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FOCUS June 2004 Volume 36

Ainu People Today - 7 Years after the Culture Promotion Law

Yoichi Tanaka

During the 19th century, Japan competed with Russia in colonizing the region of Ainu mosir (Hokkaido), Kurile Islands and Sakhalin. A 78-year old Ainu, Mr. Shigeru Kayano, who was once a member of the Japanese parliament, commented: "we don't remember either selling or leasing Ainu mosir to Japan." Since then Japan ruled Hokkaido and its Ainu people. In 1899 it enacted the Hokkaido Former Aborigines Protection Act. This law was repealed only in 1997 when the Law for the Promotion of the Ainu Culture and Dissemination and Advocacy for the Traditions of the Ainu and the Ainu Culture (Culture Promotion Law), was enacted.

The Ainu people are still struggling for the full recognition and acceptance by the Japanese society of their culture and language, and for the recognition in law of their rights as an indigenous people.

They tried to protect their rights by filing cases in court such the 1997 case demanding the cancellation of the expropriation order to build the Nibutani Dam in Nibutani, Biratori, along the Saru River in Hidaka District of Hokkaido, and the 1999 complaint questioning the management of their properties by the Governor of Hokkaido. Though these cases were ultimately dismissed, the rulings recognized the Ainu people as indigenous people based on the United Nations (UN) definition (Nibutani case), and faulted the Hokkaido prefectural government for its management of the Ainu properties (Ainu common properties case). The decision in this latter case has been appealed to the Supreme Court.

While the Culture Promotion Law protects the Ainu language and culture, the Ainu people still struggle for a recognition as an indigenous people. The government has only recognized the Ainu people as an ethnic minority in the 1991 report to the UN Human Rights Committee.

Organizing to promote Ainu understanding and culture

Ms. Mutsuko Nakamoto of Chitose City in Hokkaido, 76 years old, is one of the elders actively engaged in continuing the traditional culture of the Ainu people. Ms. Nakamoto decided to commit herself to this task at the age of 50. She was born in an Ainu family. Her parents and her grandmother, however, refused to talk in Ainu language in front of their children. She recalled that people at that time maintained the view that "the Ainu have an inferior existence. It can't be helped if they are discriminated against." She grew up despising her culture.

In 1979, she gathered Ainu people in her restaurant in Chitose city. 30 men and women, old and young, came to converse in Japanese and Ainu languages. They ended the gathering dancing outside the restaurant. "Everybody must have been happy. I also strongly felt that I wanted to learn and know more about Ainu," she said. From then on, she was actively promoting the Ainu culture. Because of the Culture Promotion Law, and a prestigious national award on her work,[i] she has been getting financial support for her activities aimed at making the Japanese understand Ainu culture. Now she is the President of the Chitose Ainu Bunka Densho Hozonkai (Chitose Ainu Culture Transmission and Preservation Society), teaches Ainu language classes in Chitose and Tomakomai, and lectures a class on oral literature. She also attends activities in schools and museums in various parts of the country, dressed in traditional Ainu clothes, to speak on Ainu experiences and culture and to introduce the poetry from the Shin'yoshu.

Mr. Osamu Hasegawa heads another group of Ainu people, Rera no Kai. The group runs an Ainu restaurant, Rera Cise, in Tokyo. He explains that "the legitimate way to claim indigenous peoples rights is through land rights. The Culture Promotion Law does not mention land or indigenous peoples rights. However strongly you may emphasize your 'pride as an ethnic people,' no policy for ethnic people will ensue unless the government admits its responsibility for its colonial rule."

Rera Cise celebrated its 10th anniversary in May 2004. Mr. Hasegawa, speaking on the occasion, said, "Rera Cise will no longer be necessary when we have a society in which Ainu people can live normally." At present Ainu people still face the reality of having to put on a bold front to live openly as Ainu.

The late Mr. Kouichi Kaizawa, who was involved in recovering the Ainu culture since childhood recalled the harsh social environment toward the Ainu people. "When you take part in a meeting of Ainu people in those days, you hardly saw anybody younger than I was. Now, cultural activities would be funded, and there are clearly more people willing to say that they are Ainu," he said, recognizing the effects of the Culture Promotion Law.

On the other hand, he said, "the Ainu people are generally poor. It is doubtful whether farmers or self-employed people can engage in cultural promotion unless their livelihood is secure." This is because funding under the Culture Promotion Law does not provide any support for livelihood. He also suggests that the law must "explicitly recognize the Ainu as indigenous people, and become an Ethnicity Law which covers other ethnic minorities."

The Ainu Association of Hokkaido

Aside from the efforts of small groups of dedicated Ainu people, there is a bigger organization of Ainu people which aims to eliminate Ainu discrimination. Formed in 1946, the Ainu Association of Hokkaido has been working to improve the livelihood and education level of Ainu people. It also worked for the provision of welfare services to them. But it recognized that these efforts are not enough. The former Executive Director of the Association, Mr. Giichi Nomura, stressed that "continuing the welfare policies will not eliminate the discrepancies between Wajin (the Japanese majority) and the Ainu people." He believes that a true solution cannot be achieved unless the basic structure of discrimination, built layer upon layer of more than a century of assimilation policies, is changed.

Through his leadership, the Association started in the 80s to lobby for a new legislation replacing the 1899 law.

The Association prepared a draft Ainu Shinpo (New Ainu Law) in 1984 which provides for the government to recognize the history of, and responsibility for, forcing a policy of assimilation on an ethnic group that has its own distinct culture, and calls for indigenous peoples rights. Specifically, it requires 1) protection of the fundamental human rights of the Ainu people, 2) allocation of seats in the legislature based on ethnicity, 3) promotion of their education and culture, 4) support for the stability of their industries and economy, 5) creation of an ethnic self-support fund, and 6) consultative body for ethnic policies.

In 1988, the Governor as well as the Prefectural Parliament of Hokkaido adopted this draft law proposal, but without a provision for legislative seats based on ethnicity.

The opportunity for the new legislation increased in 1994, when Mr. Kayano, who committed himself to preserving the Ainu language and traditional tools, was elected to the House of Councillors in the Diet (parliament) under the Japan Socialist Party. It was also the year when the Murayama coalition government came into power.

The designation of 1993 by the UN as the International Year for the World's Indigenous People, the subsequent declaration of 1995-2004 as International Decade of the World's Indigenous People, and the start of deliberations on a Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People, also helped push the Association's legislative agenda.

With such support, the Culture Promotion Law was adopted. As Professor Teruki Tsunemoto (Hokkaido University) explains, it is extremely difficult for minorities to push through new legislation. "It was achieved by miracle upon miracle." Its Article 1 proclaims that the law " aims to realize a society in which the ethnic pride of the Ainu people is respected and to contribute to the development of diverse cultures in our country" as its purpose and requires national and local governments to implement policies to promote Ainu culture. The government assigned Hokkaido to draft the "Fundamental Program" under the Law, and set up a Foundation for its implementation. The financial support for activities such as those of Ms. Nakamoto comes from this Foundation. Its operational funds amount to around 600 million Yen per year.

Of the six main pillars in the draft New Ainu Law, only one (promotion of culture) is included in the Culture Promotion Law. Why is respect for dignity necessary? Why must the state promote culture by law? These questions are left unanswered in the Law. There is also no mention of indigenous peoples' rights. The law may have also created a social complacency that sees the Ainu issue solved once and for all.

Ironically the Association has not been active since the Culture Promotion Law came into effect.

Challenges for the Ainu people's movement

The Ainu people's movement emphasizing the rights of the indigenous peoples may have come to a new turning point since the 1997 Culture Promotion Law. It can no longer rely on the simple slogan: abolish the discriminatory Hokkaido Former Aborigines Protection Act and adopt a new legislation. They have the new legislation, which support events featuring Ainu culture being actively held in all places in the country for the time being.

The Japanese government, however, has steadfastly refused to respond to the Ainu people's demands for an accounting for their suffering during the colonial rule. It is said that the government is concerned that it may affect the outcome of the increasing number of cases involving reparations related to the Second World War, including those claimed by resident Koreans. Politicians still continue to make empty statements declaring that Japan was able to develop because it is a homogenous country, with no other ethnic minorities. Such statements deny the ethnicity of the Ainu people, and are based on the same old idea of assimilation.

Several hundred years have passed since the Ainu people got involved in conflicts with the Wajin. For a minority constituting less than 0.1% of the Japanese population to reflect its views in the Japanese society, the challenges are numerous. Exchanges across borders with other indigenous groups as well as solidarity with other discriminated minority groups in the country, such as with the resident Koreans, will become increasingly important. And above all, there must be those who can persevere against these challenges coming from the Ainu people themselves.

Yoichi Tanaka is a journalist.

For further information, please contact: tamaka@wb3.so-net.ne.jp


[i] In 2004, she was awarded the Yoshikawa Eiji Cultural Award for her work which includes preserving the Ainu Shin'yoshu (Collected stories of the Ainu Gods) by the late Yukie Chiri in audio form.

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