The Ainu celebrated a historic moment Friday as the Diet unanimously passed a resolution that recognizes them as indigenous people of Japan.

The unprecedented resolution was adopted by both chambers, acknowledging the Ainu’s hardships from discrimination and poverty.

“This is a historical event for us because the past injustices were finally put to an end,” said Tadashi Kato, chairman of the Ainu Association of Hokkaido, who came to Tokyo to hear the Diet resolution from the gallery. “I am so thankful that the light has shone on us,” he said, his voice full of emotion.

The resolution states “the government shall recognize that the Ainu are indigenous people who have their own language, religion and culture.”

It also calls on the government to refer to the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and take comprehensive steps to advance Ainu policies while heeding the opinions of specialists.

After the resolution was passed, Chief Cabinet Secretary Nobutaka Machimura said the government now recognizes the Ainu as indigenous and promised policy measures on behalf of an ethnic minority that has been forced to lead underprivileged lives. Setting up an expert panel to discuss specific measures is also under consideration, he said.

“The government would like to solemnly accept the historical fact that many Ainu were discriminated against and forced into poverty with the advancement of modernization, despite being legally equal to (Japanese) people,” Machimura said.

Hideaki Uemura, professor at Keisen University in Tokyo and a specialist in indigenous peoples’ rights, said that while the resolution is “important and historical,” it is not 100 percent satisfactory.

“The resolution is weak in the sense of recognizing historical facts,” Uemura said, noting the Ainu were “forced” to become Japanese in the first place.

In 1869, one year after the Meiji Restoration, the government gave Hokkaido its current name and established Kaitakushi (the Development Commission) to rule and develop the prefecture. This marked the start of the forced assimilation of the Ainu, Uemura said.

The Family Registry Law, enacted in 1871, incorporated the Ainu as “commoners.” At that time, the government also prohibited them from practicing certain traditions, including men wearing earrings and women getting tattooed, and “encouraged” them to learn the Japanese language.

“When I think about the hardships that our ancestors went through, it brings tears to my eyes,” said Kato of the Ainu Association. “This is just the beginning. . . . I hope that we can begin to create a society in which (the Ainu) can live proudly.”

Ainu activists and supporters said the timing was significant, with the July Group of Eight summit due in July in Hokkaido — their homeland. Many Ainu still live in poverty, with 38.3 percent of those in Hokkaido on welfare, compared with 24.6 percent of other Hokkaido residents, according to a 2006 prefectural survey. Also, only 17.4 percent of the Ainu receive a college education.

Japan was among the 144 member states that voted for the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which was adopted by the U.N. General Assembly last September. Only four countries voted against it — the U.S., Canada, Australia and New Zealand. But the government had continued to deny recognition to the Ainu, claiming there is no “official” definition of indigenous people.

“The government was afraid of what the Ainu would demand if recognized as indigenous,” Uemura said, referring to possible calls for the return of land or natural resources.

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