Ainu woman, 1901, photo source
I have already written about the Ainu people costume and jewelry (here). And today's post is about another interesting feature that used to distinguish this ethnic group, particularly women. I am talking about tattoo. What was so unusual about the Ainu tattoo? Well, until very recently (the last fully tattooed Ainu woman died in 1998), Ainu women had black tattoos, resembling clown smiles, around their lips. And though Ainu women were also tattooed on the backs of the hands, wrists, forearms, eyebrows and forehead as well, their tattooed smiles were the most characteristic feature, and the most striking for any newcomer I would say.
According to legends, tattoo was brought to earth by the "ancestral mother" of the Ainu who was the younger sister of the creator god. Besides being considered sign of beauty, these tattoos were believed to prevent evil spirits from entering the body and causing sickness or misfortune. Secondly, the lip tattoos indicated that a woman had reached maturity and was ready for marriage. And finally, lip tattoos assured the woman's life after death in the place of her deceased ancestors. The areas around the eyebrows were also decorated with wavy lines, and the hands and forearms were adorned with a variety of patterns.
The painful operation was carried out by female specialists in several stages over a period of years. Powdered charcoal was rubbed into cuts made in the skin with small sharp knives. Girls were first tattooed with an arc of dots above the mouth at the early age of four or five; thereafter a new line was added each year. The process was finished by the age of marriage, usually around the age of fifteen. During wedding, the pattern was symbolically completed by the bridegroom, who executed the pointed extensions.
The tattoo design slightly differed depending on local regions. In the late 19th century the Japanese government prohibited this custom but it continued nonetheless until the 1920s. Nowadays Ainu women still tattoo their mouths for special ceremonies and festivals but those are temporary tattoos.