Japan's Ainu hope new identity leads to more rights

Japan's parliament identified the group as the country's indigenous people on Friday.

Takehiko Kambayashi
Native: Saki Toyama wants an official Japanese apology to the Ainu people to follow the parliament's resolution recognizing the group as an indigenous people.

While Friday's parliamentary decision to recognize the ethnic Ainu as Japan's indigenous people is a major step for a country long proud of being ethnically homogeneous, for many members of the long-discriminated-against minority it's not enough.

"I'm glad to learn the resolution," says Saki Toyama, an 80-year-old Ainu woman who lives in Urakawa, a serene outpost in Hokkaido, the northern island that the ethnic group had dominated for centuries. "But I'd also like the government to apologize and make way for the sake of the Ainu people."

The Japanese government established a development commission on the island in 1869, which led to the migration of Japanese and the island's acquisition. That was followed by the forced assimilation and relocation of the group. The Ainu were also banned from practicing certain traditions, including men wearing earrings and women getting tattooed, and they were forced to learn the Japanese language and adopt a Japanese name.

"When I think of having been treated like trash and discriminated against because of our ethnicity, I feel like screaming at the sky," says Ms. Toyama.

"You see so many place-names on this land are from the Ainu language," says Koji Yuki, a secretary-general of the upcoming Indigenous Peoples Summit in Ainu Mosir. The government "had better come clean."

Local government estimates show that 23,782 Ainu people remain in Hokkaido, while Ainu leaders and experts argue the number could be much larger because of those who are believed to hide their identity for fear of discrimination or who may have left the island.

"Japan modernized itself while denying its diversity and multiculturalism. However, the nation, which aspires to a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council, has already risen to an international stage where they have to acknowledge it," says Hideaki Uemura, a professor and expert of indigenous people's rights at Keisen University, and director of Citizens' Center for Diplomacy.

The resolution recognizing the Ainu comes just weeks before this year's meeting of the Group of Eight (G-8) industrialized nations in Hokkaido. It's no coincidence that the decision comes ahead of the meeting, as Japan does not want any protests to detract from the high-profile gathering.

Japan was among the 144 nations that supported the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which was adopted by the UN General Assembly last September. The government, however, had stopped short of recognizing the Ainu, claiming that "official" definition of indigenous people does not exist.

"While the resolution is not satisfactory, it is significant in that it urges the government to refer to the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples," Uemura says, adding that the recognition of the indigenous Ainu could also make them an interested party when it comes to the issue of the disputed Northern Territories between Japan and Russia.

The Ainu people also hope the move could help upgrade their living and educational standards. According to a 2006 local government survey, 38.3 percent of the Ainu in Hokkaido are on welfare, compared with the local average of 24.6 percent. Moreover, only 17.4 percent of the Ainu receive a college education while 38.5 percent of the locals do.

The government's assimilation policy made even many Ainu themselves ignorant of their culture and history, say Ainu leaders. But they hope the resolution, as well as the Indigenous Peoples Summit, could change that. "We are at a turning point," says Mr. Yuki, who is also an Ainu printmaker. "Whether we are proud of being Ainu or we hide our identity makes a huge difference to our children."

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