Ainu bill approved but void of legal rights

The government on Mar. 21 officially approved a bill to create a new law on the Ainu people of Hokkaido, but failed to grant them special rights as an indigenous group.

The bill, which is expected to be enacted by the end of the current Diet session, which runs through June, replaces a century-old law that experts say has long served to discriminate against Ainu. If enacted, it will be the first law in Japan that recognizes the existence of a minority ethnic group within the Japanese population.

Despite the demands of Ainu activists, however, the bill does not go so far as to give legal recognition to the Ainu’s indigenous nature. The bill, which was officially approved at the day’s regular Cabinet meeting, calls on the government to promote public knowledge about Ainu culture and tradition, according to government officials. Through such measures, the government hopes to create a society “where Ainu people’s pride as an ethnic group is respected,” the bill says. It describes the Ainu culture as “Ainu language, as well as music, dance, arts and other cultural assets that have been handed down among the Ainu people.”

In implementing the steps to promote Ainu culture, national and local authorities should “take into account the voluntary will and ethnic pride of the Ainu people,” according to the bill. The existing law on Ainu, established in 1899 and titled “Former Hokkaido Natives Protection Law,” was designed to assimilate the Ainu people into the Japanese population. Ainu activists have long called for abolition of the law.

In the late 1800s, Japanese settlers who crossed the sea to settle in Hokkaido pushed the indigenous Ainu people into small pockets of the island. The 1899 law urged the Ainu people to engage in farming, denying them the right to pursue their traditional culture and way of life. Currently, about 25,000 Ainu people are estimated to be living in Hokkaido.