The Ainu are a people indigenous to the lands of northern Japan. They have a cultural and racial background somewhat different from that of the ethnic Japanese. The Ainu populated Hokkaido, parts of Honshu, the Kurile Islands and Sakhalin, but today they live mostly in Hokkaido.
According to one of several theories, the Ainu are descendants of Mongoloid migrants who entered the Japanese islands before the Jomon period. They were later gradually displaced and assimilated when the ethnic Japanese expanded their territory 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.
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.