The Ainu (アイヌ) are a people indigenous to the lands of northern Japan. They have a cultural background somewhat different from that of the Yamato Japanese who have been inhabiting most of the rest of Japan. The Ainu populated Hokkaido, parts of Honshu, the Kurile Islands and Sakhalin, but today they live mostly in Hokkaido.
The Ainu are believed to be descendants of Mongoloid migrants who entered the Japanese islands before the Jomon Period. They were later gradually displaced and assimilated when the Yamato Japanese expanded their territory from western Japan northwards over the past 1500 years.
In the Meiji Period (1868-1912), the Ainu received the status of "former aboriginals", but suffered under official discrimination for some years. In 1997, a new law was passed for the provision of funds for the research and promotion of Ainu culture, and in 2019 the Ainu were formally recognized as indigenous people.
Today, several museums in Hokkaido aim to preserve the Ainu heritage and inform visitors about their history, culture and way of living. Some of these museums stage cultural shows that demonstrate traditional Ainu dance, music and dresses. Furthermore, Ainu handicrafts are sold at many souvenir shops across Hokkaido.
The foremost place in Japan to learn about Ainu culture, Upopoy opened in July 2020 as the first national museum dedicated to the history and culture of the Ainu. It is surrounded by a lakeside park that features some reconstructed, traditional Ainu houses and several facilities to experience Ainu culture.
The Kawamura Kaneto Ainu Museum in Asahikawa exhibits a wide range of traditional Ainu tools and goods, as well as a hut made out of bamboo grass. The museum was founded by the local Ainu leader Kawamura Kaneto (1893-1977), an outstanding surveyor in railway construction, who also worked on educating people about Ainu culture.
Ainu Kotan is a touristy Ainu-themed shopping street in the town next to Lake Akan. Ainu Kotan offers multiple souvenir shops specialized in Ainu handicrafts. At the end of the street stands a small museum displaying Ainu crafts, clothes and daily life utensils. Traditional Ainu performances are periodically held in a hall next door.
The Ainu Folklore Museum is a small museum about the Ainu along the shore of Lake Kussharo. The museum has interesting displays and artifacts that highlight various aspects of Ainu life, language and culture.
The Hokkaido Museum of Northern Peoples in Abashiri introduces the culture and traditional everyday life of the peoples inhabiting the northern, subarctic regions of the globe, including the Ainu, the First Nations people of northern Canada, the Inuit, the Sami and the Siberian peoples. The beautifully done museum illustrates the differences and similarities between the respective peoples through various exhibits.