The Ainu were early settlers of Japan and by the Edo period, occupied the islands of Hokkaido, the southern part of Sakhalin, the Kuril islands, and, to some extent, also the north of Honshu and the south of Kamchatka. They were hunters, fishers, and gatherers who traded furs, whale oil, and other materials with neighboring cultures. Their seafaring boats could make it to Manchuria and bypass the Japanese trade regulations of the Tokugawa shogunate.
Genetically the Ainu are most strongly related to the people of the Ryukyu islands.1 It is interesting that both cultures often depict the mitsudomoe, a symbol consisting of three comma shapes. In Japan it is associated with Hachiman, God of archery and war. On Ryukyu it was adopted by Shō Toku (1441–1469), last king of the First Shō Dynasty who took it as his banner, it remained the royal emblem of the Ryukyu kingdom until its deposition in 1879.
Mitsudomoe on an Ainu makiri scabbard.
1. Yuka Suzuki; Ryukyuan, Ainu People Genetically Similar. December 6, 2012. Asianscientist.com.
19th-century ethnographers noticed that the Ainu had no metal production and relied solely on trade for articles like knives and swords. However, archaeologists found iron working facilities in 1988 and 1990, which dated to between 1663-1667.1 Before that, iron production had existed in Hokkaido from at least the Satsumon culture of 700-1200 A.D. onwards, which already produced swords, knives, and iron arrowheads.2
Iron ore was probably rare because Dutch explorer Maerten Gerritszoon Vries noted during his 1643 encounter with the Ainu that they were extremely keen on obtaining iron in any form and preferred it over silver.3
Following a 1669-1672 revolt of the Ainu against the Matsumae clan of Hokkaido, which resulted in a ban on iron production and possession.4 From then on, many swords were kept hidden in collections, or as we see in the antique record, some were mounted with short-ish blades unsuitable for actual fighting.5
A complete ban was, of course, almost impossible to maintain, and it seems the Ainu had always been able to obtain small amounts of iron for knives. By the late 18th century, it seems the Ainu were still able to improve on low-quality articles they obtained by trade:
"...although it was strictly forbidden by the Matsumae to give iron material to the Ezo [Ainu], many iron products, including carpenters tools, had been passing to the Ezo [Ainu] for a long time. Such products were always of low quality but when the Ezo [Ainu] received them they transformed them into ones of higher quality." 6
-Furukawa Koshöken, 1788
In the 19th century ethnographers noted that swords were primarily used during ceremonies for expelling evil.7 The older the sword, the more powerful it was, and so many wealthier Ainu families kept collections of older swords.
1. Yuriko Fukasawa; Ainu archaeology as ethnohistory; Iron technology among the Saru Ainu of Hokkaido in the 17th century. British Archaeological Reports. University of Michigan. 1978.
3. C. J. Coen & P. F. von Siebold; Reize van Maarten Gerritsz. Vries in 1643 naar het Noorden en Oosten van Japan volgens het journaal gehouden door C.J. Coen, op het schip Castricum. Amsterdam. Frederik Muller. 1853. Pages 377-378.
4. Yuriko Fukasawa; Ainu archaeology as ethnohistory; Iron technology among the Saru Ainu of Hokkaido in the 17th century. Pages 48-49.
5. See our Ainu sword listed here, and one with a similar non-fuctional blade in the Penn Museum, accession number A469B.
6. Translation by Yuriko Fukasawa. Ibid.
7. John Batchelor; An Ainu-English-Japanese dictionary (including a grammar of the Ainu language). Tokyo Methodist Publishing House, 1905. For the ritual, see, same author: The Ainu of Japan: the religion, superstitions, and general history of the hairy aborigines of Japan. London, Religious Tract Society, 1892.
The most common knife carried by virtually every Ainu was a small utility knife called makiri. Other knives that turn up in literature are:
Aripekunne; small knives
Epesap; a kind of flat knife
Kamanata; a large knife
Komgep-makiri; a knife used for carving
Kuttom-ushbe; a large knife carried in the belt
Nata; a kind of large, pointless knife
Shuke-tashiro; a kitchen knife
Tashiro; a large knife
Source of terms:
John Batchelor; An Ainu-English-Japanese dictionary. 1905.
The Ainu men used their makiri for woodcarving and for preparing food. Women carried a slightly smaller version called menoko-makiri which they used for food and for the gathering of fruits and bark.
In use, it was notable that:
"The knife in cutting is frequently, perhaps generally, drawn toward the cutter."
-Frederick Starr; The Ainu group at the Saint Louis exposition.
Chicago, The Open Court Publishing Company, 1904. Page 106.
Ainu hunters. The one on the left carrying his makiri.
19th century painting. Anonymous.
Brooklyn Museum accession number X1085.
Makiri knives of the 19th century, sheathed and unsheathed.
Mandarin Mansion inventory 2022.
According to Batchelor these are large knives that are carried in the belt. A number of extant Ainu weapons fit the description, they bear resemblance to the Japanese tantō, including having a loop on the scabbard that the Japanese call kurigata. It is used for attaching the sageo, a strap that in turn attaches the scabbard to the belt so it doesn't come along during a quick draw.
An Ainu kuttom-ushbe.
Mandarin Mansion inventory 2022.
On Ainu wood carving
Here follows an interesting excerpt from Arnold Henry Savage Landor, who lived among the Ainu in 1893:
Arnold Henry Savage Landor;
Alone with the hairy Ainu: or, 3800 miles on a pack saddle in Yezo and a cruise to the Kurile islands.
London, John Murray. 1893. Pages 218-223.
Arnold Henry Savage Landor, 1865-1924.
The first record of swords used by the Ainu I am aware of comes from the Dutch explorer Maerten Gerritszoon Vries:
"There were four men, two women, two girls and one young girl in all on this beach where we landed to enquire about gold and silver. One man possesses a sword of which the metallic part was inlaid with silver." 1
In Japanese sources, there is the richly illustrated Ezo Shi by Arai Hakuseki, published in 1720.2 It shows an Ainu sword called emushi with its typical sword sash with which they carried it over their shoulder, and a photo of Ainu with larger swords carried on their backs.
Illustrations from the Ezo Shi.
As mentioned in the introduction, the Ainu initially had their own iron and steel production but after the 1669-1672 revolt of the Ainu against the Matsumae, the latter issued a ban on all iron products. It seems that local sword production sezied, but smaller knives and tools have always kept coming through as contraband.2
By the 19th century Ainu swords were classified in two main types. Antique imported heirlooms called tombe and the locally made and worn emushi. Due to the prohibition on iron arms enforced by the Matsumae clan of Hokkaido, most tombe were bladeless by the time ethnographers got to see them.
"The tomhe are ancient swords - old heirlooms, which, however, are how bladeless, for the Ainu were not allowed by the ancient Japanese to have any blades in their swords. These bladeless swords are usually stowed away in long boxes, and placed upon the beams of the huts." 3
A functional sword in polish that reveals that was not produced in the Japanese tradition, but by the Ainu themselves.
Therefore it probably predates the 1672 ban.
Sold by Mandarin Mansion in 2021.
Swords fell out of offensive use after the 1672 ban, but still fulfilled an important ceremonial function. They were kept as valuable heirlooms, worn as status symbols, and used to drive away evil spirits. An 1892 description of one of the ceremonies:
"When an accidental death has taken place, either by drowning or otherwise, the Ainu, as soon as they find it out, proceed to perform a ceremony frequently called Sarak kamui. The ceremony is as follows. Sake is procured by the relatives of the victim, and messengers are sent to the different villages to invite the men and women to join in the proceedings. The men bring their swords or long knives, and the women their head-gear. On arriving at the appointed hut, the chiefs of the people assembled proceed to chant their dirges and worship the fire god. Then, after eating some cakes, made of pounded millet, and drinking a good proportion of sake, they all go out of doors in single file, the men leading. The men draw their swords or knives, and hold them, point upwards, in the right hand, close to the shoulder, and then altogether they take a step with the left foot, at the same time stretching forward to the full extent the right hand with the sword, and calling, as if with one voice, wooi!' Then the right foot is moved forward, the sword at the same time being drawn back, and the wooi repeated. This is continued till the place of accident is reached. The women follow the men, and with dishevelled hair, their head-gear hanging over the shoulders, they continue to weep and howl during the whole ceremony. Arrived at the place of accident, a continual howling is kept up for some time, and the men strike hither and thither with their swords, supposing that thus they are driving away the evil Sarak kamui. This finished, the people return to the house of the deceased in the same order as they came forth, and, sad to say, feast, drink sake and get intoxicated."
To be able to legally carry them, many many Ainu swords were fitted with shorter, non-functional blades with no good attachment to the guard and hilt. They often come with oversized scabbards that suggest that they would have originally housed full-length, functional blades. There is also an Ainu sword in the Penn museum such a construction, accession number A469B.
Ainu ceremonial sword with non-functional blade.
Mandarin Mansion inventory 2022.
Ainu postcard with swords in the background.
Notice the loose hilts with slanted guards.
1. C. J. Coen & P. F. von Siebold; Reize van Maerten Gerritsz. Vries in 1643 naar het Noorden en Oosten van Japan volgens het journaal gehouden door C.J. Coen, op het schip Castricum. Amsterdam. Frederik Muller. 1853.
2. Arai Hakuseki; Ezo Shi (蝦夷志). 1720. Library of congress 00504767.
3. John Batchelor; The Ainu of Japan. Page 49.
4. Ibid. Page 94.