After dinner and when it was dark, I returned to visit the snow sculptures at night.
Since we are in Sapporo, founded in the late nineteenth century in what was then largely an Ainu island, I will relate something of the Ainu.
History of the Ainu.
The Ainu are the indigenous people of Japan, now found mainly in Hokkaido. They are different in appearance from the Japanese, hairier, deep-set eyes, tending to be taller and can look like Europeans. In their traditional society, they had animist beliefs, with especial reverence to the bears. Males grew long beards and women had tattooed lips.
One theory is that the Ainu are a Caucasian people but it is not clear whether this is the case. They appear to be descended from the ancient Jomon people of prehistoric Japan and have been in Japan for many thousands of years.
The Ainu once lived all over Japan but were gradually pushed further and further north. When Toyotomi Hideyoshi unified Japan in 1590, that did not include Hokkaido and the northernmost part of Honshu, which were still Ainu territory. During the Tokugawa era, the Japanese took over the north of Honshu and settled in the south of Hokkaido. Though increasingly under Japanese influence, the Ainu largely retained their own culture and much of their way of life.
The Ainu are often seen as a “primitive” hunter-gatherer society but this may in part be nineteenth century Japanese prejudice to help justify taking over their lands without compensation. They lived in houses, rather than being nomads, they also undertook agriculture and from the 14th to 17th centuries had extensive trading contacts with nearby countries in their ocean-going canoes.
Following the Meiji Restoration in 1868 came a determined attempt to colonise Hokkaido and this included founding Sapporo in 1871. Over the next 130 years, the Ainu were assimilated, their culture suppressed and their language banned.
Their rights were only legally recognised as recently as 1998 and there has been some cultural regeneration since. There is said to be some 25,000 Ainu living in Hokkaido though perhaps there could be more because it had been prudent for Ainu to deny their identity in Japan for so long. There are very few without other ethnic ancestry and only a handful of remaining Ainu speakers.
There are also very few people left in Russia who identify themselves as Ainu. Most Sakhalin Ainu were repatriated to Japan after the Second World War and Russia no longer recognises the Ainu as a current ethnic group.