On 15th February 2019, the Japanese government passed a landmark law, recognising the Ainu minority in Hokkaido as an indigenous people for the very first time. However, this raises the question of whether recognition is enough to atone for a long history of mistreatment, or does more need to be done to make amends?
Historically spread from Northern Honshu, across Hokkaido and through the Kuril Islands, the Ainu are a minority people who are distinct from the Japanese in a variety of ways. First, the Ainu are believed to have inhabited Japan since before the arrival of the Yamato people, the bloodline from which most modern Japanese are descended. This means that, although vaguely related, the Ainu are ethnically different; with greater ties than the Yamato to peoples across the Pacific coast of Russia.
The Ainu are culturally distinct as well, with a lifestyle based upon hunting and gathering, an oral tradition, and a variety of dances and music. Ainu also look very different, partly due to their traditional clothing, but also because once they reach adulthood, men would never cut their beards, and women would get mouth tattoos, although this no longer happens. Perhaps the only similarity between Ainu and Japanese life is an animist belief system, although the Ainu gods are not the same as those worshipped in Shinto.
The Ainu’s most unique feature though is their language, as the Ainu languages constitute an isolated family. This means that although the Ainu languages were related to each other, they have no relations to any other Asian languages, including Japanese. Sadly, Hokkaido Ainu is the only Ainu language to survive to the modern day; and remains under threat due to Japan’s aggressive assimilation policy.
Although Hokkaido is now seen as an integral part of Japan, is remained free from Japanese rule until the 19th century. Following the 1867 Meiji Restoration, Japan rapidly industrialised, and began its imperial expansion. The first place to be claimed was Hokkaido, then called Ezo, which was annexed in 1869.
The central Japanese state then decided that to establish dominance over its new holdings, it needed to assimilate the peoples in the new colonies into Japanese citizens. These colonies included Hokkaido, Sakhalin and the Kuril Islands which were home to the Ainu peoples, but also Okinawa (formerly the Ryukyu Kingdom), Korea, and Taiwan.
The Ainu people were banned from using their language and forced to speak Japanese, made to abandon their traditional agriculture, hunting and fishing techniques, and were prohibited from practicing their ancient culture in any way. Additionally, the Ainu were stripped of their land, and forced to live in camps where thousands died. Over time, the Ainu population shrank drastically, and their culture was almost wiped out among those who remained. Today, the Japanese government claims that 20-25,000 Ainu live in Hokkaido, but no one knows the actual number, which could be lower or even far higher.
When Japan was defeated in 1945, most of their colonies were liberated. Hokkaido on the other hand, was not, and the assimilationist policy in place there was not addressed until 1997. At this point, the assimilationist policies were replaced by a new law, which finally recognised the Ainu as an ethnic minority, but still refused to view them as an indigenous group. It also allowed the Ainu to practice their culture and proposed that Ainu language be promoted. However, little support was given beyond this, and so the Ainu remain greatly discriminated against, and receive little to no support to revive their way of life. As such, few Ainu are fluent in the language, which is listed by UNESCO as “critically endangered”.
Then in 2007, Japan adopted the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. As such, the following year, the Japanese government adopted a resolution to recognise the Ainu as an indigenous people. This resolution would not be realised however, for another 11 years.
This is where the new bill appears. On 15th February 2019, it was announced that a Cabinet Decision had been made to recognise the Ainu as an indigenous people, to “Preserve the Ainu people’s pride”. The government also pledged to open a new museum for Ainu culture in the Hokkaido town of Shiraoi in 2020.
Many Ainu groups do not believe the new bill goes far enough though. Ainu rights groups say that the bill is little more than “empty words”, as no apology has ever been given for the way that the Ainu have been historically treated. The bill also does not recognise the Ainu’s indigenous rights, such as their right to the land – a policy that is enshrined in the UN Declaration the law is based on. As a result, Ainu rights groups state that the bill is not enough to reverse the historical discrimination; and that showing Ainu culture without providing any assistance to keep the language or heritage alive treats the Ainu as little more than a tourist attraction.
For the Ainu to be truly respected, and in some senses repaid for over a century of anti-Ainu legislation, many believe Japan should do more to help conserve and share Ainu culture. The recognition bill is a major step by the Japanese government to make up for a long history of mistreating the Ainu; but it is a first step, not a final one, as this one law is not enough to halt the decline of Ainu language and culture. Rights say that for Japan to truly atone, the government must do more to help the Ainu’s revival. As Japan enters a new era this year, hopefully it may also become the start of a new era for the Ainu.