(This is a reprint of the May 13, 1997 editorial of the Japan Times newspaper regarding the enactment of a new Ainu law that replaced an assimilationist 98-year old law. - Editor's note.)
Multiculturalism is not a Japanese idea. It has been only about 10 years ago since Mr. Yasuhiro Nakasone, who was prime minister at the time, reaffirmed JapanÕs status as a single-race state. It took until last week for this country to abolish the controversial and infamous Hokkaido Former Aborigines Protection Law of 1899, which was designed to 'Japanize' this country's Ainu minority.
Now this Meiji-era law has been replaced by the "Ainu new law," which has been generally welcomed as both proper and historic. But at least one spokesman for Japan's Ainu community of some 50,000 people has dismissed the new act as little more than an "Ainu cultural welfare law."
So the new law can be said to be a victory for democratic maturity and the growing strength of Japanese liberalism; but at the same time it may be described as a toothless monument to Japanese paternalism, reflecting profound degree of public ignorance about the sorry history of the Ainu people.
Although the Ainu represent only a tiny minority of JapanÕs population - a mere fraction of a percentage point - the issue is quite sensitive, even irritating. This is because for many people on both sides of this controversy, the contest between traditional 'monoculturalism' and a new Japanese version of 'multiculturalism' is defined by a testing trade-off, even a zero-sum game, between Ainu pride and Japanese identity.
The barbed psychological dimension of the problem is further complicated by conflicting legal claims and economic interests. So before anyone rushes to any conclusion about the character of the new law, it is important to understand the history of the law and why its passage through the Diet (it was approved by the Upper House last month) was not nearly as smooth as last week's final votes suggest.
Social Democratic politicians have been pushing for new legislation on the Ainu problem; more conservative politicians have sought to blunt the force for any change. But the collapse of the Liberal Democratic Party's one-party rule in 1993 clearly encouraged Ainu hopes for official recognition as a distinct minority, that is, for the creation of a category of native-born Japanese citizens who are not of Japanese blood.
Coalition politics decisively influenced this Diet compromise. The new "Law to Promote Ainu Culture and Disseminate Knowledge of Ainu Traditions" does contain the first implicit recognition of an ethnic minority in this country. But it fails to designate the Ainu explicitly as a legal Japanese aboriginal minority; this has been affirmed in a separate non-binding resolution.
Resistance to a more generous law came from the bureaucracy, which was alarmed by the suggestion that recognition of indigenous rights for the Ainu might enhance the minority's claims on land and natural resources in Hokkaido. This anxiety was fanned by a ruling handed down last March 27 by the Sapporo District Court, which basically endorsed the argument that the Nibutani Dam in Hokkaido had been built on lands held sacred by the Ainu.
The history of judicial activism on behalf of the Ainu minority can be traced back at least to 1975. That year a Hokkaido court first questioned the legitimacy of the term 'former aborigine' as the official expression for Ainu. The conventional usage was challenged as being inconsistent with equality before the law of all Japanese citizens as enshrined in Article 14 of the Constitution.
During the past two decades, support for the Ainu cause in the courts and local governments has gradually grown. The United Nations' declaration of 1993 as the year of aboriginal peoples was an important stimulus. Even conservative politicians have begun to look at the problem in a fresh light. Rejecting the conventional defense of Japanese racial and ethnic homogeneity, Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto declared last March, "it is a fact of history that the Ainu people are aboriginal to Japan."
On balance, both critics and proponents of the new law have a point. The law does represent a historic advance, but a very modest one. Nevertheless it offers more evidence that the 1990s clearly qualify, on many fronts, as one of the greatest flowerings of the liberal spirit that this country has ever known.
The law may do much to upgrade the status of the Ainu community while also promoting new measures to enhance its economic well-being. The implications of this legislation for a proper representation of the Ainu in school textbooks alone could prove significant.