Japan's Ainu Recognized as Indigenous People

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Japan enacted legislation last Friday aimed at protecting the Ainu ethnic minority, while at the same time stipulating for the first time that they are an “indigenous” people. The bill also includes measures to make Japan a more inclusive society for the Ainu, strengthen their local economies and bring visibility to their culture. Japanese land minister Keiichi Ishii told reporters Friday that it was important for the Ainu to maintain their ethnic dignity and pass on their culture to create a vibrant and diverse society.

The origins of the Ainu people are unclear, but according to Richard Siddle, a professor at Hokkaido University who researches the indigenous group, a distinct Ainu culture emerged in northern Japan around the 13th century, as contact between the inhabitants of Hokkaido and Japan’s main island of Honshu started to increase, mostly in the form of trade. At the time, the Ainu population extended as far into present day Sakhalin in the Russian Far East.

As the ethnic Japanese of the southern islands, known as Wajingradually increased their economic influence around Hokkaido, conflict arose. The Ainu and Japanese fought a series of wars between the 15th and 18th centuries, such that by the 19th century, the northern island came under Japanese control, with its name changed formally from Ezo to Hokkaido.  Mass migration of Japanese to “settle” Hokkaido also began.

The relationship between the Ainu and the Japanese then followed one that is familiar to indigenous peoples all around the world. Seen as an uncivilized and primitive people who were doomed to die out, the Japanese government in the late 19th century—which was in the midst of a revolution to modernize and Westernize the country—instituted the Hokkaido Aborigine Protection Act. This was a bid to force the Ainu to assimilate, for example, by granting them small plots of land to get them to farm instead of carrying on with the fishing and hunting that they were long used to. They were also prohibited from speaking the Ainu language and had to speak Japanese instead. Over a century of discrimination of Ainu people ensured, with one recent survey for example finding the percentage of Ainu who go to university far lower than the Hokkaido average.

Today, there are only two native Ainu speakers worldwide, according to the Endangered Languages Project, a organization of indigenous groups and researchers aimed at protecting endangered languages. High levels of poverty and unemployment currently hinder the Ainu's social progress. The percentage of Ainu who attend high school and university is far lower than the Hokkaido average. The Ainu population also appears to have shrunk. Official figures put the number of Ainu in Hokkaido at 17,000 in 2013, accounting for around 2% of the prefecture's population. In 2017, the latest year on record, there were only about 13,000.

Under the new law, the government plans to open a national Ainu museum and park in the Hokkaido town of Shiraoi in April 2020. The government aims to attract 1 million visitors to the museum in the first fiscal year. Although the law was enacted amid a rise in global awareness about promoting and protecting minority rights, it does not stipulate rights to self-determination and education for the Ainu despite both rights being acknowledged in the 2007 U.N. declaration on the rights of indigenous people. We hope these are issues that are rectified soon.