Ainu dance is rooted in ancient Japanese culture, and is often considered to be one of the earliest forms of dance in Japan. The Ainu people are considered to be indigenous, and today there is still a small native population of Ainu Japan.
About Ainu Dance
Ainu dance, accompanied by its own style of music by the same name, is based on the worship of spirit deities. These are called kamui in the Japanese-Ainu language. The majority of the deities are connected to animals that were considered important to the ancient Japanese, including the bear, owl and turtle.
The Ainu Japanese folk dance genre consist of both social dancing styles that all can participate in, and pantomime dance that tells stories in a performance style. Most of the stories are based on animals and the livelihood of the Ainu tribe. These include the bird dance (chikap rimse), which portrays a flying flock of birds in its choreography, and the whale dance (fumpenere), which speaks of a time when the tribe celebrated and shared whale meat together for a feast.
In the fumpenere, an old woman finds a sickly whale that has beached itself upon the shore. Considered to be a blessing from their gods, the Ainu villagers hear the news of the whale and begin to butcher it for the entire village to share. This story evolves into dance movements designed to pray for a plentiful hunt for all Ainu people each time it is performed.
Other Ainu dance themes include:
- Sarorunchikap rimse - dance of the cranes
- Chak peeyak - rain swallows
- Chironnup rimse - fox dance
- Isepoupopo - dance with a hare theme
- Erum upopo - mouse dance
- Sir kor kamuy - acorn collecting dance
This list contains just a selection of the complete ancient Ainu repertoire. Like many other forms of cultural dance, the movements and themes are unique in each region, and many dances have been lost or forgotten over the years. The important theme that has survived throughout all of the Ainu dance history is the fact that each dance celebrates life, society, work and community of the Ainu people.
Another aspect of this ancient dance culture is competition. Often, a group dance began, and then the individuality of each participant started to come out as the movements became more interpretive and the pace more intense. The winner of the dance competition would be the one with the largest amount of stamina - able to "out dance" all the other participants.
Ainu dancers traditionally wore short kimonos made out of brilliantly-colored fabrics such as a deep blue. Intricate embroidery in a contrasting white or yellow decorated the neckline, sleeves, and middle of the fabric. A belt, usually in a bold and significant color such as red, was worn around the waist. Belt embroidery was featured in bright, contrasting colors as well.
Modern Ainu Culture and Dance
Today's Ainu population is scarce. Approximately 80% of it is made up of mixed cultures, so there are very few full-blooded Ainus who celebrate the original culture and traditions. The elderly population of Japan pushed the music and dance traditions of the Ainu further into the public eye in recent decades, but as that generation began to die out, so did the memories and cultural lessons. One young musician in particular, Oki Kano, has worked hard to revive Ainu music and dance tradition, bringing relevancy back to the ancient movements, and introducing the stories to a new generation of Japanese. He aims to teach young Ainu descendants about their history and restore a culture of dance and song that has been all but forgotten.
Today you can witness Ainu dancing and other aspects of the ancient culture by visiting a festival or museum in Japan focusing on this particular art form. While this culture has partially disappeared, young musicians and dancers have the skills and vitality to revive it, both within Japan and around the world.