SAPPORO – Hokkaido University has agreed to return to descendants of the Ainu, an indigenous ethnic group concentrated in Japan’s northernmost main island, ancestral remains exhumed from a cemetery for research in the 1930s, the descendants said this week.
The agreement, reached in a court-mediated settlement at the Sapporo District Court in Hokkaido on Wednesday, ends three rounds of a five-year legal battle between Ainu descendants and the university.
In 2012, three descendants filed a lawsuit against the university seeking a total of ¥9 million in damages and demanding the return of the remains, claiming the university had disturbed the cemetery without permission and infringed on the Ainu people’s religious freedom to honor their forebears.
A similar legal suit was brought against the government by another plaintiff in 2014.
The latest lawsuit, filed in May 2014 by an Ainu association, said professors at the university’s School of Medicine removed the remains of 64 people from an Ainu cemetery in Urahoro, a town in Hokkaido, for anthropological research between 1934 and 1935.
In the settlement, the university agreed to hand over the 64 sets of remains and 12 sets the university has newly presented, and to shoulder transport and burial costs, the plaintiffs said.
Masaki Sashima, chairman of the Urahoro-based Ainu association, criticized the university for improper maintenance of the ancestral remains, saying some were missing skulls, arm bones or leg bones. The association will take possession of some remains that are unidentified.
Over the course of the three lawsuits, 20 sets of remains have been returned to the plaintiffs so far.
The Ainu, who have their own language and customs, have lived for centuries in Hokkaido and nearby areas including Sakhalin and the Kuril Islands.
But the government’s long-standing assimilation policy and persisting view of an ethnically homogenous Japan have marginalized the Ainu, critics say. Many claim they still face discrimination and prejudice amid a lack of cultural understanding.