I am absolutely ecstatic to write about this as my first blog post – we’re making history this month, everyone!
On February 15, 2019, the Japanese Cabinet (the executive government branch) passed a bill that finally officially recognizes the Ainu people of Hokkaido as indigenous to Japan and works towards giving them the rights and support that they should have had all along.
For the first time ever, the Japanese government will legally sanctify the Ainu people as indigenous, rather than as sub-group of Japanese people, after hundreds of years of war and discrimination, followed by forced assimilation and cultural erasure. It will also create new policies to support Ainu communities, their economies, and their livelihood, as well as make obtaining legal permission for the Ainu to practice cultural traditions (like fishing, fire ceremonies, collecting timber, etc.) much easier.
The struggle to be recognized as indigenous is a fight that has been occurring for decades, with the Ainu only beginning to gain leeway in the late 1990s. A law passed in 1997 finally guaranteed the Ainu people basic human rights and gave them the right to practice their cultural ceremonies and customs, though it did not recognize them as indigenous. Basically, it generalized and claimed that ethnic minorities in general existed within Japan. Then, in 2008, the passing of the United Nations “Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People” pushed the Diet to pass a non-binding resolution (albeit a little hesitantly) that declared the Ainu as a group of indigenous peoples with their own culture; they also admitted that the Ainu people had previously been discriminated against by Japanese people and the Japanese government. But, this resolution was not a law, so it did not guarantee any policy changes or atone for historical injustices.
This official recognition is a small win in the long battle for equality; but, of course, it only comes after the Ainu language has become endangered and there has been a rapid decline of the number of Ainu people in existence (approximately 12,300, thought there are probably more). In fact, many people do not even know that they are of Ainu descent because of historical policies banning Ainu practices since the late 1800s that forced the Ainu people to hide their cultural identity or, depending on their age, never learn that they were Ainu in the first place.
What I found particularly problematic in relation to this wonderful historical event is the wording that Japanese officials and media outlets are using in their speeches and articles. In an article by The Japan Times, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga mentioned that the bill will help “protect the [Ainu people’s] honor and dignity” and “preserve the Ainu people’s pride” as if the Japanese government was not responsible for that loss during the Meiji Restoration (which begun in 1868) in the first place. His statement also implies that the Ainu people have little-to-no pride, honor, or dignity in the first place, which is untrue.
A lot of the language in the article, to me, sounded problematic because it came off as another form of cultural exploitation. Several Ainu representatives spoke of creating scholarships for school outside of Hokkaido, among other policies and reforms, but the article put those at the bottom and mentioned increasing “tourism” within the Ainu communities first. I understand that the Ainu Museum “Porotokotan” recently closed and that a new one is set to open in 2020 with a recreation of an Ainu village aside of it; but, unless the government is paying to build it as part of reparations and ensuring that the proceeds are going to the Ainu community, it’s just another way for the government to hide the struggles of the Ainu, who suffer from high rates of poverty and continue to battle for their cultural rights. Until I have more information about the new museum, I (sadly) won’t hold my breath. Japan is still one of the most racially homogenous societies in the world and doesn’t take well to outsiders, and now that the Ainu people have officially been declared indigenous, it could serve to further isolate them and create more problems.
“Japan to recognize indigenous Ainu people for first time.” The Japan Times, 15 February 2019.