Global Policy Forum

Recognition for a People Who Faded as Japan Grew


By Norimitsu Onishi

New York Times
July 3, 2008

The Ainu had lived on Japan's northernmost island for centuries, calling their home Ainu Mosir, or Land of Human Beings. Here, they had fished, hunted, worshiped nature and established a culture that yielded "Yukar," an oral poem of Homeric length.

But just as with America's expansion West, the Japanese pushed north in the late 19th century in the first sign of their imperialist ambitions. Japanese settlers decimated the Ainu population, seized their land and renamed it Hokkaido, or North Sea Road.

And yet it was only a few weeks ago that the Japanese government finally, and unexpectedly, recognized the Ainu as an "indigenous people." Parliament introduced and quickly passed a resolution stating that the Ainu had a "distinct language, religion and culture," setting aside the belief, long expressed by conservatives, that Japan is an ethnically homogeneous nation.

The recognition - coming after decades of opposition by a government fearful of compensation claims - seemed timed to an international conference of indigenous peoples that Japan is hosting this week in Hokkaido. The Ainu's lack of recognition could have proved embarrassing for Japan's government, particularly since the conference also comes close to the Group of 8 summit meeting in Hokkaido next week.

In Hokkaido, and particularly in towns like Nibutani that have a high concentration of Ainu, official recognition has engendered strong emotions ranging from satisfaction at a long-sought status to suspicion that Tokyo's commitment to the Ainu will not last beyond the summit meeting.

"We were really deeply moved," said Tadashi Kato, president of the Ainu Association of Hokkaido, the country's largest organization of Ainu. "I felt that, not only our members, but especially our ancestors were rejoicing, even though they were of course silent. We couldn't hold back our tears." Mr. Kato, 69, added: "Some people are saying that this is meaningless. But that's not the point. That Parliament approved this is big - this is the first step."

What, then, is the next step? Is it to reclaim traditional lands or argue for special hunting or fishing rights, as indigenous peoples elsewhere have done? Is it to ask for an apology? Mr. Kato was not saying just yet, and opinions here were divided.

Complicating matters is the government's studiously vague recognition of the Ainu as an indigenous people. So far, it has not said whether recognition will entail certain rights and has indicated that its own definition of "indigenous people" will be narrower than the one adopted by the United Nations General Assembly last year in its Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Japan voted for the nonbinding declaration, but the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand opposed it on the grounds that it went too far in giving indigenous peoples rights over land and legislation. Still, in recent months, Canada and Australia have offered apologies for mistreating their indigenous populations in the past, and New Zealand transferred about 435,000 acres of plantation forest and forest rents to seven Maori tribes.

Shiro Kayano, director of the Nibutani Ainu Museum here, said the Japanese government should follow other governments' examples and offer the Ainu a broad apology, though he was pessimistic. "In other countries, governments have reflected on and apologized for their mistaken policies of the past, but the Japanese government will never do that," said Mr. Kayano, 50, who is the son of the late Shigeru Kayano, the first - and so far only - Ainu to have been elected a national lawmaker.

Mr. Kayano's museum - with its displays of traditional thatch houses and clothes made of bark - occupies a central spot in Nibutani, a town where 64 of its 190 families have registered themselves as Ainu. In the town center, a large red sign, "Nibutani, home of the Yukar," and a single, modest restaurant called Bee's and offering "Ainu cuisine" are the only tip-offs that Nibutani is not your average Japanese town.

On the edge of town, next to a river and the entrance of the forest, Yasuko Yamamichi runs an Ainu language school and called the official recognition "empty." She also wanted an apology but, like other Ainu interviewed, was hesitant about reclaiming traditional lands. "It's a little late for the Ainu to start telling the Japanese to do this and that," Ms. Yamamichi, 61, said.

In a study by the Hokkaido prefectural government in 2006, just under 24,000 people identified themselves as Ainu. Most were of mixed blood and lacked the telltale fair skin or hirsute features that distinguished older Ainu from the Japanese. But it is not known how many live outside Hokkaido since Japan has never conducted a nationwide census of Ainu.

The study found that 3.8 percent of Ainu received welfare benefits, compared with 2.5 percent of the non-Ainu living in the same communities. Only 17.4 percent of the Ainu had graduated from college, less than half of the 38.5 percent for the rest of the population. "There is certainly a gap between the Ainu and the general population, but the gap is far smaller compared to, say, Native Americans or Inuits," said Teruki Tsuneomoto, a law professor and director of the Center for Ainu and Indigenous Studies at the University of Hokkaido.

But the downside is that the Ainu have few of the special rights granted to indigenous peoples elsewhere and all but a minority were absorbed into the larger culture, said Mr. Tsuneomoto, who is not Ainu. "In Japan's case, for better or for worse, the assimilation policies since the Meiji era were so successful that almost nothing remains of the Ainu's traditional way of life," he said.

In 1869, one year after the start of the Meiji era, Tokyo set up the Hokkaido Colonization Board to encourage Japanese settlers to move to Hokkaido. The Ainu were eventually stripped of their land, forced to abandon hunting and fishing for farming, forbidden to speak their own language and taught only Japanese at school. That history - little known by the Japanese today and even among the Ainu themselves - was repeated later in Japan's Asian colonies. "That's why I think it's a good thing that Japan lost World War II," said Koichi Kaizawa, 60, an official at the Biratori Ainu Culture Preservation Association. "If Japan had won, so many others would have lost their language and culture."

But Jin Sunazawa, 45, a businessman, said he did not feel the "hostility toward the Japanese government" that some older Ainu did. Economic independence, he said, should be the Ainu's leading priority. "It's not healthy to keep blaming discrimination or history, and not work and pay taxes," Mr. Sunazawa said.

"I don't think assimilation is bad," he added. "I'm Sunazawa first, Ainu second."

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