Indigenous peoples in Japan

The two indigenous peoples of Japan, the Ainu and the Okinawans, live on the northernmost and southernmost islands of the country’s archipelago.

The Ainu

The Ainu territory stretches from Sakhalin and the Kurile Islands (now both Russian territories) to the northern part of present-day Japan, including the entire island of Hokkaido.

Hokkaido was unilaterally incorporated into the Japanese state in 1869. Although most Ainu still live in Hokkaido, over the second half of the 20th century, tens of thousands migrated to Japan’s urban centers for work and to escape the more prevalent discrimination on Hokkaido.

Since June 2008, the Ainu have been officially recognized as an indigenous people of Japan. Most recent government surveys put the Ainu population in Hokkaido at 16,786 (2013) and the rest of Japan at 210 (2011). Many with Ainu ancestry do not publicly identify as Ainu due to discrimination and stigma in Japanese society. Ainu observers estimate the actual population of those with Ainu ancestry to be between 100-300,000, with 5,000 in the greater Kanto region alone.

 

The Okinawans

Okinawans, or Ryūkyūans, live in the Ryūkyū Islands, which make up Japan’s present-day Okinawa prefecture. They comprise several indigenous language groups with distinct cultural traits.

Although there has been some migration of ethnic Japanese to the islands, the population is largely indigenous Ryūkyūans.

Japan forcibly annexed the Ryūkyūs in 1879 but later relinquished the islands to the US in exchange for its own independence after World War Two.

In 1972, the islands were reincorporated into the Japanese state and Okinawans became Japanese citizens although the US military remained.

Today 75% of US forces in Japan are in Okinawa prefecture, which constitutes only 0.6% of Japan’s territory. 50,000 US military personnel, their dependents and civilian contractors occupy 34 military installations on Okinawa Island, the largest and most populated of the archipelago.

The island is home to 1.1 million of the 1.4 million people living throughout the Ryūkyūs. Socio-economically, Okinawa remains Japan’s poorest prefecture, with income levels roughly 70% of the national average and unemployment at double the national average.

Legislation concerning indigenous peoples 

The Japanese government has adopted the UNDRIP (although it does not recognize the unconditional right to self-determination). It has ratified CERD, CEDAW and the CRC. It has not ratified ILO Convention 169.

Yearly update

Read the 2015 yearbook article on indigenous peoples in Japan to learn about major developments and events during 2014 (internal link)