Once upon a time, I was flipping through an encyclopedia of hunter-gatherers, and came to the Ainu section, the wild people of Japan. There was a photo of a longhaired man, with a long beard, standing knee deep in a stream, a fish hanging from his spear. I was immediately fascinated. The image did not blend in with my other images of Japan — images of highly efficient people who spend their stressful lives indoors, as we do. The wild man struck an ancestral chord — many of my wild European ancestors were salmon people, too. I had to learn more.
Japan is not an archaeologist’s paradise, because the climate is wet and the soil is acidic, so much of the evidence from the past has been erased (annual rainfall is up to 120 inches / 300 cm). No one knows when humans arrived in Japan, but it was not less than 32,000 years ago. During the ice ages, sea levels were sometimes 500 feet (152 m) lower than today, and there were periods when land bridges connected Japan to Korea and mainland Russia. All the main islands of Japan were also connected.
In Paleolithic times, Japan was home to mammoths, Yabe giant deer, Naumann elephants, giant elk, brown bears, steppe bison, wild boars, Siberian lions, aurochs, wolves, tigers, and horses. This also did not fit into my image of Japan, because it was so incredibly wild, pure, and powerful. Our modern world is so empty. Most of these large animals vanished between 15,000 and 10,000 years ago, and humans played a role in this, as did a changing climate.
The standard folk history declares that the Japanese were the original human inhabitants of this land, but modern research strongly indicates that they didn’t arrive until maybe 400 B.C. The Japanese seem to be closely related to the Koreans, but this notion is extremely offensive to both nations, because of centuries of fierce mutual loathing. The immigrants from the mainland got rolling on the island of Kyushu, in southern Japan (close to Korea), in what is called the Yayoi period, which spanned from 300 B.C. to A.D. 300.
When the Yayoi colonists arrived, Japan was already inhabited by the indigenous Jōmon hunter-gatherers. The Jōmon period spanned from 12,000 B.C. to 300 B.C. The analysis of DNA and skull shapes indicates that the Jōmon people were more closely related to the Ainu than the Japanese. They lived in a land blessed with an abundance of wild foods, a paradise for hunter-gatherers. This enabled them to live in permanent villages, in population densities that were unusually high for hunting people. They may have engaged in horticulture on a small scale, and they probably planted useful trees. They had no livestock, chiefs, or classes.
The Yayoi colonists were poor mainland farmers moving into a land of prosperous hunter-gatherers. Japan was also a farmer’s paradise. Rain was abundant during the summer growing season, which led to plant productivity that was well above average. Some locales may have planted two crops per year. In the wake of 12,000 years of Jōmon stability, the invasion of Yayoi farmers sparked an era of accelerated ecological disruption, which continues to this day.
The colonists imported the Iron Age to Japan. They brought full-scale wet-rice agriculture and full-scale warfare (moats, watchtowers, metal weapons, and abundant battle casualties). They brought domesticated pigs, wheel-thrown stoneware, and hierarchical society. Rapid population growth spurred ongoing expansion into the lands of the wild folks. From their start on the southern island of Kyushu, they spread northward, onto the main island of Honshu.
It is likely that the ancestors of the Ainu once occupied all the islands of Japan. Many locations have place names that are Ainu, including Mount Fuji (Fuji means fire goddess). The Ainu language has no relationship with any other language. In their appearance, the Ainu resemble Caucasians, but their genes are Asian. The men have long beards, and “the most profuse body hair of any people,” according to Jared Diamond.
Over the centuries, the rice farmers spread northward, eventually occupying much of the main island of Honshu. Hokkaido and northern Honshu remained Ainu turf for a long time, because the climate was not ideal for rice, and invaders were clearly unwelcome. The Ainu heroically resisted ongoing Japanese expansion, fighting major battles in 1457, 1669, and 1789. They lost all three, and eventually fell under Japanese control.
Meanwhile, the Portuguese arrived in 1543, bringing with them guns, missionaries, and smallpox. The visitors were expelled in 1639, having worn out their welcome. Missionaries were either killed or deported. Their 300,000 converts had to choose between renouncing their faith or death. All guns were rounded up, melted down, and recycled into a huge statue of Buddha.
Japanese farmers acquired two new exotic crops, potatoes and sweet potatoes, both highly productive. A population explosion soon followed. By 1720, Tokyo was the biggest city in the world. To feed the growing mob, efforts were increased to acquire more food from the Ainu regions, via unsustainable commercial hunting and fishing.
Eventually, the Ainu became dependent on the trading posts for their survival. Acquiring goods, primarily rice and sake, required them to hunt and fish at levels well beyond traditional subsistence levels. At the same time, diseases like smallpox, measles, cholera, and tuberculosis took a devastating toll. By the time of the Meiji Restoration in 1868, the Ainu were powerless to oppose Japanese expansion. The northern island of Hokkaido, the center of the Ainu world, was annexed, and their lands were redistributed to Japanese settlers.
On Hokkaido, the hunter-gatherer way of life survived until the nineteenth century. Missionary John Batchelor arrived there in 1877, and some of his Ainu friends still lived in the traditional manner. In the woods, they hunted bear, deer, raccoons, foxes, and hares. Along the coast were herring, cod, sardines, mackerel, sole, plaice, sharks, swordfish, black fish, bonito, whales, seals, walruses, porpoises, large crabs, shellfish, and seaweed. The streams provided abundant salmon, pike, mud trout, and perch. On a small scale, they grew sorghum, millet, beans, barley, and some vegetables. Old-timers remembered the abundance of wildlife in the days of yesteryear, but this wealth was unknown to the younger folks.
The Ainu seemed to be close to extinction, just a few hundred survived. Batchelor wrote a book, to preserve the memory of them. He lamented, “Whenever I think of the quiet, free, un-anxious life they lived up there and compare that time with the present I cannot help sighing. But those halcyon days departed when the tax collector and modern civilization came in. I quite enjoyed seeing their life of quiet security and simplicity, alas, now gone for ever.”
The Hokkaido Aborigine Protection Act was passed in 1899. The Ainu were forced to speak Japanese, take Japanese names, abandon ancient cultural practices, and become farmers. The Japanese oppressed and exploited them. By 1945, the Ainu language was nearly extinct. Officially, in 1984, there were about 25,000 Ainu in Japan, but the actual number was probably closer to 200,000. Many hid their identity to avoid discrimination. There are few full-blooded Ainu today, but many of mixed blood.
In 1992, the Ainu were officially recognized as indigenous people by the United Nations. At that time, the Japanese government still did not recognize their existence. In 2008, the government finally recognized them as “an indigenous people who have their own language, religion, and culture.”
In 1853, the American Commodore Perry sailed into Tokyo, bringing an end to 200 years of isolation and self-sufficiency. By 1914, Japan had become a bustling industrial nation. Between 1910 and 2010, the population of Japan exploded from 51 million to 128 million.
Japan is the world’s third biggest producer of nuclear energy. It has 50 reactors, of which six are at Fukushima. All will need to be safely decommissioned at some point in time, at great expense, to avoid future horrors, hopefully.
According to the CIA World Factbook, Japan is the world’s second largest importer of natural gas, and the world’s third largest importer of crude oil. There will come a day when the supply of fossil energy becomes far more expensive and unreliable, and this will close the curtains on industrial Japan.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Japan is the world’s third largest importer of agricultural products. Based on total calories consumed, Japan imports about 60 percent of its food each year. In the coming decades, feeding the people will be a growing challenge.
The Ainu story is just one more rerun of farmers stomping wild people. On the bright side, they were lucky to enjoy a beautiful existence for thousands of years, as our wild ancestors once did. The Japanese story is just one more rerun of becoming addicted to an unsustainable habit, leading to reckless overshoot, zooming down the fast lane to helter-skelter. Circle the progress in this picture. Following the collapse of the global civilization, could we turn off the reruns? Could we learn some vital lessons from our mistakes? Could we envision a way of life that works?
Ainu, First People of Japan, The Original & First Japanese [7 minute video]
Batchelor, John, Ainu Life and Lore, Kyobunkwan, Tokyo, 1926.
Diamond, Jared, “Japanese Roots,” Discover Magazine Vol. 19 No. 6 (June 1998).
Fackler, Martin, “Japanese Roots Surprisingly Shallow,” The Japan Times, August 31, 1999.
Hudson, Mark, “Japanese Beginnings,” A Companion to Japanese History, edited by William M. Tsutsui, Wiley-Blackwell, Chichester, U.K., 2009.
Kambayashi, Takehiko, “Japan's Ainu Hope New Identity Leads To More Rights,” The Christian Science Monitor, June 9, 2008.
Lee, Richard B., and Daly, Richard, eds., The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Hunters and Gatherers, Cambridge University Press, New York, 1999.
Starr, Frederick, The Ainu Group at the Saint Louis Exposition, The Open Court Publishing Company, Chicago, 1904. [Free download from Google Books, well illustrated.]
“The Ainu: A people, at Last,” The Economist, July 12, 2008.
Walker, Brett L., The Conquest of Ainu Lands — Ecology and Culture in Japanese Expansion 1590-1800, University of California Press, Berkeley, 2001.