A Cotton Coat Made by Japan's Ainu People main content.

A Cotton Coat Made by Japan's Ainu People

by AMNH on

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Detail of white applique patterning on a dark blue coat. The patterns featured in Ainu textiles were not intended to represent anything specific, but the garment was meant to protect the wearer.
©AMNH

This dark blue cotton coat with white appliques from the Museum’s Anthropology Collection is an exquisite example of traditional clothing of the Ainu, indigenous people living in Hokkaido, Japan’s second largest and northernmost island.

The coat was collected in the Shiraoi subprefecture in 1901 by Bashford Dean, the Museum’s first curator of fishes, while he was in Japan on a zoological expedition. It is distinctive for being made primarily of cotton, which became more common after the Ainu (pronounced EYE-noo, and the word for “human” in the Ainu language) began trading with the Japanese during the Edo era (1615–1868). The Ainu are better known for materials used in the so-called “bark” clothes—robes made of attush, fibers spun from the inner bark of the elm tree, or retarpe, white fibers made from nettles.

To make coats like this one, Ainu men gathered the raw materials, while weaving, sewing, and decorating the clothing was done by Ainu women. Basic designs were passed from mother to daughter, and young women were expected to combine and vary these to create their own patterns.

Each garment was unique, crafted with the wearer in mind. The patterns themselves were not intended to represent anything, but the finished product was meant to protect the person wearing it and to please the gods the Ainu believe dwell in everything on Earth, from wind to water, animals to household implements. Some scholars have suggested the patterns might echo the tattoos, on their lips, hands, and arms, for which the Ainu women were once known.

As a minority group, the Ainu were forcibly assimilated and, beginning in the Meiji era (1868–1912), prohibited from hunting, fishing, and speaking their own language. They were also forced to use Japanese names. In recent years, efforts to preserve the Ainu language and culture gained momentum, and in 2008, a resolution of the Japanese parliament recognized the Ainu as a people with a “distinct language, religion, and culture.”

 

A version of this story appeared in the Winter issue of the member magazine, Rotunda.