• Indigenous peoples in Japan

    Indigenous peoples in Japan

Indigenous World 2019: 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. The most recent government surveys put the Ainu population in Hokkaido at 13,118 (2017) and in the rest of Japan at 210 (2011), though experts estimate the actual population to be much higher.1

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. Japan colonized the Ryūkyūs in 1879 but later relinquished the islands to the United States in exchange for independence after World War II. In 1972, the islands were reincorporated into the Japanese state and Okinawans became Japanese. The island of Okinawa is home to 1.1 million of the 1.4 million Okinawans living throughout the Ryūkyūs. The Japanese government does not recognize Okinawans as indigenous people.

Japan has adopted the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (although it does not recognize the unconditional right to self-determination). It has not ratified ILO Convention 169.

Renewed focus on Ainu issues

In 2018, Hokkaido celebrated the 150th anniversary of the naming of the prefecture, holding various commemoration ceremonies and projects. For the Ainu, however, the anniversary served as a bitter reminder of the colonization of their ancestral homelands and the history of suffering that followed. One Ainu human rights defender, Sinrit Eoripak Aynu Kawamura, organized a protest against the Hokkaido government, stating that it was “unacceptable to celebrate these 150 years without an official apology to the Ainu, obscuring the history of oppression that took place under the name of opening up [Hokkaido].”2

There has been increased attention for Ainu culture in popular media as well as discussion to feature Ainu culture as part of the 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympics. This increased attention has led to discussions about proper representation and usage of Ainu cultural and intellectual property. In March, the Ministry of the Environment released the first-ever guidelines regarding the use of Ainu designs for the Akanko Onsen area, providing cultural context and specifying that any use should be in consultation with a committee formed by members from the local Ainu community.3 Meanwhile, the Sapporo Ainu Association established a “Sapporo Ainu Design” certification system in June, providing its stamp of approval to designs and products created with their input, the first system of its kind for the Ainu.4

Also in 2018, the Hokkaido government released its report on the Ainu Survey on Livelihood that it had conducted the preceding year. The report counted the Ainu population at 13,118, a drop of 3,500 from its survey in 2013 and nearly a 40% drop in the total population from its survey in 2006. Experts noted that the survey likely left out tens of thousands of additional Ainu, and that concerns about privacy, as well as continued budget cuts to Ainu support programs and recent instances of hate speech that deny the very existence of the Ainu are contributing factors to wariness among Ainu in partaking in the survey. The drop in numbers also raised concerns that this might be used to justify further cuts in programs and support for the Ainu. The survey also indicated that while the gap between Ainu and non-Ainu was closing, the rate among Ainu receiving government welfare was four points higher, while the rate of those advancing to university was 12.5 points lower than average. 5

In December, President Vladimir Putin of Russia stated that he agreed with a proposal made by the member of the Moscow Human Rights Commission to recognize the Ainu as an indigenous people of Russia. The Ainu are indigenous to the Northern Territories disputed between Russia and Japan, and it is yet unclear what such recognition would mean in practical terms for the Ainu community.6 

Return of ancestral remains

While 2018 saw the return of additional human remains still held by Japanese universities to Ainu communities, the issue remains one of contention. Hokkaido University returned three human remains to the Asahikawa Ainu community and 14 to that in Urahoro. Keio University in February 2018 completed its return of six human remains, after it was discovered that despite the process being started in 2016, one former professor removed portions of the remains and kept them at his home, purportedly for “further research.” While Keio University apologized, it was unclear if any action was taken against the former faculty member.7 Additionally, two groups filed a lawsuit in January against Sapporo Medical University for the return of 36 remains to the community.

One of the leaders on the issue of human remains has been Yuji Shimizu, President of the Kotan Association. He and the organization have used grassroots support, media coverage and the legal system to build pressure to allow kotan (villages/communities) to accept the return of all human remains, not just individuals or families. Undoubtedly as a result of his and others’ efforts, the Japanese government released updated guidelines in December 2018 that direct universities to return human remains to communities if they can demonstrate their ability to bury the remains and that there are no competing claims.8

Towards a “New Ainu Law”

2018 saw continued debate and discussion between the Ainu community and the Japanese government about the content of the “New Ainu Law,” which the government confirmed it intended to pass in the beginning of 2019. Ainu activists were critical of the process, noting that one-sided hearings reeked of colonialism, and failed to treat the Ainu as equal participants.9 Ainu activists organized numerous discussions on their own, formulating several demands including an apology for historical wrongs; establishment of the right to self-determination and the right to natural resources; and the halting of all further research on Ainu ancestral human remains. Other demands included a focus on educational empowerment, a ban on discrimination, and support for livelihoods.10

One human rights defender and head of the Monbetsu Ainu Association, Satoshi Hatakeyama, challenged current Japanese law that requires Ainu to apply in advance for permission to catch salmon, an important offering in traditional ceremonies. Citing in part the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination’s 2018 recommendations regarding Ainu rights to natural resources, he attempted to catch salmon without filing for permission from the Japanese government and was stopped by the police. Garnering media attention, he raised the issue to the Hokkaido and national government, putting the issue of salmon fishing and access to natural resources clearly on the radar in discussions about the “New Ainu Law.”11

Acceding to some of the grassroots pressure, the Japanese government held several caranke (debates, an important part of traditional Ainu culture) on the “New Ainu Law.” At the end of the year, the government outlined the core principles of the law, including an official recognition of the Ainu as an indigenous people of Japan, with the aim of enabling them to live in Japanese society with pride and dignity. The two main pillars of the law are a grant system for local government’s “regional and industrial development” using Ainu culture, and an establishment of special measures for Ainu to collect natural resources such as salmon and plants. In response to ongoing concerns about the inadequacies of the 2016 Hate Speech Act, the law would also prohibit hate speech and discrimination.12 While the failure to meet such demands,including an apology, make the current proposal far from ideal, activists recognized that much of their hard work and pressure on the Japanese government paid off to achieve important progress in shaping the content of the “New Ainu Law.”13

Notes and references

  1. Population figure for Hokkaido taken from the 2017 Survey of Ainu Livelihoods conducted by the Hokkaido prefectural government in cooperation with the Ainu Association (Hokkaido Government, Environment and Lifestyle Section. Hokkaido Ainu Survey on Livelihood Report, Accessed 10 January 2019, http://bit.ly/2Eoonlh). Population figure for the rest of Japan taken from the 2011 Survey of Non-Hokkaido Ainu Livelihoods conducted by the Council for Ainu Policy Promotion. 2011. Non-Hokkaido Ainu Survey on Livelihood Report, Accessed 10 January 2019, http://bit.ly/2EjY1kr). 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 100,000 and 300,000, with 5,000 in the greater Kanto region alone. See body of the report for further discussion on the 2017 survey.
  2. “Protesting the Hokkaido 150 year Ceremony ‘Obscures the History of Oppression Against the Ainu’.” Hokkaido Shimbun. 17 July 2018. Available at: http://bit.ly/2EjcUn0
  3. “Don’t Use on the Floor / Don’t Place Different Patterns Without Order Guidelines on Use of Ainu Designs for Akanko ” Hokkaido Shimbun. 17 July 2018. Available at: http://bit.ly/2EiOwlq
  4. “Certifying Designs to Promote Ainu Culture – Products and Services from Sapporo, Number One is a Furoshiki Cloth.” Hokkaido Shimbun. 2 June Available at: http://bit.ly/2EoPXip
  5. “Discrimination Born from Soil that Prevents Those from Speaking Out – Ainu Population Surveyed by Hokkaido Falls to 13,000.” Hokkaido Shimbun. 15 June Available at: http://bit.ly/2EmdwZ6
  6. “Ainu Are An ‘Indigenous People of Russia’ – President Putin Indicates ” Hokkaido Shimbun. 15 June 2018. Available at: http://bit.ly/2EmdwZ6 and http://bit.ly/2EjU6UM
  7. “Ainu Human Remains Returned After 20 Years – Keio University Returns 6 to Kushiro” Sankei Shimbun. 22 November 2018. Available at: http://bit.ly/2EkL4GR
  8. “Guidelines for Universities Storing Ainu Human Remains to Return them to Originating Communities.” Ainu Policy Promotion Council. December 2018. Available at: http://bit.ly/2EqB0vY
  9. “New Ainu Law Considerations ‘Colonialist’ – Citizen’s Policy Group Argues to Government.” Hokkaido Shimbun. 11 May 2018. Available at: http://bit.ly/2EkL8q5
  10. “Ainu Make 12 Demands on New Law Including ‘Government ’” Shuukan Kinyobi. 6 December 2018. Available at: http://bit.ly/2EkWE4Q
  11. “Why is Salmon Fishing Prohibited? One Ainu Man’s ” HTB. 11 September 2018. Available at: http://bit.ly/2EopgdB
  12. “Summary of New Ainu Law – Significance of Specifying Right to Natural Resources.” Hokkaido Shimbun. 18 December 2018. Available at: http://bit.ly/2EnSKrS For further details about the 2016 law, please refer to the Indigenous World 2017 available at http://bit.ly/2EkcFrA
  13. “Caranke on Ancestral Remains and the ‘New Ainu Law’ Will the Gap with the Government Be Closed?” Shuukan Kinyobi. November 12, 2018. Available at: http://bit.ly/2EopNw7

Kanako Uzawa is an Ainu researcher and a member of the Association of Rera in Tokyo. She is currently a Ph.D. Candidate at the Department of Sociology, Political Science, and Community Planning at the Artic University of Norway



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