Ainu people costume and jewelry

Ainu wearing traditional costumeAinu wearing their traditional costume, photo courtesy  Roderick Eime

Have you ever heard about Ainu? Well, in case you haven't, they are indigenous people of Japan who used to live all over its territory in ancient times but not much of them are left now and nowadays they live mainly on Japanese Hokkaido and the Kuriles and southern Sakhalin Island of Russia. I decided to dedicate a post to this small ethnic group because the main element of their traditional costume, a robe worn by women and men alike, is considered one of the most unique and distinctive pieces of clothing in the world of ethnic dress. First, interesting were materials which Ainu originally used to create these robes: they could be made of plant fiber - bark of elm trees, for example; of animal fur/skin - dog's, bear's, seal's; of bird skin and feathers and even...of fish skin. Can you imagine a wearable robe made from fish skin? Honestly, I can't. But it turns out that garments made of fish skin are strong, light, durable and waterproof. Amazing, isn't it? It seems Ainu used all the nature resources available. Of course, nowadays nobody makes clothes from such unusual "fabrics" any more, with time cotton and silk started to be used, though traditional "bark" robes are still can be found.

Ainu robe made from salmon skin
Woman's special occasion robe made from salmon skin. Museum of Local History, Sakhalin

Second, to decorate the robes Ainu women invented unique and interesting technique of applique combined with embroidery. When cotton was introduced to Japan it was a rare thing. Ainu women bartered old Japanese kimonos or bed covers and collected them for several years. The pieces of old fabric were not large enough to make a whole coat. So, patterns were carefully cut out of it, sewn onto the robes and then embroidered. The applique on these earlier robes was applied in strips and the robes are called ruunpe. As cotton became more readily available in the second half of the eighteenth century, a new applique technique known as kaparamip developed. The most stunning of the Ainu designs were created in this technique. Large pieces of fabric in solid colours were laid over contrasting grounds, the patterns were cut out, sewn onto and then embroidered.

Ainu man's robe

Kaparamip robe

Ainu traditional robe

The motifs are simple - spirals, curves, brackets, thorns - but they form really spectacular designs. Originally the patterns had not only decorative but protective purpose as well and each family had its own specific symbolics. All openings, armholes, necklines, and hems had to be decorated in order to keep evil spirits from entering the wearer's body through them. The same reason is behind the symmetry of the motifs: to take all parts of the wearer's body equally protected the design had to be symmetrical. Though on some of the robes the patterns may seem similar, in reality they all differ. According to Ainu tradition all designs should be original, to make a "reproduction" would mean being disrespectful to gods.

Ainu Kaparamip robe, late 19th century
Ainu Kaparamip robe, late 19th century.  Collection of Thomas Murray

Ainu girl wearing traditional robe
Ainu girl wearing a traditional robe. Photo source

Traditional Ainu necklaceTraditional Ainu necklace, Ishinomake City Museum

For Ainu women necklaces were the most important jewelry and heirlooms. They were passed down through generations and highly treasured by their owners. They even were occasionally put out on display inside houses along with other prized possessions. These traditional necklaces called tamasai are most commonly made of blue, black or white glass beads obtained through trading with Chinese merchants. An additional wooden medallion decorated with metal rosettes is sometimes added to the string, and in this case the necklace is called shitoki. The shitoki medallion often represents the white-tailed sea eagles that the Ainu hunted. The more strands and beads a necklace has, the more valuable it is.

Wife of Ainu village chief wearing traditional necklaces, 1946
Wife of Ainu village chief. 1946 LIFE

Modern necklace inspired by traditional Ainu patternModern necklace inspired by Ainu patterns  ToyToy

Nowadays many young Japanese designers find inspiration in traditional patterns of the Ainu people and create modern contemporary designs that have a fresh new look and feel to them.

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  1. How fascinating. The Ainu are a tribe I've never heard of but I absolutely love those robes. The wonderfully graphic designs are just stunning. x

  2. Absolutely fascinating, Olga! Wonderful article. I actually have heard (read) of Ainu before, related to storytelling I think, it was a while back - I just loved the name "ainu", the sound and look of it. Learning about the wide variety of costumes, the meaning of designs and jewelry is so very enriching. You did a great job! I can imagine using these type of patterns in modern clothing, they look so contemporary to me, sort of minimalistic, but bold.

    I was also completely blown away when I first heard that Alaskan and some Native Americans used fish skin for clothes - it does make sense though when you think of it, imagine how sturdy and stretchy/pliable the skin of fish and sea animals really is. There is apparently also a native Chinese tribe who use it that way too. Being a modern person, it would never cross my mind as a possibility - but our ancestors dealt with a completely different world, didn't they. Absolutely amazing!

  3. As always, your research and knowledge are amazing, Olga, as are the robes and jewellery of the Ainu. xxx

  4. The traditional dress of the Ainu is beautiful and reminds me a bit of northwest coast First Nations dress. I didn't know about the fish skin as fabric but it makes sense. And I love the idea that a reproduction would be disrespectful.

  5. Oh my goodness, so ornate and lovely both the outfits and the jewelry. But fish skin?!? That would make for one stinky hot day :) Great article, dear! Kisses

    All Things Bright and Lovely

  6. I think I have heard of Ainu before but I didn' t know much about them. Thank you for sharing this. What a lovely article! Fascinating to read they even figured out how to make something out of fish skins...that's amazing.

    All the garments featured here are magically beautiful!


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  8. Interesting post!!! I like how back then everything was done by hand and had to be unique. ...It made things more valuable and special. Also how clothing was environmentalLy friendly. :)

  9. Interesting post. Please visit my page about the Ainu of Japan
    Thank you :-).

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