Updated June 2008


The Ainu are an indigenous people who inhabit the island of Hokkaido of Japan, as well as the north of Honshu, Japan's main island and Sakhalin island, in Russia. There may be between 30,000 and 50,000Ainu in Japan (there are no official census figures; one of the few such surveys conducted was by the Hokkaido Government in 1984, which gave the Ainu population of Hokkaido then as 24, 381). Only a very small number remain fluent in their traditional language.

Their origins and language are both mysteries. While various hypothesis have been put forward: some proposing the Ainu were linked to Mongolians, others even suggesting the Ainu are Caucasoid (because of their ‘lighter' skin and thick body and facial hair), the Ainu are probably an isolated Paleo-Asiatic people with no direct relations, a possibility which is partially supported by the classification of the Ainu language as an ‘language isolate,' meaning that like Basque it does not appear to be related to any other living language.

Traditional Ainu culture, which has now largely disappeared in most respects, were unique: after puberty, women had distinctive tattoos such as around their mouths and wrists, while men never shaved after a certain age. Both were fond of earrings. They were traditionally animists, believing that all things were endowed with a spirit or god (kamuy). The Ainu had lived close together with nature as hunter, gatherer and fisherman people.

Today, their lifestyles are widely integrated into Japanese society, but these days many of them try to recover their lost culture and tradition.

Historical context

From the 14th century the Ainu began to increasingly feel the pressure from the Japanese who were asserting pressure and control over southern Hokkaido.

The story of the Ainu is in many ways similar to that of many indigenous peoples in the world faced with colonialism from a technologically advanced society: resistance, defeat, subjugation, destruction of traditional legal systems and leadership, and disregard of indigenous land and resource ownership followed over the next centuries. The Ainu offered some resistance to the Japanese invasion of their lands, usually in skirmishes but sometimes in pitched battles such as the Battle of Kunasiri-Menasi in 1789.

Again the Ainu experienced dramatic consequences not dissimilar to what occurred to many other indigenous peoples falling under the sway of an alien power: unfamiliar diseases and mistreatment by the Japanese authorities apparently lead to a dramatic decline of the population between 1822 and 1854.

The final legal and political steps which would lead to the almost complete disintegration of Ainu society emerged during the Meiji period (1868-1912): direct administration by the Japanese government then was now to be exercised over Ainu land and people, leading to the legal extinguishment of all Ainu land rights and to a massive programme to encourage ethnic Japanese to settle in Hokkaido. These discriminatory government policies lead to a population explosion, with Hokkaido's population soaring to over a million people with the Ainu being completely submerged in an ocean of foreign settlers.

The Ainu face of the island was to be legislated out of existence. In 1869, the Kaitakushi (Development Agency) was established; the very name of the island was at the same time changed from Ezochi (‘uncivilized people's land', as the Japanese colonizers called it) to Japanese Hokkaido. Legislation during the Meiji period also banned the use of the Ainu language in schools, government and many other areas, as well as prohibited many cultural practices of the Ainu, including traditional hunting and fishing. These legislation and policies aimed at the forced assimilation of the Ainu were attempts to make them ‘Japanese'. They resulted in the economic and social marginalisation of most Ainu, who were prevented from carrying on their traditional economic activities. After having been confiscated all of their traditional land and resources earlier by the Japanese government, the Ainu were encouraged to take on farming and given land under an 1899 law, the Hokkaido Aborigine Protection Act. By that time however, the best plots of land had already been handed over to ethnic Japanese settlers, and the size of the plots handed over to an Ainu was much smaller than that given to a Japanese.

While there was some debate in Japan during the first half of the 20th century on the treatment of the Ainu, it was after the end of World War II, with Japan adopting a liberal democratic model with its Constitution of 1947 that there appeared the first steps of an Ainu renewal. Able to claim rights of equality and other rights under the Constitution, they started to set up several organisations advocating their rights and to protect their culture, including the Ainu Association of Hokkaido in 1946. The perception of Japan as a mono-ethnic society has however been hard to dispel, and it was only in 1991, that the Japanese government finally recognised in a report to the United Nations' Human Rights Committee that the Ainu were an ethnic minority, though there was no recognition of the Ainu as an indigenous people.

Little changed for the Ainu from a legal point of view until 1997, when legislation to protect and promote the Ainu language and culture was propelled by a court case, the Nibutani Dam case (Kayano v. Hokkaido Expropriation Committee), which recognised that the Ainu were a minority (and an indigenous people) under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) with a distinctive culture under Article 27 which the Ainu could not be denied its enjoyment.

This court decision, combined with the growing voice of the Ainu in international fora and shift in public perceptions, was a turning point. The Japanese Diet adopted the first significant law to take steps that were to begin promoting and protecting Ainu culture,language and tradition, the 1997 ‘Act on the Encouragement of Ainu Culture and the Diffusion and Enlightenment of Knowledge on Ainu Tradition'(the so-called Ainu Culture Promotion Act).

Current issues

The implementation of 1997 legislation adopted by the Japanese Diet for the promotion of Ainu culture and traditions (the Ainu Culture Promotion Act) took some time to result in concrete measures, especially in the last few years. A Foundation for Research and Promotion of Ainu Culture was founded and began to implement projects, though the measures in place appear however somewhat timid. The Foundation gives financial support for classes to teach the Ainu language, but not as part of a regular school curriculum. There is also a 15-minute radio programme for learning the Ainu language and a few other specific initiatives, such as an ‘Ainu language speech contest' which began in 2006. The Foundation also sponsors a number of Ainu cultural events and supports a number of research projects on Ainu traditions and culture. However, these events and projects are in many cases mainly organized by Japanese rather than Ainu people themselves, which is regarded as problematic.

Some government departments have more recently developed programmes to address the problems facing the Ainu in Japan. The Ministry of Social Welfare, Health and Employment for example operates a recruitment service and provides financial assistance in order to help Ainu to find a job.

There continues to be a deep reluctance however from Japanese authorities to recognise the Ainu as indigenous and to provide greater rights to them on this basis because of the (mistaken) belief that such treatment would infringe the equality provision under the Japanese Constitution.

The UN Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance pointed out in his 2006 report how the Ainu were victims of a great deal of prejudice and discrimination by private parties at school, regarding marriage and at the workplace which has still not been tackled sufficiently by the government. The Ainu were also greatly restricted in their ability to fish salmon, a traditional food by various authorisation requirements and limitations to poor-quality districts.

In September 2007, Japan was one of 144 members of the UN General Assembly to support the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, but still refused to acknowledge the Ainu as being an indigenous people. However, in June 2008, the Diet finally did vote to recognize the Ainu as ‘an indigenous people with a distinct language, religion and culture.’ The Diet also urged the government to create an expert panel on Ainu policy. The Diet acted just weeks before a G-8 summit in Hokkaido, and some observers felt that Japan made the move in order to bolster its claim to the Ainu-inhabited Kurile Islands, which is disputed by Russia.

Some Ainu viewed the recognition as merely symbolic, with unclear benefits for dealing with the problems of social and economic marginalization, and noted the absence of any apology for past policies of land theft, cultural repression and forced assimilation. Others noted that official recognition could lead to increased pride within the Ainu community, which would lead to a greater desire to preserve Ainu culture.

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