Reference | FYI

Japan's Ainu recognition bill: What does it mean for Hokkaido's indigenous people?

by Sakura Murakami

Staff Writer

In a first for Japan, a bill to legally recognize the Ainu as the indigenous people of Japan is about to be submitted to the Diet.

The bill includes clauses that oblige the government to adopt policies to support and protect the cultural identity of the Ainu and ban discrimination against them.

Here are some basic questions and answers on the state-sponsored bill:

What is the significance of the bill?

The bill legally recognizes the Ainu as the indigenous people of Japan for the first time. To date, there have been court rulings, Diet resolutions and public statements acknowledging the Ainu are indigenous, but recognition has never been enshrined in law.

A law would be especially important for the Ainu people’s identity, said Kenichi Ochiai, an associate professor of constitutional law at the Center for Ainu and Indigenous Studies at Hokkaido University.

“The aim of this bill is to create a society where people who identify as Ainu can be proud of their roots without having to fear retribution or discrimination,” Ochiai said, adding it is “focused very much on the Ainu identity instead of lineage or genealogy.”

The bill also obliges the central and local governments to draft and adopt policy measures to help the Ainu nurture their identity and culture in general, without defining the ethnic group by blood lineage.

This approach reflects the difficulty of defining the minority due to the government’s past policy of assimilation, which sought to remove the defining characteristics of the Ainu people.

The principles in the bill are also based on Article 14 of the Constitution, which stipulates “all of the people are equal under the law” and bans discrimination by race.

“The irony of creating a new policy for the Ainu people now is that the assimilation policies the government adopted in the past actually made it harder to define what it means to have Ainu lineage,” Ochiai said.

“An added difficulty is that treating people differently according to their race is forbidden under the Constitution,” he added. “Making Ainu policy is a delicate balancing act, both because of the history of the Ainu people and because of the Constitution.”

Who are the Ainu people?

The Ainu are an ethnic minority based mainly in Hokkaido, having lived there for centuries before the making of modern Japan. Observers of an animist faith, their livelihoods were based on hunting and fishing.

Throughout history, the Ainu have endured various forms of discrimination. They were deprived of their freedom to fish and hunt and were often shunned by Japanese society for having a different culture.

What did it mean to be Ainu in the past?

During the Meiji Era (1868-1912), the government took a paternalistic approach to assimilating the Ainu people. Although they were logged in Japan’s official family registration records as Japanese citizens, they were also designated as “former” Ainu, making those with Ainu roots that much more visible.

When the postwar Constitution took effect in 1947, it ended all legal and structural discrimination against the Ainu, including the mentions of “former” in their registries. But the damage was already done, and discrimination lingered in schools and workplaces, Ochiai said. “From the postwar period onward, people began to hide the fact they were Ainu to avoid discrimination. As a result, the Ainu people became ‘invisible’ and they didn’t pass on their traditions, with some people not even aware they themselves had Ainu heritage,” he said.

“That’s why it’s imperative that we create an environment where the Ainu can be proud of their heritage and their culture, as well as have the freedom to live their Ainu identity if they wish to.”

What kinds of laws were enacted before?

The 1899 Hokkaido Former Aborigines Protection Act attempted to assimilate the Ainu by promoting farming instead of hunting and fishing — which had been integral to their culture — and building schools specifically for them. The Meiji Era law also set forth how land was to be distributed to them and imposed strict limits on how it could be legally transferred. These limitations spurred criticism the law was technically confiscating Ainu land and forcing the Ainu into Japanese society under the pretext of “protection.”

In 1997, an Ainu culture promotion law was enacted to replace it. This one urged the government to protect Ainu culture but stopped short of acknowledging the Ainu as the indigenous people of Japan, much to the chagrin of some in the Ainu community.

Do the Ainu still face discrimination?

In recent years, the lifestyles of the Ainu, in terms of what they eat or how they live, have been no different from the average Japanese, according to a report in 2009 by a special committee on Ainu policy.

Still, a 2015 government survey of 1,000 people who identified as Ainu found some 72 percent of the respondents still believed they were being discriminated against.

At the same time, 50 percent of the group was between 40 and 69, with the younger generations apparently less affected.

Indeed, such issues as poverty and educational discrimination that disproportionately hurt the Ainu in the past appear to have improved considerably in recent years. For example, the rate of Ainu respondents who were on welfare was 1.1 times the local average in 2017, a vast improvement from 3.5 in 1979, according to periodical surveys by the Hokkaido Prefectural Government.

The same survey, however, showed only 33 percent of Ainu move on to higher education, compared with an average of 46 percent for all people in areas where Ainu reside.

Furthermore, a different report by the Center for Ainu and Indigenous Studies of Hokkaido University in 2015 found 13 percent of Ainu who entered high school dropped out. The national average was about 2 percent, education ministry figures from 2010 show.

Why is another law being proposed?

In September 2007, Japan voted in favor of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

In the same month, lawmaker Muneo Suzuki submitted a question to the government asking whether Japan’s adoption of the U.N. declaration technically meant it acknowledged the Ainu were the indigenous people of Japan. The government replied that it could not answer the question because the U.N. did not define what qualifies as an “indigenous people.”

The reply sparked an outcry that generated momentum for drafting another law.

What specifically does the bill stipulate?

Under the bill, the central government would subsidize local government efforts to preserve the traditional culture of the Ainu. The government also plans to create a national Ainu museum and park in 2020.

Although fishing along rivers is forbidden as a rule of thumb in many areas, the government plans to ease such restrictions for the Ainu out of deference to their traditions.

The bill, however, would not give Ainu the rights to land or territorial resources — something they have long lobbied for and believe is integral to self-determination.

Still, “it’s one step forward to recognize the Ainu as the indigenous people of Japan by law,” Shiro Kayano, head of a museum called the Kayano Shigeru Nibutani Ainu Shiryokan, told the daily Asahi Shimbun.