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Vintage ethnographic postcards are far from trivial memorabilia; they often offer the best photographic documentation we have of remote cultures in their intact state.

They were a very effective means of conveying what a traveler was seeing at a time when few people owned a camera.

The images tend to date from the later 19th Century until the 1920s, when camera ownership became more widespread, and exotic postcards went out of fashion.

The Ainu are a small population of Paleo-Mongoloid racial stock living on the most northerly island of Japan, Hokkaido, as well as the lower half of the Russo-Siberian island of Sakhalin; the Ainu formerly inhabited the Kuril Islands but were evacuated to Hokkaido after WWII.

Ainu language, belief systems, tattoos and hirsute appearance are very distinct from that of the dominate Japanese society to the south and for this they bore much discrimination. Ainu means “man” in their own language but their historic name in proper Japanese translates as “descendants of dogs.” And yet DNA tests demonstrate that they in fact descend from the ancient Jomon peoples, the first arrivals to Japan, dating back 10,000 years. The Ainu are considered to be one of the earliest continuous world cultures with only the Australian Aborigines and the San (Kalahari Bushmen) being in this select group.

Through postcards, we may access the interior of traditional Ainu houses as well as bear witness to Ainu religious rituals, hunting and fishing; we get a feeling for where and how they lived in their natural environments of the time. 

These images reveal mysterious priests, warriors, and tattooed women dressed in traditional clothing, including very important Ainu robes. All robes are decorated on the front and back with a geometric pattern that is thought to ward off the evil eye. These garments may be made from golden colored fiber obtained from strips of chewed elm bark, attush, while retarpe, "white things," were made from nettle fiber. A generation later imported cotton trade cloth became far more available, permitting a creative efflorescence as the Ainu expanded the geometric decoration to cover the entire back of the robe, "kaparamip."


That the Ainu share cultural and aesthetic affinities with the Nanai and Nivkh tribal minorities in Siberia around the Amur River is well established. But researchers have also noted similarities between the geometric graphics of Ainu bear and fish totems and family crests of Northwest Coast Indians found painted on clan houses.