The Ainu are an indigenous people who primarily inhabit the island of Hokkaido in Japan, but also live in the north of Honshu, Japan’s main island, and Sakhalin island in Russia. There are more than 24,000 Ainu in Japan. While there are no official census figures, the Hokkaido Government conducted surveys of Ainu living conditions in Hokkaido in 1972, 1979, 1986, 1993, 1999, 2006 and 2013 and according to the latest survey, the population of Ainu in Hokkaido is at least 19,786.) Only a very small number of Ainu remain fluent in their traditional language, which UNESCO recognizes as ‘critically endangered.’
The origins of the Ainu people itself as well as their language are subject to contestation. While various hypotheses have been put forward: some proposing that Ainu are linked to Mongolians, others suggesting the Ainu are Caucasian, 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 a ‘language isolate,’ meaning that like Basque it does not appear to be related to any other living language.
Aspects of traditional Ainu culture, which have now almost completely disappeared, were unique: after puberty, women were given distinctive tattoos such as around their mouths and wrists, while men never shaved after a certain age. Both typically wore earrings. Ainu were traditionally animists, believing that all things were endowed with a spirit or god (kamuy). The Ainu lived closely entwined with nature, their livelihoods relying on hunting, gathering and fishing.
Today, their lifestyles are widely integrated into Japanese society, but many have sought in different ways to recover their lost culture and tradition.
Similar to many indigenous peoples in the world, the Ainu were faced with colonialism from a technologically more advanced society, which led to resistance, defeat, subjugation, destruction of traditional legal systems and leadership, and disregard of indigenous land and resource ownership followed over the next centuries. From the 14th century the Ainu began to increasingly feel pressure from the Japanese who were exerting control over southern Hokkaido. 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.
Unfamiliar diseases and mistreatment by the Japanese authorities brought about a dramatic decline in the population between 1822 and 1854. The legal and political steps which led to the almost complete disintegration of Ainu society emerged during the Meiji period (1868-1912): direct administration by the Japanese government was exercised over the Ainu and the land on which they lived, leading to the legal eradication of all Ainu land rights and to a massive initiative to encourage ethnic Japanese to settle in Hokkaido. These discriminatory government policies led to a population explosion with Hokkaido’s population soaring to over a million people and the Ainu vastly outnumbered by settlers.
The Ainu character 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 policies and legislation aimed at the forced assimilation of the Ainu were attempts to make them ‘Japanese’. They resulted in the economic and social marginalization of most Ainu, who were prevented from carrying on their traditional economic activities. After previously having their traditional lands and resources confiscated 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 person were comparatively much smaller.
While there was some debate in Japan during the first half of the 20th century about 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 entitlement to equality and other rights under the Constitution, they started to form organizations advocating for their rights and to protect their culture, including the Ainu Association of Hokkaido in 1946. Nonetheless, the perception of Japan as a mono-ethnic society has been difficult to dispel, and it was only in 1991 that the Japanese government finally recognized in a report to the United Nations Human Rights Committee that the Ainu were an ethnic minority, although 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 recognized 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. 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).
Implementation of the 1997 Ainu Culture Promotion Act took some time to result in concrete measures. A Foundation for Research and Promotion of Ainu Culture was established and began to implement projects, though the measures in place appear somewhat limited. 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 has also sponsored a number of Ainu cultural events and has supported a number of research projects on Ainu traditions and culture. However, these events and projects have in many cases been organized by Japanese rather than Ainu people themselves, which has been regarded as problematic.
In September 2007, Japan was one of 144 members of the UN General Assembly to support the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Japan’s House of Representatives and House of Councilors unanimously adopted the ‘Resolution to Recognize the Ainu as an Indigenous People’ in June 2008, which led to the Ainu being officially recognized by the government as an indigenous people in Japan. 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 and a greater desire to preserve Ainu culture. The Diet and the government acted just weeks before a G-8 summit in Hokkaido, leading some observers to believe Japan made the move in order to bolster its claim to the Ainu-inhabited Kurile Islands, which have been disputed by Russia.
In July 2008, the Chief Cabinet Secretary called for the establishment of a high-level expert council, the Advisory Council for Future Ainu Policy. Based on the final report submitted by the Advisory Council in July 2009, the Council for Ainu Policy Promotion was set up in December of that year. One of the policies prioritized by the Council has been the creation of the Symbolic Space for Ethnic Harmony in Shiraoi, Hokkaido, which is scheduled to be completed in 2020 when the Tokyo Olympic Games are held.
Ainu continue to face economic and social marginalization including prejudice and discrimination, which has not been tackled sufficiently by the government. This has occurred, for instance, in cases where an Ainu person has sought to marry a non-Ainu, in terms of access to education, and in hiring practices. Ainu also continue to be greatly restricted in their ability to fish salmon, a traditional food, by various authorization requirements limiting them to poor-quality districts.
Some government departments have in recent years developed programmes to address particular issues facing the Ainu community. The Ministry of Social Welfare, Health and Employment, for example, operates a recruitment service and provides financial assistance in order to help Ainu find jobs. There has continued to be a deep reluctance, however, from Japanese authorities to acknowledge Ainu indigenous status and on this basis extend greater rights to them. This is in part because of the mistaken belief that treatment resembling affirmative action would infringe on the equality provision enshrined in the Japanese Constitution.
Government efforts to preserve and promote Ainu cultural heritage have provoked debate in recent years. Some Ainu welcome the construction of the Symbolic Space for Ethnic Harmony in Shiraoi, Hokkaido, which is scheduled to be completed in 2020 when the Tokyo Olympic Games are held and is billed as a national forum for Ainu culture. However, others have expressed concern or objection, noting that the project focuses on exhibition, research and study of history and culture, but a far more comprehensive and integrated policy is required to improve Ainu peoples’ social standing, political participation, and cultural promotion.
In a small but positive step, July 2016 saw the repatriation of Ainu human remains to their village of origin from Hokkaido University. This came as a result of a lawsuit filed in 2012, in which five Ainu people from Urakawa, Hokkaido, demanded that the university return bones and other items and officially apologize. Additionally, in January 2017 the Berlin Society of Anthropology, Ethnology and Prehistory confirmed that artefacts in its possession were robbed from a grave in the 19th century, judging this to have been ethically unacceptable. Marking the first ever case of Ainu human remains being returned from a foreign country, the organization announced plans to send the items back to Japan. In July 2017, it handed over an Ainu skull to Japanese government representatives in a ceremony at the Japanese embassy in Berlin.
Updated April 2018
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Japan’s Minorities and Indigenous Peoples: A History of Denial
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