Page last updated at 01:37 GMT, Friday, 6 June 2008 02:37 UK

Recognition at last for Japan's Ainu

By Philippa Fogarty
BBC News

Undated image of an Ainu man (Image: the Ainu Museum)
The Ainu have lived in Hokkaido for centuries (Image: Ainu Museum)

In the 19th Century, Japanese people called the northern island of Hokkaido "Ezochi".

It meant "Land of the Ainu", a reference to the fair-skinned, long-haired people who had lived there for hundreds of years.

The Ainu were hunters and fishermen with animist beliefs.

But their communities and traditions were eroded by waves of Japanese settlement and subsequent assimilation policies.

Today only small numbers of Ainu remain, and they constitute one of Japan's most marginalised groups.

On Friday they will have something to celebrate.

Japan's parliament is to adopt a resolution that, for the first time, formally recognises the Ainu as "an indigenous people with a distinct language, religion and culture".

In a nation that has always preferred to perceive itself as ethnically homogenous, it is a highly significant move.

"This resolution has great meaning," says Tadashi Kato, director of the Ainu Association of Hokkaido. "It has taken the Japanese government 140 years to recognise us as an indigenous people."

Language banned

There is no definitive theory as to where the Ainu came from.

What is clear is that they have lived in Hokkaido and parts of the Russian Far East - the disputed Kurile Islands and southern Sakhalin Island - for hundreds of years.


Traditionally they lived off the land, worshipping natural landmarks and animals, especially bears.

Japanese settlers started moving into Hokkaido in the 15th Century and gradually pushed the Ainu north.

They brought infectious diseases and so Ainu populations fell. Then, when the Meiji government came to power in 1868, the pace of Japanese settlement increased.

Ainu land was redistributed to Japanese farmers. Ainu language was banned and children put into Japanese schools. Japanese names became compulsory.

Finally, in 1899, the Japanese government passed an act which labelled the Ainu "former Aborigines". The idea was that, henceforth, they would assimilate.

This act stood for almost 100 years. Successive governments held that there was no "Ainu issue" and insisted that Japan did not have any ethnic minority groups.

Undated image of an Ainu man hunting (Image: the Ainu Museum)
Ainu lived off the land, and suffered when Japanese farmers moved in

Ainu culture was not seen as something to be celebrated or preserved, so many grew up ignorant or ashamed of their cultural heritage.

Discrimination was and still is a problem - in schools, in the workplace and for marriage - with some Ainu choosing not to reveal their background.

Today, there is still a gap in terms of standards of living and levels of education between the Ainu and their compatriots.

Events in 1997, however, signalled the start of a shift.

After a legal challenge, the Sapporo district court ruled the government had illegally taken Ainu land to build a dam and failed to consider "the unique culture of the indigenous Ainu minority".

It was the first official acknowledgment of any kind of separate Ainu identity.

Four months later, the government replaced the act of 1899 with a law that allocated government funds to promote Ainu culture.

Efforts to revive language, traditional dances and music gathered steam, contributing to a more positive appreciation of Ainu culture.

But the government still did not recognise the Ainu as an indigenous people or offer substantive proposals to support them on a day-to-day basis.

'Symbolic value'

Now it is taking another step.

The parliamentary resolution will give the Ainu formal recognition. It will also call on the government to establish an expert panel to advise on Ainu policy.

Ainu plaintiffs arrive at the Sapporo district court in March 2002
Ainu activism has gathered strength in recent decades

Teruki Tsunemoto, director of Hokkaido University's Centre for Ainu and Indigenous Studies, says the move will put the issue on the national agenda.

"It will help the government formulate comprehensive general policies towards Ainu people that will improve their economic and social position," he said.

It will also have a more long-term effect of bolstering Ainu ethnic pride, he believes.

"People felt they were discriminated against because they were Ainu, so being Ainu used to be a minus. Now maybe this resolution will help people to feel pride," he said.

Immediate concrete benefits of the resolution are less clear.

Dr Richard Siddle, author of Race, Resistance and the Ainu of Japan, says the resolution's significance is primarily symbolic.

"This admission puts no obligations on the government," he says. "Very little will change for the Ainu because of this. It's a step forward, but not an epoch-making step as some people are portraying."

As to the timing of the resolution, there are several factors.

International focus on the issue of indigenous rights has increased in recent years, putting more pressure on the government.

There is also the issue of the Kurile Islands - both Russia and Japan claim them but the Ainu were their original inhabitants.

It could be that the Japanese government has come to perceive the Ainu as a potential asset in the negotiations on this issue, Dr Siddle says.

A third factor is the upcoming G8 summit in Hokkaido in July.

"The Ainu want to be involved in the summit and want to do a ceremony to open it," he says. "Involvement in the summit has given them some leverage."

Whatever the reason, Japan is finally going to acknowledge that it is host to an indigenous people.

After more than a century of being told they do not exist, it is a big day for the Ainu.

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