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BKX300 Capstone: Learning about Ainu: Ainu Women

Library guide created by EvaMarie Olson for her Book Studies Senior Capstone seminar project


This page serves as an example of how a user of this LibGuide might use the information and resources provided to write a research paper of their own. I wrote this example research paper on the topic of Ainu women, to explore how Ainu women were portrayed in the past, to see how the intersection of gender and ethnicity affects Ainu women's lives, and to show the efforts of contemporary Ainu women in preserving and promoting their culture as well as re-inventing their Ainu identities.

To find the sources I used in this short paper, I did a Discovery search in the Smith College library catalog of "Ainu women" and I did the same search in JSTOR and Hathi Trust, two sources included in the "Databases" and "Articles" pages of this LibGuide, resulting in many sources on a variety of topics related to Ainu women, from passing on traditional food to children, to cloth and clothing, as well as the book The Ainu of Japan by John Batchelor (listed and linked in the Hathi Trust section in the Databases page), which includes an entire chapter devoted to Ainu women, to get the perspective of what foreigners thought of Ainu women when they first encountered them.

I hope that this example research paper will help users of this LibGuide in their research on and study of the Ainu.

Example Research Paper

Ainu Women: Cultural Preservation, Identity Re-Invention and Activism among the Women of Japan’s Indigenous People

EvaMarie Olson

           Ainu women have faced particular challenges and discrimination based on their ethnicity and gender in the centuries involving relations with Japan before colonization, through the period of annexation and colonization of Hokkaido by Japan, and still today. While Ainu women have faced and continue to face challenges of poverty, education, lack of access to stable incomes and employment, they have also resisted oppression through cultural expression, and through engagement with Ainu culture and arts and act as guardians and promoters of Ainu traditional culture and way of life. At the same time they adapt and hybridize the past and the present, as well as Ainu and Japanese cultures into new forms that uniquely express contemporary Ainu identity from their own points of view. Ainu women today have found ways or are working to find ways to express their identities on their own terms. Listening to Ainu women’s experiences, thoughts and ideas is the first step toward Ainu women fully regaining their agency, as the act restores their voices, which have so often been lost or drowned out in history.

           When John Batchelor, an English missionary to the Ainu in Hokkaido in the late 19th and early 20th centuries first describes Ainu women in his book, The Ainu of Japan, he criticizes their appearance, disliking especially their tattoos. However, tattoos held cultural and social significance to Ainu women. Full tattooing entails a years-long process and when complete, appear around Ainu women’s mouths and on their forearms. When Ainu women explained to Batchelor why they tattooed themselves, women of the older generations, who steadfastly encouraged tattooing, said, “Our ancestors were thus tattooed, so therefore we must be” (The Ainu of Japan 37).  Thus, tattooing had cultural and spiritual significance to Ainu women, serving as a connection to their ancestors. Batchelor also describes the daily life of Ainu women, appalled at the amount of hard physical labor and household chores they must do, and claimed that the women were slaves to the men (The Ainu of Japan 41). Batchelor’s opinion on Ainu women changed slightly by his later book, The Ainu and their folk-lore, in which he claimed to know two or three thousand Ainu women well, and that despite the tattoos some were good looking, and that all Ainu women are at times happy (The Ainu and their folk-lore 175). However, he continued saying that Ainu women were treated like slaves, and repeated much of the same information as the chapter on Ainu women in the first book, practically word for word. These observations and descriptions come from a foreigner sent to Hokkaido soon after annexation into the Japanese empire to “civilize” the Ainu people through missionary activities. Therefore, his views and writings had been shaped by the idea that the Ainu are inferior savages in need of civilizing. Thus, from the very beginning of the observation and study of the Ainu by foreigners Ainu women have been portrayed as ugly, enslaved by their husbands, and miserable. This portrayal is problematic in many ways, but mainly because it does not seek out Ainu women’s voices, or their thoughts about their own lives or experiences, robbing Ainu women of the chance to express themselves. This has remained a problem for decades, but Ainu women today are making efforts to give themselves a voice and to relate to each other, Japan, and the world the hardships they have faced for so long.

Photograph and caption from John Batchelor’s book The Ainu and their folk-lore, published in 1901.


           Systems set up since the late 19th century have continually served to disempower Ainu women financially and socially, leading to experiences of discrimination in school, workplaces, and when seeking to be married. When colonization of Hokkaido by the Japanese began in the late 19th century, the Japanese already had a presence in Hokkaido and exploited the labor of both Ainu men and women. Once colonization accelerated, the Japanese still expected the Ainu to provide the cheapest and hardest labor, “build[ing] the foundation for the socio-economic disadvantages that affect the Ainu today” (Takayanagi 348). Today the Ainu on average still have a significantly lower income than the Japanese, making access to education and other resources difficult to obtain.

           Ainu women today still feel discrimination and effects of systems put in place in the late 19th century. Ainu women in particular face hardships because on top of the economic barriers they face due to their ethnicity, their gender makes them susceptible to even more discrimination, and they often experience “physical, verbal and sexual harassment” (Takayanagi 350). Fewer Ainu women go on to pursue university education than Japanese women because of poverty and lack of access to resources to fund their education, and Ainu women face discrimination and racism at significant stages of their lives, such as in school, during job-hunting and when seeking out marriage partners (Takayanagi 356-357). Because of the discrimination experienced at such important stages of their lives, Ainu women have difficulty improving their situations due to problems experienced when pursuing education, getting jobs with stable incomes as they are often turned away at interviews due to their appearance and Ainu physical characteristics, and finding marriage partners because they themselves are viewed as undesirable marriage partners. If possible, Ainu women often hide their Ainu identity in order to avoid discrimination.

            While Ainu women have experienced and continue to experience discrimination based on their ethnicity and gender, they have resisted colonialism and discrimination continuously over the decades and centuries, and play important roles in Ainu culture, society and the arts. Examples of Ainu women’s resistance and efforts to preserve and promote culture include traditional food and  clothing. Ainu women have traditionally performed domestic duties as opposed to men’s hunting and fishing, including food preparation, and recently women have been very involved in the revival and reintroduction into communities of traditional Ainu foods. Food represents an important part of Ainu culture, and by participating in food workshops by teaching others how to make traditional Ainu food that uses foraged local plants as its main ingredients, Ainu women are vital to preserving and passing on knowledge of traditional Ainu foods. Masami Iwasaki-Goodman writes, “Ainu women play an important role as cultural custodians in a contemporary society where Ainu culture is being revitalized. They provide the driving force towards re‐establishment of their ethnic identity in the complex heterogeneous but, predominantly Japanese, cultural community” (Iwasaki-Goodman 9). Therefore, by engaging in traditional food preparation and workshops that serve to educate others, Ainu women show the value they put into food as a part of Ainu culture as well as demonstrating their capabilities as educators and as important preservers of Ainu traditions and culture.

           Ainu women have also traditionally made clothing, which is extremely important to Ainu culture because the embroidered patterns on the clothing contain many symbols significant to Ainu culture and spirituality. As assimilation policies continued to oppress the Ainu people and their culture, women could quietly continue some cultural practices in their homes because of their traditional roles in the domestic setting. ann-elise lewallen writes, “While Ainu men were pressured to assimilate to Wajin socioeconomic standards, Ainu women were entrusted with preserving cultural practices, such as producing material cultural objects for the domestic sphere” (lewallen 176). Therefore Ainu women took the opportunity to continue their cultural practices in the face of assimilation policies and cultural oppression. As Ainu activism and interest in Ainu culture increased over the decades, Ainu women have been central to continuing traditional cultural practices as they transmit their knowledge to the next generation and to those with interest. lewallen writes, “Working with ancestral memory through text and textiles, women are molding hybrid identities combining what they know of the past (from the oral record) with what they imagine of the past, and fusing these with contemporary realities” (lewallen 180). Therefore, women continue to produce traditional Ainu material goods and are simultaneously transforming these objects into ones that express and re-invent their identities.

           Not only do women use cloth to preserve traditional cultural activities and re-invent what it means to be Ainu, clothing has also played a role in resisting colonialism and discrimination in the past. lewallen cites Cikap Mieko, an Ainu artist, who describes the resistance of Ainu women expressed through the embroidered patterns on their clothing, writing:

No matter how viciously cornered, however, our women never stopped fighting. Their resistance can be seen, for example, in the ikarkar (embroidery design) worked on their clothes; the ikarkar are the eyes of kunne rek kamuy (night-singing kamuy: owl)… the ikarkar…scowls at evil beings brought in by the colonists, guarding people from veneral diseases, small-pox and tuberculosis, all gifts of the shamos (Wajin). The ikarkar, therefore, also embodies the anger of our people (182).

Thus, Ainu women have resisted discrimination and colonialism through the production of material cultural objects, but Ainu women have also taken up resistance in more direct ways. In 2003, a group of Ainu women submitted a report of the conditions of Ainu women at the 29th Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), and a few years later carried out the first survey on the actual conditions of Ainu women in order to learn more about themselves and to work towards improving those conditions (Tahara 154-155). Ainu women have also organized and participated in many protests demanding indigenous rights from the Japanese government, showing that Ainu women are very present in Japan and have no intention of backing down from fighting for their rights any time soon.

           I would like to end this paper with Mina Sakai, a young Ainu woman and musician. Sakai started a band called the Ainu Rebels, which blended traditional Ainu music and instruments with contemporary rock and hip-hop in order to promote Ainu culture in a positive, entertaining way to a wider audience. Sakai is now collaborating with composer Masashi Hamauzu and making music sung in Ainu, Japanese, and English. When reading the article “Ainu Success: the Political and Cultural Achievements of Japan’s Indigenous Minority” by Simon Cotterill, I was struck by an image of Sakai’s wedding in 2005. For her wedding, Sakai used black lipstick to draw the traditional Ainu woman’s face tattoo around her mouth, and wore traditional Ainu clothes for the ceremony (Metropolis Magazine). The resulting look is striking and beautiful.


Photograph of Mina Sakai’s wedding from the article “Ainu Success: the Political and Cultural Achievements of Japan’s Indigenous Minority”


           But what is most remarkable about the photo is that Sakai used the very same form of tattoo that John Batchelor in the 1890s found so repulsive and the Japanese government had outlawed, in a contemporary context to express her pride in her Ainu heritage and love for Ainu culture. Sakai’s work in music and activism is just one example, though one of the most prominent and famous, of how Ainu women today are expressing their identities through culture and their experiences as indigenous women. With a history of resistance, contemporary activism for indigenous and women’s rights, and young people who bring their Ainu heritage and/or interest in Ainu language and culture with them into the future, while they still face obstacles and discrimination, Ainu women are taking their destinies into their own hands and determining what the future of Ainu culture and society will be for themselves. One thing is for certain: that Ainu culture and society has a future, thanks to the hard work of Ainu women and other Ainu activists and artists.



Works Cited

Batchelor, John. The Ainu and their folk-lore. London, The Religious Tract Society, 1901.

Batchelor, John. The Ainu of Japan; the religion, superstitions, and general history of the hairy aborigines of Japan. London, Religious Tract Society, 1892.

Iwasaki-Goodman, Masami. “Transmitting Ainu traditional food knowledge from mothers to their daughters.” Maternal & Child Nutrition, vol. 13, issue S3, 2017.

lewallen, ann-elise, et al., editors. “The Gender of Cloth: Ainu Women and Cultural Revitalization.” Beyond Ainu Studies: Changing Academic and Public Perspectives, University of Hawai'i Press, 2014, pp. 171–184. JSTOR, qw7k.15.

Metropolis Magazine. Mina Sakai’s wedding. 2009. The Asia-Pacific Journal,

Tahara, Ryoko. “Ainu Women in the Past and Now.” Indigenous Efflorescence: Beyond Revitalisation in Sapmi and Ainu Mosir, edited by Gerald Roche et al. by Hiroshi Maruyama, ANU Press, Australia, 2018, pp. 151–156. JSTOR,

Takayanagi, Taeko and Takayuki Shimomura. “Indigenous women facing educational disadvantages: The case of the Ainu in Japan.” Prospects, vol. 43, 2013.