Japan: Rebirth of the Ainu Nation

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at gmail.com
Sun Jul 20 18:02:12 UTC 2008

Rebirth of a nation

July 20, 2008

 For centuries the Ainu had lived on Japan's northernmost islands, calling
their home Ainu Mosir, or Land of Human Beings. Here, they had fished,
hunted, worshipped nature and established a culture that yielded Yukar, an
oral poem of Homeric length. But, just as with America's 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, rubbished their traditions and renamed it Hokkaido, or
North Sea Road. Disease ravaged the population.

The Ainu, thought to be descendants of early inhabitants of Japan, had a
distinct culture and language some experts say date back to AD1200. They
were forced to change their names and banned from traditional hunting and
fishing, as part of a harsh assimilation policy. They had a distinct
appearance. The Ainu had fairer skin than the Japanese - the men were
heavily bearded and had thick hair, the women bore tattoos, including a dark
blue tattoo around their mouth, giving the impression of a permanent smile.
Yet it was only last month that the Japanese Government finally - and
unexpectedly - recognised the Ainu as an "indigenous people". Parliament
introduced and quickly passed a resolution stating the Ainu had a "distinct
language, religion and culture", setting aside the belief, long expressed by
conservatives, that Japan was an ethnically homogenous nation.

The recognition - coming after decades of opposition by a government fearful
of compensation claims - seemed timed to coincide with an international
conference of indigenous peoples Japan was hosting. In Hokkaido, and
particularly in towns like Nibutani with a high concentration of Ainu,
official recognition has engendered strong emotions ranging from
satisfaction at a long-sought status to suspicion that Tokyo's commitment to
the Ainu will not last. "We were really deeply moved," Tadashi Kato,
president of the Ainu Association of Hokkaido, said. "I felt that not only
our members but especially our ancestors were rejoicing, even though they
were, of course, silent. We couldn't hold back our tears." Ms Kato, 69,
added: "Some people are saying this is meaningless. But that's 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? Ms Kato was not saying just yet, and
opinions locally were divided. Complicating matters is the Government's
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 UN General Assembly last year in its Declaration
on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which Japan voted for.

Shiro Kayano, director of the Nibutani Ainu Museum, said Japan should follow
other nations' examples and offer the Ainu a broad apology, though he was
pessimistic. "In other countries governments have reflected on and
apologised 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. Kayano's museum, with 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
centre a large red sign, "Nibutani, home of the Yukar", and a modest
restaurant offering Ainu cuisine are the only evidence that Nibutani is not
your average Japanese town.

On the edge of town Yasuko Yamamichi runs an Ainu language school. She
called the official recognition "empty". She also wanted an apology but,
like other Ainu interviewed, was hesitant about reclaiming traditional
lands. In a study by the Hokkaido prefectural government in 2006 close to
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 3.8 per cent of Ainu received welfare benefits, compared
with 2.5 per cent of the non-Ainu living in the same communities. Only 17.4
per cent of the Ainu had graduated from university, less than half of the
38.5 per cent 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 Centre 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, Professor Tsuneomoto said. "In Japan's case, for better or
for worse, the assimilation policies since the Meiji era were so successful
that almost nothing remains of the Ainu's traditional way of life."

In 1869, one year after the start of the Meiji era, Tokyo set up the
Hokkaido Colonisation Board to encourage Japanese settlers to move there.
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 Japan's Asian colonies.

"That's why I think it's a good thing 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."
Source: The Sun-Herald

*This story was found at:
http://www.smh.com.au/articles/2008/07/19/1216163229922.html *

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