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  5. Report on a New Policy for the Ainu: A Critique

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FOCUS June 1996 Volume 4

Report on a New Policy for the Ainu: A Critique

Hideaki Uemura (Citizen's Centre for Diplomacy - Japan)

(The Ainu are indigenous people whose territory at least included Hokkaido, southern Sakhalin, all of the Kurile islands, and the northernmost part of Honshu in Japan. During the 17th century (Edo period), a feudal clan (Matsumae) banned free trade among the Ainu and other peoples in northern part of Honshu to monopolize trade in the region. In the 18th century, Japanese merchants, with trading rights bought from the clan, came to Hokkaido and destroyed the ecosystem of the Ainu territory through destructive fishing methods and forced the Ainu to become workers in the fishing activities. The Japanese government did not and was not able to control the Ainu lands from Hokkaido and northward until the 19th century. Since 1868, the Japanese government appropriated the Ainu lands and enforced assimilation policies. The Ainu were designated as "former Savages". The myth of "mono-ethnic country" prevailed in Japan, as part of the process of modernization, and remained even after the second world war. The government refused to consider the Ainu as an ethnic minority. At present, the Ainu number around 50,000 and remain only in the island of Hokkaido. An advisory panel formed by the government recently issued a well-publicized report recommending, among others, the recognition of the Ainu as a distinct and separate ethnic group. This is the first government organized body that has made such a recommendation. Below is a critique of that report. - Editor's note.)

Japanese experts on law, ethnology, administration and anthropology, in a meeting held on April 1, 1996, handed an advisory panel report to the Chief Secretary of the Japanese Cabinet that proposes the adoption of a policy for the Ainu, and strongly recommends the enactment of a new law based on this proposal.

First of all, in order to properly appreciate this report, it is necessary to recognize its unique logical framework. Its logic is faulty because it basically excludes the concept of indigenous people and their rights. The report neither discusses the rights of Ainu as indigenous people nor explains the necessity of a new law to recognize these rights. Based on this framework, the report presents the issue in the following manner: Japan should aim at becoming a "dynamic society" by promoting multiculturalism. It is therefore indispensable for Japan to maintain and develop the culture of the Ainu people, considered as unique in the world, so that the Japanese society can become more vital in the future. It mentions the necessity of a new Ainu law to maintain and develop the culture of the Ainu. It must be added, though, without exaggerating that the report indicates that some aspects of the indigenous people's rights can be effected by this framework.

As a result, the report has advantages and disadvantages.

Following are the advantages. First, the logic of the necessity for a new Ainu law becomes clearer and more persuasive to people who are against the enactment of such law (namely, conservative politicians, bureaucrats, and many indifferent citizens). For them, a new law to promote multiculturalism is acceptable. For instance, bureaucrats, who have so far been trying to delay the study of the proposed enactment, cannot object to the promotion of multiculturalism to create a dynamic Japanese society. In addition, since multiculturalism implies the acceptance of the rights of minorities, the Japanese government cannot deny such rights of the Ainu as it has already accepted the Ainu as an ethnic minority in 1991.

Second, the proposal to the government to actively implement multiculturalism through a new Ainu law is very important from the point of view of the history of Japanese policymaking. As mentioned above, in 1991, the government recognized the Ainu as an ethnic minority in a report to the United Nations. The discussion on the issue, however, did not improve. This is due to the idea among the bureaucrats and policy makers that the rights of the Ainu as Japanese nationals are also guaranteed in the negative sense. The Japanese Constitution, according to them, does not deny the rights of minorities. On this point, the report is certainly valuable and has an undeniably positive effect on the rights of other minorities in Japan.

The following present the disadvantages of the report.

As another result of its structure, the report has many improper remarks about the Ainu. First, the report presents a view that a new law that would guarantee the fundamental rights of the Ainu is obviously retrogressive because of the precedence of national economic interests. The last paragraph of the report which says that a new law should be used to realize a culturally affluent and well-balanced Japanese society in the 21st century is quite inappropriate as the new law becomes a mere "tool" for the development of Japanese society. Second, while the report reiterates the importance of the Ainu culture, it does not pay enough attention to the Ainu history especially on the appreciation of the Japanese colonization. For example, while the report recognizes the "indigenousness" and existence of the Ainu as a distinct ethnic group, it also consistently asserts that Hokkaido has been part of Japanese-owned territory. Third, the report provides justifications for the discrimination and destitution being suffered by the Ainu because of the assimilation policy carried out under the "Hokkaido Colonization Program" since 1868. The report does not recommend apology and compensation for the establishment of Japanese rule over Ainu territory that brought in Japanese migrants, destroyed the ecosystem in Hokkaido and the economic system of the Ainu, and usurped the Ainu land. At this point, only the "Hokkaido Former Aborigines Protection Act" is proposed to be repealed because of its improper name and its lack of rationality and necessity. On the other hand, now that this report addresses the need for society to respect the ethnic pride of the Ainu, it is no wonder that there are some among the Ainu who cannot accept the historical perspective of the report. The Ainu Association of Hokkaido (the biggest organization of Ainu in Hokkaido) made the decision to accept this report with reservations due to this lack of historical accuracy. However, everyone concerned with these issues should grasp this problem for future discussion.

Fourth, the aim and meaning of the report is not very clear to people including the Ainu who advocate respect for the indigenous people's rights. Reading the report carefully, though, one can find some parts proposing the protection of indigenous people's rights. Cultural rights, for example, which are strongly proposed to be protected, are certainly important part of indigenous people's rights. The report admits that the Ainu culture was plundered by forced assimilation policies so that the cultural rights referred to in the report mean those rights that were previously violated by the government. It is possible to think that the "recovery of the traditional Ainu community space" means a return of a part of the Ainu land rights (part of the use right) to the Ainu. Of course, this assumes that there are enough available land like national parks for the purpose of exercising these rights (including the right to self-determination on the cultural issue).

In view of the situation, the Japanese government may emasculate the proposals in the drafting of the new law unless the proposals and their possible effects are understood in detail by the Ainu lobby groups. Monitoring of the drafting process is therefore very important. Toward this end, a study of the limitations and possibilities provided by the report as well as the summing up of the varied needs of the Ainu is needed for the next step.