The Ainu Influence on the Japanese Language

When most Japanese language learners think of Japan’s “borrowed words”, words in English, French, Portuguese, and German spring to mind.  Less common, and less commonly considered, are the words of some of Japan’s First Nations population, the Ainu.

“Ainu” means “human” in the Ainu language.  The origins of the Ainu are unclear, but the consensus seems to be that they are the historical residents of parts of Hokkaido, Sakhalin, and the Kuril Islands, dating back over 800 years.    For a summary of their origins, check out this link, or this able explanation by Tofugu.


The origins of the Ainu language – or rather of the Ainu languages (or dialects) – are similarly unclear.  Interestingly, no genealogical relationship between Ainu and any other language family has been demonstrated, making it a language isolate like Basque or Korean.  Ainu has no system of writing, and is often represented by Japanese kana, or in romaji.  It is an endangered language, with reports of fewer than 100 Ainu speakers still in existence, with some reports of as few as 15 “native” speakers.

There are a number of Ainu loanwords which now reside in the Japanese language.  More common examples include:

  • シシャモ:  A smelt (fish), that is rightly popular and delicious.  The word is said to derive from the Ainu word susam, which is supposed to be derived from a compound of Ainu susu “willow” + ham “leaf”, hence its name in kanji ((柳葉魚).
  • ラッコ:  An otter, which derives from the Ainu word rakko (meaning, you guessed it, “otter”).
  • トナカイ:  A reindeer, which derives from the Ainu word – tunakai – for the same animal.
  • ホッキ貝:  A clam, also known in Japan as ウバガイ.  The term comes from the Ainu word poksey.
  • コマイ: Saffron cod, from the Ainu word komai.
  • ハスカップ:  A honeysuckle indigenous to the northern hemisphere, including Hokkaido.  The word comes from the Ainu word haskap.
  • エトピリカ:  A tufted puffin, from the Ainu etu pirka.

This is just the tip of a very large lingustic, cultural, and historical Ainu iceberg.  I would encourage you to learn more about this important and fascinating people, and appreciate their impact not just on the Japanese language and history.