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ASAHIKAWA, Hokkaido — For thousands of years, Kenichi Kawamura’s ancestors owned nothing but had access to everything.

His Ainu forebears took fish from the rivers and bear from the forest. They lived in small communities of up to 10 families with a chief responsible for the village’s collective belongings.

Then the “wajin,” or Japanese, began to encroach. Gradually the Ainu were forced from Honshu north to Ainu Moshiri, or the “Land of Man,” today known as Hokkaido.

In 1899, the government passed the Hokkaido Former Aborigine Protection Law. It promoted Ainu assimilation and gave the governor power to manage Ainu communal assets on their behalf, under the pretext that Ainu were incapable of managing the assets themselves.

In 1997, the law was repealed and replaced with one aimed at promoting Ainu culture. Under that law, the office of the governor was to return the assets it had stewarded for almost a century.

But how to return management of the assets to the 42 Ainu recognized by the government has become a nasty point of contention. Kawamura and others are fighting to see that assets are adequately accounted for and satisfactorily meted out.

Last July, Kawamura, who manages the Ainu Memorial Museum in Asahikawa, and 23 others unhappy with the return process and Hokkaido’s explanations, took the governor to court.

On Thursday, the fifth hearing was held before a Sapporo court.

“Ideally, the court will recognize that Hokkaido’s actions were unconstitutional and will order it to pay the money back in today’s money,” said Noriyoshi Owaki, a Sapporo high school teacher who has long been fighting for minority groups’ rights.

Today, he heads a support group that assists in coordinating the case against the governor. Owaki and the plaintiffs contend that the prefecture’s behavior violates Articles 13, 29, and 31 of the Constitution.

The group is contesting the arbitrary method of the return of assets, seeking adjustment for inflation and a more detailed account of the money and property.

They feel that usurping Ainu property and disposing of it without permission or explanation violates the constitutional right to property and conflicts with due process and respect of the individual.

Victory in the case “would recognize that more than 100 years of discriminatory policy occurred and that the prefecture was wrong,” Owaki said.

Over the past year, Owaki and others have been gradually unearthing documents that piece together the history of the management of some of the assets. Some they obtained from the prefecture, some they dug up by scanning thousands of frames of microfilm.

The case is slowly approaching a turning point, as the judge must decide whether the case merits a hearing.

At question is around 1.46 million yen worth of assets the prefecture says belong to the Ainu.

But records released by the prefecture — all that exist it says — are spotty at best. Owaki said there are major gaps and only complete logs for six years up to 1980.

Another major haggling point is the amount of the money and records.

If the governor did as the law prescribed, he was to “manage the communal assets of the Ainu people for their benefit,” and meticulous records should exist, the plaintiffs contend.

Following the enactment of the new Cultural Promotion Law, the government set a one-year period for Ainu to apply to receive a slice of the assets.

“The process is all very one-sided,” said Hideaki Uemura, a leader of the Citizens’ Diplomatic Center for the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

“If the property belongs to the Ainu, doesn’t it make more sense that they be able to decide how and when they want it returned or allocated?” he asked.

The prefecture declined to comment on the litigation.

Though no decision on how to use the money has been made, there is a tentative agreement to initiate a fund for the education of young Ainu or the care of the elderly.

In addition, the nearly 1.5 million yen the prefecture has agreed to pay does not account for inflation and is ridiculously insufficient, the plaintiffs argue.

At the time the governor was assigned management of the assets, his annual salary was around 6,500 yen, Uemura said. Today, it is 2,500 times that amount.

This is one yardstick by which to measure inflation, but Owaki said that while no concrete figure has been set, it should be at least 1,000 times the proposed amount.

For Kawamura and other Ainu, the case is just another hoop to jump through. Ainu were expecting big things with the new law, only to be disappointed. Kawamura condemns it as an empty law with little meaningful impact. “The new Ainu law is a law in name only.”

Kawamura said he visited the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington in April last year for an exhibit of more than 50,000 Ainu artifacts.

“(The late) Prime Minister (Keizo) Obuchi was there and I heard him talking. He asked ‘are there still Ainu in Hokkaido?’ “

Kawamura shrugs and says with a pained look on his face, “This is one example of how much we need to bridge the understanding gap with Japanese society.”

Despite years of discrimination, Ainu like Kawamura have worked to maintain a semblance of culture.

In recent years, the Ainu language has been somewhat revived. Various dictionaries have been published, radio programs are on the air and the language is taught at 14 places around the prefecture.

At his home and museum, Kawamura shows pictures from the last Iyomante, a traditional Ainu festival featuring a bear sacrifice. After a several-year hiatus, another Iyomante is planned for January, he said.

Traditionally, in the spring, the Ainu would capture and adopt bear cubs. Some accounts even say Ainu women breast-fed the cubs. At the age of 3, the bear would be sacrificed at a large communal gathering. Ainu believed that the bear would return to the Great Mother who had allowed his sojourn to mankind.

Uemura hopes a ruling in favor of the Ainu could promote understanding of the minority and better relations with Japanese.

“We Japanese need a proper take on history. Without this, it will be difficult to achieve a good, multiethnic society. This trial could be a step in that direction,” he said.

For now, Kawamura sits at home carving traditional Ainu images, such as the Mother Bear, hoping she will cast a kind eye on the court proceedings.