Ainu couple in ceremonial dress, Hokkaido, Japan.—Courtesy of the Consulate General of Japan, New York City
Indigenous people of what is now Japan. Pushed north by the Japanese people over the last 2,000 years, the remaining Ainu today live principally in northern Hokkaido, Sakhalin, and the Kuril Islands. Once physically and culturally distinct from the Japanese, their origins and their role in Japanese history and prehistory have been the subject of scholarly debate. Many contemporary Ainu claim some connection to the prehistoric Jomon culture. The Ainu language, which has no known relationship to any other language, is virtually extinct, having been supplanted by Japanese. The Ainu were traditionally hunters, fishermen, and trappers; their religion centred on spirits believed to be present in animals and the natural world.