Ainu still lead underprivileged lives, survey finds

by Keiji Hirano

Kyodo News

Many Ainu lead underprivileged lives, with their income and university advancement rate remaining low, according to a survey by the Hokkaido University Center for Ainu & Indigenous Studies and the Ainu Association of Hokkaido.

Their average annual household income stands at ¥3.56 million, around 60 percent of the national average, and the college advancement rate among Ainu below 30 years of age comes to 20.2 percent, compared with the national average of 42.2 percent, the preliminary figures of the survey show.

“I believe this data will serve as a useful reference for the government in compiling its policies on the Ainu,” said Teruki Tsunemoto, chief of the Hokkaido University center.

The survey, the largest ever on the indigenous minority, was conducted in October by sending questionnaires to individual Ainu aged 18 to 84 living in Hokkaido and to Ainu households.

Responses were received from 2,903 households and 5,703 individuals.

Among the households, 5.2 percent are receiving welfare now and 4.8 percent did so in the past, compared with 3.5 percent for all of Hokkaido and 2.1 percent nationwide in fiscal 2006.

Reflecting the high welfare rate, 33.5 percent of the individuals consider themselves impoverished, while 40.5 percent said they have trouble making a living to some degree.

Overall, less than 70 percent make it to high school. Of those who do, 10 percent drop out, the survey found. The dropout rate for Ainu who enroll in four-year universities and colleges is even worse at 19.1 percent.

Around one-third of the respondents wanted to proceed to higher education, of whom 76.1 percent said they gave up further education due to financial reasons.

“The survey indicates even if young Ainu manage to enter universities, many of them drop out due mainly to economic difficulties,” said Tsunemoto, who is also a member of a government committee working to enhance Ainu policies.

“This means it is not enough to support their advancement to higher education. We need to (financially) help them continue their studies, and the government’s measures for the Ainu should be built on this recognition,” he said.

Underlining his comments, more than half of the respondents said they expect the central and local governments to expand support measures so more Ainu can advance to higher education.

The government panel was set up after the Diet recognized the Ainu as an “indigenous people” last June following the adoption of the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in September 2007. The declaration outlines the collective and individual rights of the world’s indigenous people.

The eight-member panel, which includes Hokkaido Gov. Harumi Takahashi and Ainu Association of Hokkaido chief Tadashi Kato, will issue its report this summer.

“I have believed that a sufficient educational background is the key to improve the economic situations of the Ainu, and my view has been underlined by the survey,” said Kato, who has served 18 years as a counselor in the town of Shiraoi, Hokkaido.

The survey suggests Ainu are by and large becoming unfamiliar with their traditional culture.

More than 60 percent of the respondents having no experiences of working to preserve and hand down the Ainu language, storytelling, as well as songs and dances.

Kato said, however, that such results are inevitable because “we are an ethnic group for which many things were banned,” referring, for example, to the past assimilation policy of prohibiting the Ainu from speaking their own language.

“I hope we could work with the government so the Japan of the 21st century will be a society where various ethnic groups can live together,” Kato said.