15 May

World Cultures: Ainu Tattoos

By Thomas Jang

Tattoos were once an important tradition practiced among the Ainu people, an Indigenous hunter-gathering people who live throughout the island of Hokkaido in Japan. Before the onset of displacement, genocide, and settlement by Japan beginning on the island, the Ainu also largely lived throughout northern Tōhuku and southern Sakhalin. 

Tattooing is referred to as nuye in the modern Ainu language. It is called this particularly in Hokkaido Ainu, spoken among 30,000 people, including among as few as five elders. 

Nuye means “to carve” or “to write.” It can be specified as “to carve oneself” by the term sinuye. In older versions of the Ainu language, it was called anchi-piri




Tattooing and wearing tattoos were only extended to Ainu women. Ainu mythology states tattooing was introduced to the earth by the Ainu’s ancestral mother named Okikurumi Turesh Machi, the younger sister of Okikurumi, the creator god. As this mythology showcased tattooing as introduced by a female ancestor, it was passed down exclusively between generations of women. In addition, Ainu women practiced as tattoo artists and were known as “tattoo aunts” or “tattoo women” in their communities. 

Tattoos were worn around the mouth, arms and hands. Girls ages six or seven received their first tattoos in the form of geometric shapes and curved lines, to protect themselves from bad spirits and diseases. 

A ceremonial knife was used to carve a few dots near the upper lip. Each year after, more cuts would be made to form the larger lip tattoo and, afterwards, would be rubbed with charcoal. An antiseptic consisting of boiled ash bark would be used to clean the wound. When completed, the tattoos resemble smiles and further signify the wearer’s beauty, achievement of maturity, marriage status, and their life after death. 

These parts of the body received tattoos to resemble the wearers as Ainu goddesses. This way, it was perceived to scare off disease-carrying demons who mistake the wearers for the goddesses.  

Beginning in 1871, Japan banned the tradition of tattooing to force the Ainu to assimilate into their culture. Consequently, the tradition began to disappear as women chose to wear less tattoos. Currently, Ainu has become a critically endangered language, with Hokkaido Ainu the most spoken version in the Ainu language family. 

On the other hand, the Kuril and Sakhalin Ainu languages have become extinct, upon the death of its last speakers in 1962 and 1994 respectively. The Ainu still face discrimination, yet efforts have been made to relearn and teach Ainu culture and traditions within communities and universities by both Ainu and Japanese. Moreover, this June will mark 16 years since the Ainu people were given official recognition by Japan in 2008.