Ainu culture

Japan's growing appreciation for an endangered indigenous culture

By Ephemera documentary

Angelo Chiacchio

Nibutani's street (2018) by Angelo ChiacchioEphemera documentary

The Ainu are an indigenous people of Japan. With surprising roots in eastern Russia, their culture is quite distinct from what is commonly recognized as typical Japanese culture. The Ainu’s belief that all creatures and objects have a spirit promotes an intimate relationship with the natural world. 

Discrimination in Japanese society forced many Ainu to abandon their cultural identity. As cultural pride has been rekindled among contemporary Ainu, there remains a sense that much of their heritage is still lost. 

Aerial view of Saru River (2018) by Angelo ChiacchioEphemera documentary

In June 2018, photographer Angelo Chiacchio - on his journey to the world's most fragile places - visited the small Ainu village of Nibutani in Hokkaido.

Aerial view of Nibutani (2018) by Angelo ChiacchioEphemera documentary

Nibutani soundscape

On the island of Hokkaido, the small district of Nibutani sits on the basin of the Saru River, surrounded by green hills.  Nibutani means “the place where trees grow.”

Ancient Ainu houses (2018) by Angelo ChiacchioEphemera documentary

Nibutani has the highest percentage of residents with Ainu lineage in Japan. Daily life in Nibutani reveals traces of their unique culture.  

Interior of Ainu house (2018) by Angelo ChiacchioEphemera documentary

Replicas of traditional Ainu meeting houses have been built by the Biratori Choritsu Nibutani Ainu Culture Museum.

By Alfred EisenstaedtLIFE Photo Collection

The Ainu became skillful fishermen and formed a thriving society of hunter-gatherers. They developed a religion guided by observation of, and respect for, natural phenomena. However, their population declined substantially as Japanese settlers began to take up land in Hokkaido throughout the 1800s.

Ainu wood craftman (2018) by Angelo ChiacchioEphemera documentary

Today, the Ainu still maintain their close relationship with nature. Passionate craftsmen, like Toru, can still create clothing, knives, animal sculptures and even boats, from wood and bark, much as their ancestors did. 

Ainu craftman making a Ita (2018) by Angelo ChiacchioEphemera documentary

In a nearby workshop, Shigehiro works on a traditional Nibutani ita.

Ainu artisan with an Ita (2018) by Angelo ChiacchioEphemera documentary

The ita is a wooden plate carved with shapes that celebrate vegetation, water and fish - the basic elements of the Ainu lifestyle. 

Ainu tree bark (2018) by Angelo ChiacchioEphemera documentary

Ainu traditions are based on the animist belief that all things in nature posess a kamuy, an inner spirit or god. When Ainu take bark from a tree, they show gratitude and respect towards that tree. The tree is then marked to allow it time to recover.

Detail of bark thread. (2018) by Angelo ChiacchioEphemera documentary

Yukiko completes the weaving of a thread using fibers from tree bark. 

Ainu woman weaving Nibutani bark cloth (2018) by Angelo ChiacchioEphemera documentary

She still uses a traditional loom. Weaving was more profitable when she was a young girl and there was high demand for Ainu textiles in southern Japan.

Ainu woman weaving Nibutani bark cloth (2018) by Angelo ChiacchioEphemera documentary

Ainu robe Ainu robe (1868/1912)The Metropolitan Museum of Art

The bark fibers are used to make fabric for an Attush, a breathable and water-resistant Ainu robe.

Portrait of Ainu elder (2018) by Angelo ChiacchioEphemera documentary

An 84-year old Ainu man proudly wears his traditional Ainu kimono. 
He suffered discrimination as a young man.  He has found contentment later in life as he has witnessed the Japanese government develop an appreciation for Ainu culture. He has devoted his later years working towards its preservation.

Japanse man teaching Aiinu language (2018) by Angelo ChiacchioEphemera documentary

At a Nibutani elementary school, Kenji holds an Ainu language class. Although he is Japanese, he fell in love with an Ainu woman and her heritage.     

Japanse man teaching Aiinu language (2018) by Angelo ChiacchioEphemera documentary

Thanks to Kenji, young Ainu are learning to speak the Ainu language in a fun, entertaining, and modern way. 
It has proven to be an effective way of growing an awareness of their cultural identity.

Signs in Nibutani (2018) by Angelo ChiacchioEphemera documentary


Like many small indigenous communities throughout the world, the Ainu have faced marginalization and the threat of complete absorption into the dominant society.  Japan has since begun to understand the value of native Ainu culture and to appreciate the unique place of the Ainu in the country’s story.  Will this acceptance allow the Ainu to recover and preserve more of their unique heritage?

Terra by Angelo ChiacchioEphemera documentary

Partnership by Angelo ChiacchioEphemera documentary

This story was created with the support of Art Works for Change, a nonprofit organization that creates contemporary art exhibitions and storytelling projects to address critical social and environmental issues.

Credits: Story

Written, shot and produced by Angelo Chiacchio
Copy editing: Al Grumet, Rajesh Fotedar

With the support of: Google Arts & Culture, Art Works for Change

Thanks to: Biratori Choritsu Nibutani Ainu Culture Museum, Kenji Sekine, Yukiko Kaizawa, Toru Kaizawa, Shigehiro Takano, Etsuko Kusuda.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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