Recognition for a People Who Faded as Japan Grew

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Thu Jul 3 14:06:35 UTC 2008

July 3, 2008
Nibutani Journal
Recognition for a People Who Faded as Japan Grew


NIBUTANI, Japan The Ainu had lived on Japans northernmost island for
centuries, calling their home Ainu Mosir, or Land of Human Beings. Here,
they had fished, hunted, worshiped nature and established a culture that
yielded Yukar, an oral poem of Homeric length.  But just as with Americas
expansion West, the Japanese pushed north in the late 19th century in the
first sign of their imperialist ambitions.  Japanese settlers decimated
the Ainu population, seized their land and renamed it Hokkaido, or North
Sea Road.

And yet it was only a few weeks ago that the Japanese government finally,
and unexpectedly, recognized the Ainu as an indigenous people. Parliament
introduced and quickly passed a resolution stating that the Ainu had a
distinct language, religion and culture, setting aside the belief, long
expressed by conservatives, that Japan is an ethnically homogeneous

The recognition  coming after decades of opposition by a government
fearful of compensation claims  seemed timed to an international
conference of indigenous peoples that Japan is hosting this week in
Hokkaido. The Ainus lack of recognition could have proved embarrassing for
Japans government, particularly since the conference also comes close to
the Group of 8 summit meeting in Hokkaido next week.

In Hokkaido, and particularly in towns like Nibutani that have a high
concentration of Ainu, official recognition has engendered strong emotions
ranging from satisfaction at a long-sought status to suspicion that Tokyos
commitment to the Ainu will not last beyond the summit meeting.

We were really deeply moved, said Tadashi Kato, president of the Ainu
Association of Hokkaido, the countrys largest organization of Ainu. I felt
that, not only our members, but especially our ancestors were rejoicing,
even though they were of course silent. We couldnt hold back our tears.

Mr. Kato, 69, added: Some people are saying that this is meaningless. But
thats not the point. That Parliament approved this is big  this is the
first step.

What, then, is the next step? Is it to reclaim traditional lands or argue
for special hunting or fishing rights, as indigenous peoples elsewhere
have done? Is it to ask for an apology? Mr. Kato was not saying just yet,
and opinions here were divided.

Complicating matters is the governments studiously vague recognition of
the Ainu as an indigenous people. So far, it has not said whether
recognition will entail certain rights and has indicated that its own
definition of indigenous people will be narrower than the one adopted by
the United Nations General Assembly last year in its Declaration on the
Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Japan voted for the nonbinding declaration, but the United States, Canada,
Australia and New Zealand opposed it on the grounds that it went too far
in giving indigenous peoples rights over land and legislation. Still, in
recent months, Canada and Australia have offered apologies for mistreating
their indigenous populations in the past, and New Zealand transferred
about 435,000 acres of plantation forest and forest rents to seven Maori

Shiro Kayano, director of the Nibutani Ainu Museum here, said the Japanese
government should follow other governments examples and offer the Ainu a
broad apology, though he was pessimistic.

In other countries, governments have reflected on and apologized for their
mistaken policies of the past, but the Japanese government will never do
that, said Mr. Kayano, 50, who is the son of the late Shigeru Kayano, the
first  and so far only  Ainu to have been elected a national lawmaker.

Mr. Kayanos museum  with its displays of traditional thatch houses and
clothes made of bark  occupies a central spot in Nibutani, a town where 64
of its 190 families have registered themselves as Ainu. In the town
center, a large red sign, Nibutani, home of the Yukar, and a single,
modest restaurant called Bees and offering Ainu cuisine are the only
tip-offs that Nibutani is not your average Japanese town.

On the edge of town, next to a river and the entrance of the forest,
Yasuko Yamamichi runs an Ainu language school and called the official
recognition empty. She also wanted an apology but, like other Ainu
interviewed, was hesitant about reclaiming traditional lands.

Its a little late for the Ainu to start telling the Japanese to do this
and that, Ms. Yamamichi, 61, said.

In a study by the Hokkaido prefectural government in 2006, just under
24,000 people identified themselves as Ainu. Most were of mixed blood and
lacked the telltale fair skin or hirsute features that distinguished older
Ainu from the Japanese. But it is not known how many live outside Hokkaido
since Japan has never conducted a nationwide census of Ainu.

The study found that 3.8 percent of Ainu received welfare benefits,
compared with 2.5 percent of the non-Ainu living in the same communities.
Only 17.4 percent of the Ainu had graduated from college, less than half
of the 38.5 percent for the rest of the population.

There is certainly a gap between the Ainu and the general population, but
the gap is far smaller compared to, say, Native Americans or Inuits, said
Teruki Tsuneomoto, a law professor and director of the Center for Ainu and
Indigenous Studies at the University of Hokkaido.

But the downside is that the Ainu have few of the special rights granted
to indigenous peoples elsewhere and all but a minority were absorbed into
the larger culture, said Mr. Tsuneomoto, who is not Ainu. In Japans case,
for better or for worse, the assimilation policies since the Meiji era
were so successful that almost nothing remains of the Ainus traditional
way of life, he said.

In 1869, one year after the start of the Meiji era, Tokyo set up the
Hokkaido Colonization Board to encourage Japanese settlers to move to
Hokkaido. The Ainu were eventually stripped of their land, forced to
abandon hunting and fishing for farming, forbidden to speak their own
language and taught only Japanese at school. That history  little known by
the Japanese today and even among the Ainu themselves  was repeated later
in Japans Asian colonies.

Thats why I think its a good thing that Japan lost World War II, said
Koichi Kaizawa, 60, an official at the Biratori Ainu Culture Preservation
Association. If Japan had won, so many others would have lost their
language and culture.

But Jin Sunazawa, 45, a businessman, said he did not feel the hostility
toward the Japanese government that some older Ainu did. Economic
independence, he said, should be the Ainus leading priority.

Its not healthy to keep blaming discrimination or history, and not work
and pay taxes, Mr. Sunazawa said.

I dont think assimilation is bad, he added. Im Sunazawa first, Ainu


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