The central government is likely to stipulate for the first time in law that the Ainu are an "indigenous people" of Japan, according to sources.

Using the phrase "indigenous people" in a law would be an additional step by the government to clarify its stance on the Ainu, as it issued a statement in 2008 recognizing them as an "indigenous people that have their own language, religious and cultural identity."

The sources said Monday that the reference is likely to be made in a law the government is considering to improve Ainu living standards and education.

The Ainu people have lived for centuries in Hokkaido and nearby areas, including Sakhalin and the Kuril Islands.

They have struggled to pass down their language and culture after the government implemented an assimilation policy beginning in the Meiji Era (1868-1912) as Japan was undergoing rapid modernization.

A law was enacted in 1997 aimed at preserving Ainu culture and guaranteeing their human rights, about 100 years after the government introduced the assimilation policy. It was the nation's first legislation acknowledging the existence of an ethnic minority, but it stopped short of saying that the Ainu are an indigenous people.

In 2007, the U.N. General Assembly adopted a declaration on the rights of indigenous peoples, asking each country to take legislative steps to protect their rights. Japan was among the countries that supported the declaration.

In addition to the new Ainu law, the government is planning to open facilities to promote Ainu culture in Hokkaido in 2020, when Tokyo will host the Olympics.

In the past, politicians have made remarks drawing flak from the Ainu, including when Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone said in 1986 that "Japan is a homogeneous nation."