The United Nations General Assembly adopted the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples last Sept. 13, with Japan among the 144 member states voting in favor.
The U.N. estimates there are more than 370 million indigenous people in some 70 countries.
To this day, however, the government has not officially recognized any ethnic group as indigenous to Japan. But for the first time, lawmakers are moving to pass a Diet resolution to recognize the Ainu before the Group of Eight summit that Japan will host in July at Toyako, Hokkaido.
One week prior to this major event, indigenous people from all over the world will gather in Hokkaido at the 2008 Indigenous Peoples Summit, during which representatives of the Ainu are expected to make their voice heard.
Following are basic questions and answers about the history and current situation of the Ainu:
Does Japan have indigenous groups?
Although no one has been officially recognized, critics say the Ainu and Okinawans fit this bill. Both groups have participated in the United Nations Working Group on Indigenous Populations that was established in 1982.
What does Ainu mean?
The word Ainu means “human” in the Ainu language. The Ainu call their homeland “Ainu Mosir,” which means “the quiet earth where humans dwell.” Their homeland encompasses Hokkaido, the four Russian-held islands off Hokkaido that are claimed by Japan, and the southern part of Russia’s Sakhalin.
According to the Foundation for Research and Promotion of Ainu Culture, Ainu trace their cultural roots to the 12th or 13th century, but the first historical documents to mention them date to around the 15th century.
The early Ainu made their living by fishing, hunting and trading.
When did Japan invade Ainu lands?
In 1869, just one year after the Meiji Restoration, the Meiji government gave Hokkaido its current name, unilaterally declaring the land part of Japan.
During the same year, the government established Kaitakushi (the Development Commission) to rule and develop Hokkaido, using the vast land to attract Japanese immigrants.
Hideaki Uemura, a professor at Keisen University in Tokyo specializing in indigenous people’s rights issues, said that was the beginning of forced assimilation of the Ainu.
Following the establishment of Kaitakushi, the Family Registry Law was enacted in 1871, incorporating the Ainu as “commoners.”
The government also prohibited the Ainu from practicing certain traditions, including men wearing earrings and women getting tattooed, and “encouraged” them to learn the Japanese language.
Did enactment of the Hokkaido Former Aborigine Protection Law in 1899 help?
No. Even though the law stipulated that land be given to those who want it free of charge, the Ainu had to forfeit the land if they did not succeed in turning it into farmland.
And according to the Foundation for Research and Promotion of Ainu Culture, some of the land offered was unsuitable for farming, and the amount provided was much smaller than what was given to Japanese.
Article 9 of the law stipulated that the government establish schools for Ainu children. But the youngsters had to learn Japanese and Japanese culture — not their own.
“The law was not about protecting the rights (of Ainu), but a way (for the government) to tactfully advance their assimilation,” Uemura said.
What is the current Ainu population?
According to a 2006 survey conducted by the Hokkaido government, there are about 24,000 Ainu living there. Ainu activists estimate the population could be between 50,000 and 100,000 nationwide, but they say it is difficult to get accurate numbers because many keep a low profile or are not even aware of their ethnicity.
The 2006 survey also found that 38.3 percent of Ainu were on welfare, compared with 24.6 percent of other residents in Hokkaido. While 38.5 percent of all residents in Hokkaido had gone to a university, only 17.4 of the Ainu received a college education.
Why doesn’t the government recognize the Ainu as indigenous?
The government’s official stance is there is no universal definition of indigenous people. But Uemura said he thinks if the government were to admit the Ainu are indigenous, then it would have to address whether Hokkaido rightfully belongs to Japan.
“And then, the argument that the (four Russian-held islands) belong to Japan will completely fall apart,” Uemura said.
What have been recent key events regarding the Ainu?
One would be the epoch-making enactment of the Law for the Promotion of the Ainu Culture and for the Dissemination and Advocacy for the Traditions of the Ainu and the Ainu Culture enacted in 1997.
With the passage of this law, the nearly 100-year-old Hokkaido Former Aborigine Protection Law was abolished.
Article 1 stipulates that the aim of the new law is to realize a society in which the pride of the Ainu is respected and to contribute to the development of diverse cultures in Japan. This is the only law that refers to the Ainu by name.
Another landmark was the Nibutani Dam ruling by the Sapporo District Court in March 1997 in which the Ainu were recognized as indigenous people. Although the court ruled that the dam can remain because it was already completed, it stated that the Ainu were living in Hokkaido before it fell under Japanese rule.
Ainu had protested the dam’s construction, claiming it was built on their holy land.
What about Okinawa?
Okinawa was an independent nation — the Ryukyu Kingdom. It was said to have been established in the 15th century and existed until 1879, when it was officially declared a part of Japan as Okinawa Prefecture by the Meiji government.
Critics say that while some Okinawans desire to be assimilated with the mainstream population, some advocate Ryukyu independence and being a separate nation.
What are recent international movements regarding the situation for indigenous people?
In September, when 144 member states advocated the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of the Indigenous Peoples, the U.S., Canada, Australia and New Zealand voted it down.
Article 1 of the resolution stipulates that “indigenous peoples have the right to the full enjoyment, as a collective or as individuals, of all human rights and fundamental freedoms as recognized in the Charter of the U.N., the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and international human rights law.”