Ainu are the indigenous people of Asia’s northern Pacific Rim, who live principally on the Japanese island of Hokkaidō. The Ainu once inhabited the southern Kamchatka Peninsula and the island of Sakhalin in far eastern Russia, the Kuril Islands, and at least the Tōhoku region of Japan’s main island, Honshū. Over the centuries they were driven north by invaders from the Asian mainland, who became the present-day Japanese. At least 25,000 Ainu live on Hokkaidō; an unknown number, perhaps many thousands, live elsewhere in Japan.
The Ainu were once thought to be related to European peoples because of their thick wavy hair, and in men, abundant body hair, muscular build, and heavy beard. However, recent genetic evidence strongly suggests that the Ainu are the direct descendants of the Jōmon, an ancient northern Asian people. Oral history suggests the Ainu may be related to the Tlingit people of coastal Alaska. The Ainu language, thought to be unrelated to any other, is no longer spoken, but there is now much interest in preserving what knowledge of it remains.