After initial contact with the immigrants, large settlements of the Japanese newcomers gradually spread into Ainu territory. As the Japanese moved north and took control over Ainu lands, the Ainu often gave up without resistance, with some occasional wars in 1457, 1669, and 1789, where the Ainu were defeated. Notable Ainu revolts include Shakushain's Revolt and the Menashi-Kunashir Battle. Japanese policies became increasingly aimed at assimilating the Ainu in the Meiji period starting in 1868, outlawing their language, forcing them to use Japanese names, redistributing their land to Japanese farmers and restricting them to farming on government-provided plots and as labor in the Japanese fishing industry. As the Japanese government encouraged immigration of ethnic Japanese to populate Hokkaido, the Ainu became increasingly marginalised in their own land. The population was greatly reduced due to hardship and diseases introduced by the immigrant Japanese. The island of Hokkaido was called Ezo or Ezo-chi during the Edo period. Its name was changed to Hokkaido during the Meiji Restoration as part of the program to "unify" the Japanese national character under the aegis of the Emperor, thus reducing the local identity and autonomy of the different regions of Japan.
In 1899 the Japanese government passed an act labelling the Ainu as former Aborigines, with the idea they would assimilate. The act was replaced in 1997—until then the government had stated there were no ethnic minority groups. It was not until June 6, 2008 that Japan would formally recognise the Ainu as an indigenous group. As Japanese citizens, the Ainu are now governed by Japanese laws and judged by Japanese tribunals, but in the past, their affairs were administered by hereditary chiefs, three in each village, and for administrative purposes the country was divided into three districts, Saru, Usu and Ishikari, which were under the ultimate control of Saru, though the relations between their respective inhabitants were not close and intermarriages were avoided. The functions of judge were not entrusted to these chiefs; an indefinite number of a community's members sat in judgment upon its criminals. Capital punishment did not exist, nor did the community resort to imprisonment. Beating was considered a sufficient and final penalty. However, in the case of murder, the nose and ears of the culprit were cut off or the tendons of his feet severed. Intermarriages between Japanese and Ainu were actively promoted by the Ainu to lessen the chances of discrimination against their offspring. As a result, many Ainu are indistinguishable from their Japanese neighbors. There are many small towns in the southeastern or Hidaka region where full-blooded Ainu may still be seen such as in Nibutani. In Sambutsu especially, on the eastern coast, many children of such marriages may be seen.
The 400,000 Japanese citizen inhabitants of Sakhalin (including all indigenous Ainu) were deported following the conquest of the southern portion of the island by the Soviet Union in 1945 at the end of World War II.
Today, many Ainu dislike the term Ainu because once it had been used with derogatory nuance and prefer to identify themselves as Utari (comrade in the Ainu language). In official documents both names are used.
On 6 June 2008, a bi-partisan, non-binding resolution was approved by the Japanese parliament calling upon the government to recognize the Ainu people as indigenous to Japan and urge an end to discrimination against the group. This recognised the Ainu people as "an indigenous people with a distinct language, religion and culture" and rescinds the law passed in 1899. Though the movement is historical and important, Hideaki Uemura, professor at Keisen University in Tokyo and a specialist in indigenous peoples' rights, states the notion is "weak in the sense of recognizing historical facts" as Ainu were "forced" to become Japanese in the first place.
The Ainu were distributed through the islands of Japan. From Sakhalin island in the north to the Kurile islands and the island of Hokkaidō and Northern Honshū, although some investigators place their former range as throughout Honshū and as far north as the southern tip of Kamchatka. The island of Hokkaido was known to the Ainu as Ainu Moshir, and was formally annexed by the Japanese at the late date of 1868, partly as a means of preventing the intrusion of the Russians, and partly for imperialist reasons.
According to Russian Empire Census of 1897, 1446 persons in Russian Empire reported Ainu language as their mother tongue, 1434 of them in Sakhalin Island. For historical reasons nearly all Ainu live in Japan now. The southern half of Sakhalin was acquired by Japan as a result of the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05, but at the end of World War II in 1945, the Soviets declared war on Japan and took possession of the Kurile islands and southern Sakhalin. The Ainu population, as previously Japanese subjects, were "repatriated" to Japan.
There are, however, a small number of Ainu living on Sakhalin, most of them descendants of Sakhalin Ainu who were evicted and later returned. There is also an Ainu minority living at the southernmost area of the Kamchatka Peninsula and on the Kurile Islands. However, the only Ainu speakers remaining (besides perhaps a few partial speakers) live solely in Japan. There, they are concentrated primarily on the southern and eastern coasts of the island of Hokkaidō.
Due to intermarriage with the Japanese and ongoing absorption into the predominant culture, there are no truly Ainu settlements existing today. The town of Nibutani in Hidaka area (Hokkaido prefecture) has a number of Ainu households and a visit to some of the Ainu owned craft shops close to the Ainu museums (there are two of them in Nibutani) is an opportunity to interact with the Ainu people. Many "authentic Ainu villages" advertised in Hokkaido such as Akan and Shiraoi are tourist attractions and provide an opportunity to see and meet Ainu people.
Main article: Ainu language
The Ainu language is significantly different from the Japanese language in its syntax, phonology, morphology, and vocabulary. Although there have been attempts to show that they are related, the vast majority of modern scholars reject that the relationship goes beyond contact, such as the mutual borrowing of words between Japanese and Ainu. In fact, no attempt to show a relationship with Ainu to any other language has gained wide acceptance, and Ainu is currently considered to be a language isolate. The Ainu language is polysynthetic, and attempts have been made to relate Japanese, Korean and Ainu via an early proto-Ainu language. Words used as prepositions in English such as: to, from, by, in, and at are postpositional in Ainu and come after the word that they modify. A single sentence in Ainu can be made up of many added or agglutinated sounds or morphemes which represent nouns or ideas. The Ainu language has had no system of writing, and has historically been transliterated by the Japanese kana or the Russian Cyrillic and now Latin alphabets by investigators. The unwieldy nature of the Japanese kana with its inability to accurately represent terminal consonants has contributed to the degradation of the original Ainu, with such words as "Kor" (meaning to hold), being pronounced now with a terminal vowel sound, "Koro", in many Japanese Ainu dialects, as distinct from the Kurile or Sakhalin Ainu. Many of the Ainu dialects even from one end of Hokkaido to the other were not mutually intelligible; however, the classic Ainu language of the Yukar, or Ainu epic stories, was understood by all. Without a writing system, the Ainu were masters of narration, with the Yukar and other forms of narration such as the Uepeker (Uwepeker) tales, being committed to memory and related at gatherings often lasting many hours or even days.
Traditional Ainu culture was quite different from Japanese culture. Never shaving after a certain age, the men had full beards and moustaches. Men and women alike cut their hair level with the shoulders at the sides of the head, trimmed semicircularly behind. The women tattooed their mouths, and sometimes the forearms. The mouth tattoos were started at a young age with a small spot on the upper lip, gradually increasing with size. The soot deposited on a pot hung over a fire of birch bark was used for color. Their traditional dress was a robe spun from the inner bark of the elm tree, called attusi or attush. Various styles of clothing were made, and consisted generally of a simple short robe with straight sleeves, which was folded around the body, and tied with a band about the waist. The sleeves ended at the wrist or forearm and the length generally was to the calves. Women also wore an undergarment of Japanese cloth. Modern craftswomen weave and embroider traditional garments which command very high prices. In winter the skins of animals were worn, with leggings of deerskin and in Sakhalin, boots were made from the skin of dogs or salmon. Both sexes are fond of earrings, which are said to have been made of grapevine in former times, as also are bead necklaces called tamasay, which the women prized highly. Their traditional cuisine consists of the flesh of bear, fox, wolf, badger, ox or horse, as well as fish, fowl, millet, vegetables, herbs, and roots. They never ate raw fish or flesh; it was always boiled or roasted. Their traditional habitations were reed-thatched huts, the largest 20 ft. (6 m) square, without partitions and having a fireplace in the center. There was no chimney, only a hole at the angle of the roof; there was one window on the eastern side and there were two doors. The house of the village head was used as a public meeting place when one was needed. Instead of using furniture, they sat on the floor, which was covered with two layers of mats, one of rush, the other of flag; and for beds they spread planks, hanging mats around them on poles, and employing skins for coverlets. The men used chopsticks when eating; the women had wooden spoons. Ainu cuisine is not commonly eaten outside Ainu communities; there are only a few Ainu-run restaurants in Japan, all located in Tokyo or Hokkaidō, serving primarily Japanese fare.
For more information see Ainu creation myth.
The Ainu are traditionally animists, believing that everything in nature has a kamuy (spirit or god) on the inside. There is a hierarchy of the kamuy. The most important is grandmother earth (fire), then kamuy of the mountain (animals), then kamuy of the sea (sea animals), lastly everything else. They have no priests by profession. The village chief performs whatever religious ceremonies are necessary; ceremonies are confined to making libations of rice beer, uttering prayers, and offering willow sticks with wooden shavings attached to them. These sticks are called inau (singular) and nusa (plural). They are placed on an altar used to "send back" the spirits of killed animals. The Ainu people give thanks to the gods before eating and pray to the deity of fire in time of sickness. They believe their spirits are immortal, and that their spirits will be rewarded hereafter by ascending to kamuy mosir (Land of the Gods).
Some Ainu in the north are members of the Russian Orthodox Church.