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 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 centres 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. As of 2006, the Ainu population was 23,782 in Hokkaido and roughly 5,000 in the greater Kanto region.

Okinawans live in the Ryūkyū Islands, which now make up Japan’s present-day Okinawa prefecture. They comprise several indigenous language groups with distinct cultural traits. 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, but the US military remained. Currently, 75% of all US forces in Japan are located in Okinawa prefecture, a mere 0.6% of Japan’s territory. 50,000 US military personnel, their dependents and civilian contractors occupy 37 military installations on Okinawa Island, the largest and most populated of the archipelago. The island is home to 1.1 million of the 1.3 million living throughout the Ryūkyūs.


In 2007, Japan voted in favour of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Yearly update

Read the 2012 yearbook article on indigenous peoples in Japan to learn about major developments and events during 2011 (internal link)

Download the 2011 yearbook article on indigenous peoples in Japan to read more about major developments and events during 2010