SAPPORO - As a member of Hokkaido’s Ainu community, Kaori Tahara says, she has often felt the need to improve the lot of her indigenous ethnic group and other victims of discrimination, but it wasn’t until a few years ago that she started thinking about running for the Diet.
That was when Tahara met Muneo Suzuki, a disgraced lawmaker from Hokkaido who was once a bigwig in the Liberal Democratic Party. Suzuki asked Tahara, who was researching the Ainu at an institute in Paris, to join a new party he was about to launch.
So she ran in the general election in summer 2005 on the New Party Daichi ticket because she thought it was “the only party looking to improve our life in Hokkaido,” she said in a recent interview. One of the party’s election pledges is to protect the rights of the Ainu as an indigenous people.
Although she lost in that election, Tahara, 34, said, “If it weren’t for Suzuki, I wouldn’t have filed my candidacy.” Now she is making her second attempt to break into national politics, again with Suzuki’s backing, by running in the July 29 House of Councilors election.
Hopes are high among the Ainu that Tahara will bring about a much-awaited change to the community. “I want to see at least one representative from our people so we can make Japanese more aware of our presence,” an Ainu woman in her 30s said in southern Sapporo.
The fate of Tahara’s campaign, however, appears to hinge on whether her alliance with Suzuki will help her. While still a popular politician — at least on the local scene — Suzuki, 59, has a lot of negative political baggage, including his conviction for corruption and other charges.
Tahara, a Sapporo native born to an Ainu mother, said she wants to improve the status of Ainu and others who face discrimination and economic disadvantages in a society where most people think in a homogenous way.
If elected, she will be the first female lawmaker from the Ainu community and the second Ainu Diet member after the late Shigeru Kayano, who worked for the 1997 enactment of a law aimed at preserving and promoting Ainu culture and tradition.
“That was a landmark achievement, but it stops short of improving living standards of the Ainu,” Tahara said. “The recognition of their identity and rights as indigenous people is critical.”
The Ainu are an indigenous ethnic group living chiefly in Hokkaido, with 23,782 people officially registered as Ainu as of last October. Some, however, are not registered, which means the real size of the population could be anywhere from 70,000 to at least 100,000, according to the Hokkaido Utari Association.
Having been deprived of land to cultivate and the right to preserve their traditional way of life, “the Ainu fell into poverty 140 years ago when the Meiji government exploited our land, and the situation remains unchanged,” said Tadashi Kato, head of the association.
Tahara is among six candidates running for two seats from the Hokkaido district. Although running as an independent, Tahara is deputy chief of Suzuki’s New Party Daichi. She has also won backing from two other opposition parties — the Democratic Party of Japan and Kokumin Shinto (People’s New Party.)
The DPJ, which is the leader of the opposition camp, decided to back Tahara in hopes of capitalizing on Suzuki’s still-unabated popularity in Hokkaido, which returned him to the Diet in spite of the corruption scandal.
“We cannot downplay Suzuki’s influence in the local community,” said Yutaka Matsui, a campaign strategist in the DPJ’s Hokkaido chapter.
Suzuki, a veteran politician formerly with the LDP, was embroiled in a series of bribery allegations linked to Foreign Ministry projects. He was arrested in 2002 and given a two-year prison term in 2004 for bribery. He is appealing the sentence.
Suzuki was defeated in a 2004 election in which he ran as an independent but made a return to the House of Representatives in 2005.
Some analysts said that despite Suzuki’s tainted career, his fame could nonetheless help Tahara attract Ainu votes because some Ainu value his contribution to the 1997 law for preserving Ainu traditions and his affable personality.
But Suzuki might also be spurned by some Ainu voters because of a remark he made in 2001 that implied the Ainu already had been assimilated by the Japanese, a statement that was taken as a slap in the face to the ethnic group. Suzuki later said he did not intend to discriminate against the Ainu and had only meant they were living together with other Japanese.
Some Ainu, such as Naomi Shimazaki, 48, still resent Suzuki’s remark. This spring, however, she made what she termed the hardest decision in her life by becoming the head of Tahara’s support group.
“Certainly I’m angry at him, but at the same time I have such a strong hope for an Ainu to make it to the Diet and work hard toward establishing the right to self-determination,” she said.
Furthermore, Matsui of the DPJ said some supporters of the party still have a negative impression of Suzuki and his reputation as a “dirty” conservative politician.
“His reputation could be an obstacle for Tahara in election campaigning,” said Kazuhiro Asano of Sapporo University.
Besides the Suzuki factor, other people are concerned about her weak name recognition among the Ainu.
“The situation for Tahara is a lot different (from that of Kayano),” said Nobuko Tsuda, the 61-year-old curator of the Ainu culture center in Sapporo.
Kayano had an established reputation as a scholar on Ainu culture, which helped generate votes, he said.
Shiro Kayano, the 49-year-old son of Kayano who also served as his secretary, argued that Tahara should bring her ethnicity to the fore to capture all the Ainu votes. “Otherwise, it may be difficult,” he said.