ethnic Japanese. But then, they have to, for otherwise Tokyo will deny them visa-free entry to Japan. Now, on the Kamchatka Peninsula the Russified Ainu were struck off the list of the indigenous peoples of the USSR back in Stalin’s time.

The Kamchatka authorities realize that de-facto recognition per se is insufficient to make the local Ainu a fully-fledged nation. Almost none of them speaks their own vernacular language or remembers their folk customs. So, the authorities’ immediate plan is to set up the first ethnographic centre of Ainu culture in Kamchatka in a move that other peninsular indigenous peoples have long since made.

 

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