Ainu wood carving statue displayed at the museum

On April 23rd, 2020,

Ainu Indigenous Cultural Tourism

– yesterday, today and tomorrow

In this article, we would like to share a thought-provoking discussion we had with Shinrit Eoripak Aynu (Kenichi) and Hisae Kawamura about the Ainu indigenous cultural tourism.

 Read on to find out:

  • Where did the Ainu originate from?
  • How many Ainu are still around?
  • How do the Ainu perceive the past, present and future of Ainu indigenous cultural tourism?

Hokkaido is home to the Ainu or Aynu, Indigenous people of Japan. On our tours, we often talk about them and where possible we try to fit in a visit to an Ainu museum in our itineraries. The Ainu are an integral part of what shapes Hokkaido, and cannot be left out when we talk about Hokkaido’s history and culture. 

As we take guests to these places of cultural and historical significance to the Ainu, we’ve also come to question ourselves increasingly: “How do the Ainu perceive tourism and tourists?” “Is the conventional Ainu tourism ethical?” To obtain answers to these questions, we visited and interviewed the Directors of Kawamura Kaneto Ainu Museum in Asahikawa.

Note – this interview was carried out on 16 April 2020, before the nation-wide state of emergency was announced. 

Ainu Indigenous Museum in Asahikawa
Shinrit Eoripak Aynu & Hisae Kawamura, the Directors of Kawamura Kaneto Ainu Museum

First of all, who are the Ainu?

Where do they come from?

[Hisae] The Ainu are the indigenous people of Hokkaido. Our ancestors are thought to have arrived in the Archipelago of Japan via a few different routes from the Eurasia during the ice age between 35,000 and 8,000 years ago. The Ainu are the offspring of the people who reached Hokkaido and settled on the island to date.

[Kenichi] The others who didn’t end up in Hokkaido went as far as Russia and the United States. There is a tribe that resides near Amur River, and they have close ties with the Ainu. We could say that the Native Americans are our distant relatives.

[Hisae] While the Ainu culture today is distinct from the Japanese, the Ainu ethnicity was developed over time while maintaining close ties with Jomon People, who were living in Japan. It is likely that they had a common language between the Ainu and the Jomon. There is some evidence that they traded goods and animals. The Ainu are people who inherited Jomon’s genetic and anthropological features the most.

Directors of Kawamura Kaneto Aynu Museum discussing about Indigenous tourism

How many Ainu are still around?

[Kenichi] There are approximately 13,000 Ainu. This is the official number. But it is said that there are 85,000 more. They are so-called Silent Ainu. Including the second and third generations, the total population could be more than 100,000. They hide their identity for fear of discrimination which sadly still occurs. As of last year August 5th, the New Ainu Law* was enacted, and the National Ainu Museum will be opening next month. Despite these movements, we cannot completely eliminate the discrimination from the society unfortunately. 

* For the first time in the Japan history of law, the Ainu was acknowledged as the indigenous people 

[Hisae] Of course, a survey is conducted, every five years. Questionnaire forms are distributed, which contain such questions as, “How did you find out that you are of Ainu descent?” and “Do you suffer from discrimination?” Local authorities are in charge of distributing these forms to the household that they know Ainu reside in. Therefore their scope of survey is limited to those families who cooperate with such surveys (who are already identified as Ainu, and who don’t mind answering those questions).

Aynu indigenous cultural experiential tourism
Finding edible wild leeks in their garden

[Kenichi] I am half Ainu and Japanese. My father is Ainu, and my mother is Japanese. My mother was adopted into an Ainu family, as their parents were colonizers from Honshu and failed with their mission to cultivate their lands. There were about 5,000 Japanese children adopted by Ainu families then. Among them, there were often infants abandoned and left in a basket in front of Ainu houses. Culturally, Ainu cherish children so most of them were accepted. 

[Hisae] Identifying one as a “half” is determined by the genealogy. It may be important in Japanese culture, but it may not be so in Ainu culture. There may be people who have Ainu blood, but they don’t know about it. We don’t know the exact numbers, but we know for sure that there are at least 13,000 Ainu living today. The problem is that we ourselves are not given right to define the “Ainu”. We do not have a definition clearly set like other counties that have an indigenous population. 


“No matter our nationality, we want to stand on equal ground. “


How did the Ainu indigenous cultural tourism begin in Hokkaido?

[Hisae] Around 50 to 60 years ago, there was a boom in tourism. At that time, people were interested in sightseeing more unusual tourist attractions and experiences. Some Ainu became wealthy and influential, and they were able to do things in their own way. On the other hand, in such tourism, cultural traditions can be conveyed in a somewhat distorted way. So we can’t say what is right and what is wrong. The ideal will be that we feel proud of our culture, and then let tourists experience it while fostering their understanding in an enjoyable way. Hokkaido hasn’t reached that stage yet. It is quite difficult for Ainu individuals to start and dive into the tourism business.   

Inside the Kawamura Kaneto Ainu Museum in Asahikawa, Hokkaido
Inside the Kawamura Kaneto Ainu Museum in Asahikawa

How do you think about Ainu tourism going forward?

[Hisae] Firstly, tourists, guides, operators and ourselves we all have to stand in fair positions. We have to study, including ourselves, to prepare to receive tourists well. We would like to find a more integrated way of learning mutually and working together. For example, we no longer go into the mountains as frequently now, and don’t necessarily know where to find certain kinds of trees or plants, but nature guides may know where to find them. In such a way we can share our knowledge about how Ainu used to use and relate to those natural resources in their daily lives. No matter our nationality, we want to stand on equal ground. 

Traditional Ainu food, dried Salmon, in the Kawamura Kaneto Ainu Museum in Asahikawa, Hokkaido
Smoked salmon – how the Ainu preserve food for the winter months

Visit Kawamura Kaneto Ainu Museum

At Adventure Hokkaido we visit Kawamura Kaneto Ainu Museum on some of our tours, such as the Around Daisetsuzan 6 Day Hiking Tour. They are welcoming and open-heartedly share their knowledge and thoughts about the Ainu history, culture and where they stand today. Even when you are visiting Asahikawa indepently, we recommend you pop in at their museum (it’s also where they live) and say “irankarapte“, hi in the Ainu language!

Singing an Ainu song in the rounds

Kawamura Kaneto Ainu Museum

Open Hours – Everyday from 9:00 am to 5:00 pm
From July to August  from 9:00 am to 6:00 pm
Entry Fee – ¥500

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