Japan Prepares Legal Recognition of Ainu people as Indigenous

Ainu people pose in traditional clothing at the Ainu Museum in Hokkaido, Japan. (Wikimedia Commons)

Ainu people pose in traditional clothing at the Ainu Museum in Hokkaido, Japan. (Wikimedia Commons)

The Japanese government approved a bill on February 15 which for the first time legally recognizes the Ainu people as an indigenous people. The Ainu people, an ethnic minority group who live mostly in northern Hokkaido, have historically been the target of a policy of forced assimilation by the Japanese government.

The draft bill was endorsed at a cabinet meeting by members of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party-Komeito coalition, which also holds a large majority in both houses of the National Diet, Japan’s legislature. If the bill is passed by the Diet and enacted, which the Japanese government expects, it will ban discrimination against the Ainu people in addition to recognizing them as indigenous.

The island of Hokkaido was formally annexed by Japan after the Meiji Restoration in 1868, and in 1899 the Ainu were classified as “former aborigines” under the Hokkaido Former Aborigines Protection Act. The law gave the Ainu Japanese citizenship but also outlawed the Ainu language and cultural practices. The law was only finally repealed in 1997 by a new law, which provided funds to promote Ainu culture and helped to revive their language.

Despite discrimination towards the Ainu gradually receding, there are still gaps in income and education level compared to the rest of Japan. A survey conducted by the Hokkaido government in 2017 found that only 33.3 percent of Ainu have entered college, compared to the overall rate of 45.8 percent of those surveyed.

Following the UN General Assembly’s adoption of a declaration on the rights of indigenous people in 2007, which was supported by Japan, both houses of the National Diet passed a joint resolution that recognizes the Ainu as “an indigenous people with a distinct language, religion, and culture.” One of the aims of this new bill is to codify this symbolic resolution into law to give it legal backing. The Japanese government is also partially motivated by its wish to use Ainu culture to promote tourism in Hokkaido, aiming to attract 40 million foreign visitors by 2020, when Tokyo will host the Summer Olympics.

Some critics accuse the latest draft bill of being merely another form of colonial policy, which, while offering superficial recognition to the Ainu, will not substantially improve their living standards.