The Ainu languages were a small language family spoken on the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido, the southern half of the island of Sakhalin, and the Kuril Islands, an island chain that stretches from Hokkaido to the southern tip of the Kamchatka Peninsula. They are often considered dialects of a single language isolate. There remain only a few speakers of Hokkaido Ainu.
Ainu is a moribund language, and has been endangered for at least the past few decades. Most of the 150,000 ethnic Ainu in Japan speak only Japanese. In the town of Nibutani (part of Biratori, Hokkaido) where many of the remaining native speakers live, there are 100 speakers, out of which only 15 used the language every day in the late 1980s. The number of speakers today (by whatever definition one may use) is not known with any certainty. In all of Hokkaido, it is estimated that there are perhaps 1,000 native speakers, almost all older than 30. Among Ainu speakers (broadly defined), second-language learners presently outnumber native ones. However, use of the language is on the rise. There is currently an active movement to revitalize the language — mainly in Hokkaido but also elsewhere — to reverse the centuries-long decline in the number of speakers. This has led to an increasing number of second-language learners, especially in Hokkaidō, in large part due to the pioneering efforts of the late Ainu folklorist, activist and former Diet member Kayano Shigeru, himself a native speaker.