The Ainu people have lived on Hokkaido for over 20,000 years. They also settled in Kamchatka, Sakhalin Island, and other islands in the north Pacific. Hokkaido is the northern of the two largest islands of Japan. The other, Honshu, is the dominant culture, so most children raised in Japan learn little about the indigenous Ainu. In fact, news reports in the 20th century led people to believe the Ainu are extinct! But 16,000 people in Japan identify as Ainu, and the Japanese prejudice against them is just beginning to lift. An article in Hakai magazine tells us about the Ainu, particularly about their cultural link to bears.
The Ainu, like their ancestors, shared their land with an important predator. The brown bears of Hokkaido, Ursus arctos yesoensis, are closely related to the grizzlies and Kodiaks of the New World, though they’re on the smallish side, with males reaching two meters in height and fattening to almost 200 kilograms.
In the north, the lives of the Ainu and their ancestors were closely entwined with the bears, their fiercer cousins. Where bears fished, humans fished. Where bears picked monkey pear, humans picked monkey pear. Where bears tramped, humans tramped. They were kindred spirits, and so strong was the connection between humans and bears, that it lasted across time and cultures. The people honored bear spirits through ritual for thousands of years, deliberately placing skulls and bones in pits for burial. And in historical times, written accounts and photographs of a bear ceremony show that the Ainu maintained this deep kinship.