EVEN though the Japanese government refuses to call the Ainu people of northern Japan an ``indigenous minority,'' the country's legislature now has a member who has been claiming that label for most of his life.
Shigeru Kayano represents a constituency in the northern island of Hokkaido, where most of the estimated 50,000 Ainu and people of Ainu descent live. He joined the upper house of parliament this month, filling the vacancy of a member who died in July. Mr. Kayano was a runner-up in the constituency's last election.
Japan is generally considered a homogeneous society, but the country actually has several minorities:
* The Ainu, whom historians say had a hunter-gatherer culture on the Japanese archipelago that predates the arrival of the people now known as the Japanese.
* Some 700,000 Korean residents or Japanese of Korean descent, who have lately become the target of attacks connected to tensions over North Korea.
* And about 3 million burakumin, the descendants of 17th- and 18th-century outcasts, who continue to be discriminated against.
Kayano's ascension to national politics has already given new visibility to the Ainu cause. ``We may as well accept as a historical fact that the Ainu lived in Hokkaido and elsewhere in this country long before the Japanese,'' the Mainichi Shimbun, one of Japan's most widely read newspapers, editorialized earlier this month. ``It is hard to fathom the government's refusal to recognize their indigenous status.''
At a luncheon with reporters yesterday, Kayano said his first priority will be to alert his fellow politicians and the Japanese generally of ``the existence of the Ainu people.'' He also vows to overturn a 1899 law that, among other things, deprived Ainu of the right to fish for salmon, a staple food.
Compiler of the first Ainu dictionary and a long-time Ainu activist, Kayano recalls when police came by his childhood home some 60 years ago.
``My father was arrested because he was catching salmon illegally.... I can never forget that day,'' he says.
The law was an attempt to require the Ainu to adopt agriculture and become assimilated into Japanese society. To this day, there remains a widespread unwillingness among Japanese to recognize Ainu identity.
Kayano says he has traveled abroad 20 times and often met with members of other indigenous groups. ``I believe that the Ainu are the only indigenous people in the world that do not have a treaty with their conqueror,'' he says.