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This people is older than the Egyptians or Sumerians. Their women got tattoos on their faces that resembled the Joker's smile, and their men wore huge beards. At the same time, it is one of the most oppressed and disenfranchised peoples in the world. Their very existence has been denied for several centuries.
Two women in traditional costumes stand opposite each other. One is holding an eyeliner, with which she is trying to draw on her face the famous smile of the Joker from the Batman comics.
“Asya, do it like this…,” another young woman says in Russian, showing with her fingers how to do it - from one cheek to the other. The black pencil leaves a charcoal mark on the woman's cheeks and around her mouth. “Wow, a real Ainu!” She exclaims with satisfaction.
They came to the Japanese island of Hokkaido, where there are several Ainu reservations. This is a very ancient nation that once inhabited vast territories on the shores of the Pacific Ocean, including modern Japan, Sakhalin Island, the Kuril Islands and the southern part of the Kamchatka Peninsula. According to official data, only 25 thousand Ainu survived in Japan, and only a few dozen in Russia.
Little is known about them in Russia. Information about the Ainu can be counted on the fingers of one hand: they lived in the Far East; they have been persecuted throughout their long history; and finally, the Ainu disappeared as an ethnic group in Russia - in 1979 they were excluded from the official list of ethnic groups. This is where the information is exhausted.
And yet there are Ainu in Russia. These two women, captured by a Russian ethnographer from the Far East, look with curiosity at huts on the Hokkaido reservation, which they have not seen in Russia, and timidly answer the local Ainu that they know how to fold their clothes correctly, and there is no need to teach them this.
Always smiling women and extraordinarily hairy men
A tattoo on the lips, reminiscent of the Joker's smile, is a distinctive feature of the Ainu women. Previously, they started stuffing it at the age of seven: using a special ceremonial knife, they made small cuts at the corners of their lips and rubbed charcoal into the skin. Every year the girl added several new lines, and the groom completed the “smile” during the wedding celebration. Women also often had tattoos on their arms.
Nowadays, they no longer get such tattoos. Now the "smile" is simply drawn with a pencil, and only on especially solemn occasions. The last Ainu woman to be tattooed according to all the rules died in Japan in 1998.
Men, in turn, were distinguished by an exceptional abundance of facial hair. So, for example, they had to use special sticks to support the mustache while eating. Back in the second century AD, an ancient Chinese treatise mentioned the existence of "hairy people." The 18th century Russian explorer of Kamchatka, Stepan Krasheninnikov, described the Ainu as “the furry Kuril aborigines,” mainly because of their men.
Another very curious detail is known: initially, the Ainu looked more like Europeans than Asians. Krasheninnikov himself and other Russian researchers of those times wrote that they looked like Russian peasants with darker skin, or gypsies, but did not at all look like the Japanese, Chinese or Mongols. The reasons should be sought in the origin of the Ainu, but when it comes to this nation, one mystery gives rise to another: no one really knows where they came from.
It is believed that the roots of the Ainu go back 15 thousand years - even further than the history of the Sumerians or Egyptians. For this reason, some researchers are inclined to argue that the Ainu are not just a people, but a whole race. There are two theories about its origin. The first is the so-called "northern theory", according to which they came from the northern lands, later inhabited by Mongols and Chinese. According to the second theory, their ancestors come from Polynesia. The arguments of her supporters are that the clothing, rituals, religion and tattoos of the Ainu are in many ways reminiscent of the traditions of the peoples of Oceania.
Surely one can only say that the Ainu were the first indigenous inhabitants of the Japanese islands, although the Japanese themselves never liked this fact, and they even tried to hide it. The Japanese had a centuries-old feud with the Ainu over territories. The aborigines, quite predictably, lost one battle after another, since they never had either statehood or an army, and the aliens drove them further and further north from their islands. Despite this, even in the Middle Ages, according to scientists, half of the territory of present-day Japan was inhabited by the Ainu people.
“The tragedy of my people is comparable, perhaps, only to the tragedy of the indigenous peoples of North America, the Indians,” says Aleksey Nakamura, head of the Kamchatka Ainu community. However, the fault of the persecution of these people lies not only with the Japanese.
Erased from history
In the Russian Empire, they were not allowed to call themselves "the Ainu people", because at that time the Japanese claimed that all the lands inhabited by the Ainu were part of Japan. At the same time, the Ainu lived both on the islands claimed by Japan and those that belonged to Russia.
At some point in history, it became shameful and simply dangerous to call ourselves Ainu. Many of them assimilated, learned Russian and became Orthodox Christians. It is generally accepted that the communists viewed the Ainu as de facto Japanese - as a result of the “crossing”, the Ainu acquired more Asian features over the course of several centuries. “It so happened that in Russia we are Japanese, and in Japan we are Russians,” says Alexei Nakamura, who has a Russian name and a Japanese surname.
Historically, the Ainu did not have surnames. They were given by either the Russians or the Japanese, but some later began to bear Slavic surnames. Many Ainu did this during the Stalinist political repression: the security service of the NKVD (the predecessor of the KGB) denied them Soviet citizenship because of their ties to the Japanese. The Ains were massively accused of espionage, sabotage and collaboration with militarist Japan, and sent to correctional camps.
“After the Second World War, it was generally not customary to mention anywhere about the existence of the Ainu. There was even a secret order from Glavlit, the organization in charge of the censorship, which was literally called this: "On the prohibition of mentioning the Ainu ethnic group in the USSR," recalls Doctor of Historical Sciences Alexander Kostanov. After the surrender of Japan, in 1946, the question arose about the repatriation of the Japanese population from Russian territory. “The Ainu were not considered former subjects of the Russian Empire. They were considered Japanese nationals,”says Kostanov. This is how almost all the Ainu ended up in Hokkaido.
During the last all-Russian census in 2010, only 109 people identified themselves as Ainu. However, at the insistence of the authorities of the Kamchatka Territory, they were not officially registered as Ainu. Five years later, the Ainu registered as a non-profit organization, but it was later disbanded by a court decision. Cause? Officially, because "there are no Ainu."
“This means that we are not allowed to fish or hunt like other small ethnic groups. If we go out to sea in a small boat, we are recognized as poachers and punished with huge fines,”says Nakamura.
In Hokkaido, there is the Utari Association, a network of educational and cultural centers for the Ainu people with 55 branches. In Russia, the Ainu have absolutely nothing. All textbooks in English and Japanese were brought from overseas. “We tried to somehow cooperate with the Russian authorities, but in the end we were forced to surrender. There is always a question about the Kuril Islands; they want us to politicize and express our position on this issue,”he explains.
However, the Ainu do not want to be politicized at all. It seems that they do not really want to talk about their ethnic identity either. According to the statistical report "Japanese Diasporas Abroad", 2,134 Japanese live in Russia. These include some Ainu who identify themselves as Japanese as this entitles them to visa-free travel to Japan. There are so few Ainu striving to achieve recognition of themselves as a people that only ethnographers remember about them. Unfortunately, Nakamura says, this is probably his last interview: "Because nobody wants to know about us."