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Hokkaido, Japan

First Contact:


gather% / fish % / hunt %
fat % / protein % / carb%

A rough estimate to help us understand how carnivorous and how ketogenic these people were before being exposed to western civilization

Click this Slide deck Gallery to see high quality images of the tribe, daily life, diet, hunting and gathering or recipes

About the Tribe

Is the high residential stability of the Ainu a result of their subsistence on salmon ? The economic importance of this fish for the Ainu is certainly great. But the deer also had an important place in their diet, and there is evidence to suggest that in some areas more than half of their animal food supply was derived from deer alone. In a settlement on the upper Tokapchi, for instance, the annual catch of the deer per family was not less than 300 while the annual store of fish per family consisted of 500-600 dog salmon and 600-800 cherry salmon. The figures are not likely to be exaggerated. The deer was hunted not only for the meat but also for the skin which was an important item of trade. The meat was consumed both by the Ainu themselves and by their hunting dogs. They also habitually prepared extra stores of food as insurance against the year when resources failed. The Tushipet valley in Tokapchi had no runs of dog salmon and the Ainu there lived chiefly on deer. In spite of their dependence on deer, even the Tushipet Ainu maintained perennially inhabited settlements.

One of the fundamental factors relevant to the high stability of residence among the Ainu may have been the distribution of the ecological zones within narrow river valleys they inhabited (Fig. I ) . Ecological zones refer to the zones of exploitative activities classified in terms of physiography and biota. The subsistence activities of the Ainu were conducted in the following ecological zones,each of which yielded specific resources in specific seasons : (erformt;d by women. There are concrete data (Watanabe, 1 964a) showing that those groups who practiced farming gathered wild roots with less frequency and in smaller quantities than those who did not. But there is no evidence that the introduction of the primitive (pre-I884) agriculture significantly increased the stability (jf residence among them. A similar distribution pattern of ecological zones and a high stability of residence are found among the Northern Paiute in Owens Valley (Steward, 1938). In both Hokkaido and Owens Valley, it is the presence of narrow valleys that permitted the maintenance of year-round residence . The residential shift pattern depends upon

(1) The river : cherry salmon fishing (summer, in the main stream and some tributaries) ; dog salmon fishing (autumn, in the mainstream)

(2) The river banks : collecting of wild plants (spring to autumn)

(3) The river terraces : deer hunting (autumn) ; plant collecting

(4) The hillsides along the river course : deer hunting (early winter, at or near the animals' winter quarters)

(5) The mountain region around the source of the river: bear hunting, specialized (spring and autumn)

col­lection of elm bark for clothing (usually spring) . Zones 1-3 were exploited from a single center, namely the permanent settlement which is usually situated on the edge of the river terrace. The outermost zones 4 and 5 were hunting areas, each exploited from a different hunting hut. Some Ainu, especially those living downstream, did not engage in bear hunts and consequently had no hunting huts.

Ainu women and children (Watanabe 1964a) sometimes hunted deer with sticks, ropes, and/or dogs when they had opportunities.

The indigenous people of northern Japan, the Ainu, were the only group in the country that was consistently the subject of both tourist and scientific photography. Images produced by commercial and scientific photographers appeared in travelogues and tourist albums as well as in scientific studies in anthropology, medicine, and other fields. These images often reinforced widely held views that the Ainu were Japan’s “vanishing race” or “noble savage.

Visible Ainu cultural practices such as tattooing and body adornment, as well as Ainu physiognomy, such as eye shape and body hair, were repeatedly photographed and discussed in tourist and scientific literature as evidence of the “primitive” state of the Ainu people and culture. Photographs in this section are examples of the kind of photography produced by and for scientists.

p. 18

The Ainu people are not a handsome nation, though, as individuals, the race is strong, thick-set, squarely built and full-chested. The chief thing that strikes one on meeting an Ainu for the first time is his fine beard, moppy hair, and sparkling eyes; next, his dirty appearance, poor clothing, and, should he be near at hand, his odour. The Ainu certainly do not, upon first acquaintance, produce a very favourable im pression; in fact, to many people they quickly become repulsive, especially on account of their filth.

After more than eight years' experience amongst this people, and after having lived with them in their own huts and mixed with them both in their daily tasks and amusements—after having listened to their troubles, been by their side in sickness and in health, seen them at their religious exercises, and been present when the hand of death has been upon them—the present writer is prepared to affirm that a more kind, gentle, and sym pathetic people would be very difficult to find. The Ainu only need sympathy and kind treatment to bring out their real character.

• In some of the cases marked, the subsistence percentages have been changed from those published in the Ethnographic Atlas. The categories have been redefined so that shell fishing is included under "Gathering," and pursuit of sea-mammals under "Hunting." In the Atlas, both are ;ncluded under "Fishing."


Importance of Animal Products

Historic Ainu people were hunter-gatherers who practiced limited agriculture. Their diets were rich in venison, bear, millet, beans, peas, salmon, trout, rabbit, shellfish, fowl, and foraged plants.[1][2] The Ainu lived as a sustainable part of their ecosystems for hundreds of years. On Hokkaido, a single household caught as many as 1400 salmon and 300 deer per year.[3] On Sakhalin Island, dogs were raised as both transportation and food animals.[1]

Ainu men supplied most of the red meat and fish for their families.

The Ainu people are most malodorous at times; but it should be borne in mind that the men and women sometimes walk ten or fifteen miles a day in a broiling sun with a heavy load of unsalted, sun-dried fish upon their backs. Such fish have by no means a pleasant smell, and, when once the odour gets well into their clothes, it most tenaciously remains there, and only requires a little perspiring dampness to bring it out in its strength. Not only so, but it is sometimes quite pain ful to sit in a hut with an Ainu who has lately been eating some kinds of dried fish, particularly the skate. It makes the breath peculiarly strong and noxious.

But there is nothing an Ainu loves so much as hunting, excepting, perhaps, getting intoxicated.

A few generations ago there was a very great famine in Yezo, so that thousands upon thousands of animals— deer, bears, foxes, wolves, and rats—died. The Ainu would not have minded the famine so much but for this. The death of the animals was far worse than the failure of the crops; for the staple food was flesh. A great number of the Ainu died, starved to death. The people who lived towards the south of Yezo saved themselves by fleeing to Mororan, in Volcano Bay, where they were kept alive by eating shell-fish—the Haliotis tuberculata, or ‘sea-ear.’ These fish are very plentiful about Chiripet and Mororan. I believe the story of this ancient famine is quite true; for near the sea shore, about two miles from Mororan, there are some very large lumps of sea-ear shells to be seen, covered with nearly a foot of black earth.

In the winter time, particularly during the latter part of November and the early part of December, the women assist the men to net or spear the large salmon which are found in the rivers about this time.

the Ainu do not know how to cook. They are remarkably fond of stew, strongly flavoured with badly dried fish, and almost every article of food is cast into the stewpot, and is there completely spoiled. However, their food is not always cooked in this manner, for fish is sometimes roasted before the fire, and potatoes are baked in the ashes upon the hearth. A hungry man can make a good and enjoyable meal off sueh things. They are very fond of salmon, salmon trout, young sharks, swordfish, and whale; and, in the way of flesh, bear's fat and marrow-bones, the haunch of venison, and any part of a horse or bullock.

while grouse, wild geese, and cranes serve for game.

Salmon-fishing is a very favourite pursuit of the Ainu, and many of the people take great delight in it. Some of them are very clever at spearing salmon, for they commence to learn to use the fish-spear very early. I knew a lad only twelve years of age, who would some times start off to the river at daybreak, and return by eight o'clock with six or eight fine fish.

Importance of Plants

Women, meanwhile, gathered wild plants and grew grains and vegetables. They picked leeks and lilies in the forest, as well as wild grapes and berries. In early spring, they tapped trees for sap and collected fresh shoots of mugwort. Over time, as natural resources on Hokkaido dwindled, Ainu people relied more on Japanese rice for survival.[2][4]

In the spring time the women, both old and young, crawl out of their sleeping places in the small hours of the morning, eat a hasty meal of cold vegetable stew, with perhaps a morsel of uncooked dried fish by way of relish, shoulder their tools, and proceed to the patches of land they call their gardens, to dig up the soil and sow the seeds, returning to their huts at sunset only to take another meal like that of the morning, and again lie down to sleep.

The Ainu mode of reaping is a long process, for it consists of walking through the gardens and pinching off the millet and barley heads with sharp shells. The straw is left standing; the Ainu have no use for that. Then, a little later on, just before the snow begins to fall, the women and children go away into the forests to pick up chestnuts, which are used as an article of food among them. About the same time they dig up the roots of the dog-tooth violet. These they wash, boil, and mash up into a pulp, then make into cakes and dry in the sun for winter food. 

The Ainu gardens consist merely of small patches of land, generally upon the banks of rivers or in a valley. They cultivate one piece of land for two or three years running, then let that go to waste and take a fresh plot. This is quite necessary, for they use no manure. The Ainu understand nothing about agriculture; they have no idea as to how to cultivate the land. So long as a woman can procure sufficient food for her family to last through the winter, that is all she cares about. When ever the gardens fail, the Ainu live by hunting in the mountains, by what they can catch in the sea, or by such things as grow naturally.

[In December] Then millet must be pounded, the beans and peas shelled, and a thousand and one other little things attended to. Thus is the woman the slave of the man.

Seaweed and various herbs, the roots of some kinds of lilies, and many water plants, as well as leeks and onions, are used as vegetables;

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Transition to Industrialized Food Products

Various kinds of animal food the Ainu eat have been mentioned; but it must not be supposed that they are well off, or always in possession of a well-stocked larder. Nowadays many of the people do not know the taste of venison, as there are so few deer about. They were very numerous a few years ago, but have nearly all been killed off by the Japanese hunters, who came with their guns and proceeded to destroy them wholesale for the factories which the Government of Yezo established for the canning of venison. This exterminating process went on till now hardly any deer are left. The officials have at last seen the folly of this, and have lately pro hibited both Japanese and Ainu alike from killing deer, and a fine is imposed if anyone is caught hunting them. Hence venison now must be struck off the list of articles of Ainu food. Bear's flesh is also very scarce. Salmon only comes at particular times each year, and the people know nothing about the art of preserving fish by salting, and do not even possess salt. They dry a few fish in the sun; but fish so prepared is remarkably odoriferous, and of a very high flavour.

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