Tokyo Moves to Officially Recognize the Ainu as an “Indigenous” Ethnic Minority
On Feb. 15, 2019, the Japanese Cabinet approved draft legislation, legally recognizing the Ainu as indigenous people of Japan — a first in modern Japanese history — and promoting “public awareness” about Ainu culture. The bill “aim[s]...to create a society where people who identify as Ainu can be proud of their roots without having to fear retribution or discrimination,” said Kenichi Ochiai, an associate professor of constitutional law at the Center for Ainu and Indigenous Studies at Hokkaido University.
The principles of this bill are based on Article 14 of the Japanese Constitution, which states, “all of the people are equal under the law and there shall be no discrimination in political, economic or social relations because of race, creed, sex, social status or family origin.” The draft legislation contains provisions banning discrimination against the Ainu people; obliging local and central governments in Japan to adopt policy measures that nurture the identity and culture of the Ainu; relaxing regulation to allow for the Ainu to conduct culturally important activities on state-owned land; and creating subsidies totaling at least 1 billion yen (9 million USD) for the promotion of tourism to Hokkaido, where the Ainu hail from.
However, this measure has proved to be a delicate matter of discussion, Professor Ochiai notes, as the irony of creating such a policy for the Ainu people is in and of itself substantially different treatment based according to their race. However, the bill reflects years of struggle in defining minorities due to Tokyo’s past policy of assimilation of minority groups.
The Ainu, a group of indigenous people located in primarily Japan, have lived for centuries on Japan’s main island of Hokkaido, with small groups of Ainu living in the nearby islands of Sakhalin and the Kurils. Due to the implementation of an assimilation policy pushed by the Japanese government during the rapid modernization and industrialization of the Meiji Era (1868-1912), the Ainu were forbidden from observing their own customs and cultural activities; with the passage of the “Hokkaido Former Natives Protection Law” in 1899, the Japanese government officially designated the Ainu as “former aborigines,” seized and redistributed communal Ainu land, and aggressively promoted an agricultural lifestyle based on rice-farming — in contrast with the more hunting-based traditional Ainu lifestyle. As such, the Ainu have struggled to pass down their language and culture.
In 1997, the Japanese government enacted “The New Ainu Law,”, which repealed the 1899 law and aimed to guarantee the preservation of Ainu culture and their human rights — nearly a century after Tokyo formally introduced the assimilation policy. While the 1997 law finally acknowledged the existence of the Ainu as an ethnic minority, it stopped short of declaring the Ainu as an “indigenous” group of Japan.
The new bill approved by the Cabinet last month seeks to “realize a society where the Ainu people can live with their ethnic pride which will be respected” by others. Under this bill, Tokyo will support local government efforts to preserve the traditional culture of the Ainu, including the creation of a national Ainu museum and park in Hokkaido by April 2020, three months before the opening of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.
Ainu rights groups have criticized the bill for not going far enough to reverse the historical discrimination suffered by the Ainu at the hands of the Japanese government. In its current form, the proposed bill will not give the Ainu people rights to land or territorial resources — something the Ainu have long lobbied for. At a Mar. 1 press conference at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan, Ainu rights groups leaders called the bill “deplorable” and the naming of the Ainu as an “indigenous people” as “empty words” without a suitable apology from Tokyo and “guarantee of aboriginal rights, such as the right of self-determination and land rights.”
Additionally, certain group leaders expressed their “very strong reservations and unease” about the proposed system of financial subsidies for encouraging tourism, with others framing the “positioning [of] Ainu culture at the center for proposals to promote tourism” as a cynical “scheme to sacrifice or exploit living Ainu as a resource for tourism.”
In 2007, Japan became one of 144 countries in the United Nations General Assembly to vote for adopting the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. The declaration called for the government of each state to take active legislative steps in order to protect the rights of the indigenous peoples within their borders.
Surveys conducted by local and central governments since 2007 regarding the well-being of the Ainu have consistently produced results suggesting that the Ainu fare worse in terms of economic situation and educational attainment. A 2009 survey by Hokkaido University found that average annual household income for Ainu was 60 percent of the national average and the college advancement rate of Ainu below 30 years of age was 20.2 percent, nearly one-half of the national rate. Similar disparities between the Ainu and the national average on these two main indices were also found by the Hokkaido local government in a 2013 survey, which also found that at least one-third of respondents reported experiencing or knowing of someone else experiencing discrimination based on their Ainu identity.
During a press conference held on Feb. 15 announcing the Cabinet’s approval of the draft bill, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga stated that the Japanese government “will implement comprehensive support measures, including the promotion of the Ainu culture and industry, under [its] future-oriented Ainu policy.” Should the bill pass the current ordinary Diet session — slated to end in June — the Ainu people will finally be recognized by law as an ethnic minority indigenous to the territory administered by the Japanese government.