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FOCUS September 2015 Volume 81

Right to Land and the Ainu

Chisato Abe

Immediately after the results of the April 2015 local elections gave her a fourth term as Governor of Hokkaido, Harumi Takahashi spoke on television and said “we are planning to hold a big event to celebrate Hokkaido’s 150th anniversary in 2019.” This statement raised issues on the history of the Ainu. This means that only one hundred forty-six years have passed since a portion of the Ainu’s native land was unilaterally named “Hokkaido.” Only sixty-eight years have passed since the Hokkaido government was authorized in 1947 to operate as a regular prefectural government. Additionally, this statement reminded the Ainu that the conversion of Hokkaido’s legal status to that of a prefecture was made without their consent.

In claiming territorial rights in Hokkaido and even the Northern territories or so-called “Hoppou Ryoudo,” the government of Japan has to face the historical fact of colonization of the Ainu land and thus also the reality that such claim is not based on consent from the Ainu.

Hokkaido History

The Ainu culture evolved starting with the Satsumon culture1 in the mid-12th century and continued evolving in the 13th century. The traditional settlement area of the Ainu people, referred to as “Ainumosir,” includes what are now known as Southern Sakhalin, the Kurile Islands and Hokkaido. The Ainu were originally a trading people, using goods obtained through hunting, gathering and fishing. Interactions between the Wajin, name referring to the current ethnic majority in Japan, and the Ainu occurred in earlier times as well. Although there were wars between the Ainu and the Wajin regarding trade issues, they had relatively good relations for a long period of time. The Ainu called the Wajin “sisam,” which means “good neighbors" in Ainu language.

From 1720, however, the situation started to change. The Matsumae Clan2 was gradually able to occupy many parts of Hokkaido and imposed the “subcontracting system.” Under this system, Wajin merchants who paid business taxes to the Matsumae Clan were entrusted with the management of the trading posts in Hokkaido. The exploitation of the Ainu by the Wajin merchants under this system gradually weakened the unity of the Ainu as a community of indigenous people.

Colonization Commission

A Colonization Commission, established in 1869, unilaterally changed the name of the island to “Hokkaido.” After the establishment of the Colonization Commission, the government of Japan became serious in treating the island as state-owned.

Modern land reform in Hokkaido started in 1872. The Colonization Commission adopted several regulations including the “Land Regulation” that forced the Ainu to assimilate to the Japanese society, or become “Japanized.” The regulations forced the Ainu to use Japanese names, banned women’s tattoos, men’s earrings, and the traditional Ainu custom of burning the family home and moving elsewhere after the death of a family member. Using Article 15 of the Ordinance for Issuing Land Certificates, the Colonization Commission declared in 1877 the forests and wilderness in Hokkaido as state owned. Shin-ichiro Takakura, a professor of Hokkaido University, explained this situation:3

 Most of Hokkaido’s land was left unused, relinquished. Therefore, land ownership in Hokkaido was in total chaos. With the property relationships being ambiguous, the modern land reform was employed as a process of building clear legal relationships. The ambiguous property relationships in Hokkaido led to the disposition of state-owned unexplored territory and the issuance of land certifications.

However, the assertion of “ambiguous property relationships in Hokkaido” in late 19th century is not proper. The Ainu concept of land use at that time was certainly different from that of the Japanese. To the Ainu, land use was not only for the commercial purpose of buying and selling property. It was a comprehensive concept consisting of fishing, hunting, cultivation and other land uses.4 Even under the notorious “subcontracting system,” the Ainu were the ones who used the forest and other resources from the land to make their products. The Wajin merchants bought and re-sold these products at unconscionable profit. This attitude of not recognizing the Ainu’s relationship with the land and not recognizing the correctness of what they do should be called “colonialism.”

Hokkaido Autonomy

While the government of Japan has never recognized Hokkaido as a “former colony,” the history of governance of Hokkaido is all about colonial administration.

The pre-World War II Japanese territory was supposed to consist of “Japan proper” and “overseas territories.” The category of a territory was dependent on the “special circumstances” existing in the place. An important difference between “Japan proper” and an “overseas territory” — which was referred to as “colony” until 1929—was whether or not Japanese law would apply to the territory. The “special circumstances” were, for example, the level of education of the inhabitants on Japanese customs, culture, etc., level of development, and lack of land ownership system. An “overseas territory” often had “old history,” “natives,” a significantly different physical environment, and “unique ethnic customs and social structure.” The “special circumstances” of an “overseas territory” made it difficult for the laws of Japan to properly apply.5 The government in the territory had to judge which laws to apply to the land based on the level of “special circumstances” in the place. Thus it can be said that an “overseas territory” referred to the territory governed by laws other than those applicable in Japan proper.

“Special Circumstances” in Hokkaido

The 1854 Treaty of Shimoda (Russo-Japanese Friendship Pact) was approved without the consent of the Ainu. Under this treaty, the government of Japan declared the Ainu as Japanese people. The treaty designated the Kuril Islands boundary to be drawn at the Uruppu waterway, and Sakhalin was designated as a shared living area, where nationals of both countries might live. There was never any consultation with the Ainu regarding Hokkaido’s land rights issues before and after the signing of the treaty.

The 1889 Election Law that granted the right to vote to Japanese men who had been paying general tax of fifteen Yen or more and at least twenty-five years old was not applicable in Hokkaido, Okinawa, and the Bonin Islands.6 Additionally, the amended land law7 that allowed foreigners to own land in the country was also not applicable in Hokkaido.

After World War II, the Hokkaido government, which used to have stronger authority as Colonization Commission, became a regular prefectural government. The Colonization Commission, having the authority to choose which laws should apply to Hokkaido, considered the “Hokkaido Former Aborigines Protection Act” as a special law for the Ainu, and suspended fundamental rights such as the right to vote. The Colonization Commission did not have a local legislative body and an elected governor. With the prefectural government sytem, the election of Hokkaido governor, municipal mayors, members of local councils, and members of the Japanese Diet was held for the first time in 1947.

These historical facts should be considered “special circumstances” that support the conclusion that Hokkaido was initially considered an “overseas territory;” and whose status was converted into a regular prefecture without the Ainu’s consent.

Ainu’s Indigenous Rights to Land and Other Resources

Based on Article 26 of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, the Ainu should enjoy the right to land, territories, and resources.8 The Ainu Association of Hokkaido in a statement submitted to the Eighth Session of the Working Group on Indigenous Populations in 1990 asserted that9  

in the light of the history [of plunder of] Hokkaido and other territories by the Japanese government without any agreement with the Ainu who were living there, we maintain we have the right to claim back these lands and resources. In addition, we also have economic rights regarding hunting, gathering and fishing in these resources.

In 1997, the Sapporo District Court in the Nibutani Dam case ruled that the status of “…‘indigenous peoples’ should certainly apply” to the Ainu.10  This was the first recognition of the Ainu as indigenous people by one of the three holders of power of the Japanese state.

The concept of “regeneration of traditional living space (iwor)” adopted by the Advisory Committee on the Future Measures for Ainu People in 1996 should be considered a government policy regarding the Ainu’s right to land. The Advisory Council for Future Ainu Policy adopted the same concept in its 2009 report.11 In this case, the Ainu Association of Hokkaido, the biggest organization of Ainu, could have asserted in the Advisory Council the Ainu’s right to land in line with Article 26 of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. But it could not yet do so.

The House of Representatives and the House of Councilors unanimously adopted the “Resolution to Recognize the Ainu as an Indigenous People” on 6 June 2008. In response, the Chief Cabinet Secretary expressed the government’s position in his statement on the same day: 12

Not only will the government further enhance the Ainu policies taken so far, but it will make efforts to establish comprehensive policy measures, in reference to relevant clauses of the UN [United Nations] Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, with the recognition that the Ainu are an indigenous people who have lived around the northern part of the Japanese Archipelago, especially in Hokkaido, with a unique language as well as religious and cultural distinctiveness.

On 13 June 2014, the Cabinet adopted the “Basic Policy for the Development, Management and Operation of Symbolic Space for Ethnic Harmony.” One of the most important provisions of this policy is on the planned museum to be called Symbolic Space for Ethnic Harmony.13

However, the acknowledgment by all three state powers in Japan of the Ainu as indigenous people has not yet led to the discussion of their rights as indigenous people. Worse, some argue that the Ainu cannot have collective rights. There is still much work to do for the government of Japan to show its acceptance of the value to the Ainu of the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Chisato Abe is a representative of Ainu Indigenous Peoples Film Society.

For further information, please contact: Chisato Abe, e-mail:; and


[1] The Satsumon culture was one of the cultures in Hokkaido from the 7th to the 12th century, see Hokkaido’s History, Culture and Nature,

[2] The Matsumae clan was granted by the Japanese military rulers (shogunate) during the Edo era the authority to govern an area around the southern part of Hokkaido.

[3] Shin-ichiro Takakura,  Hokkaido Nouchi Kaitaku-shi [History of Land System in Hokkaido], Hokkaido Nochi Kaikaku Shi [Hokkaido’ History of agricultural land reform] Hokkaido,1954, page13.

[4] Tadashi Takizawa, Meiji-Shoki Kaitaku-shi no Tochi-Kaikaku to Ainu no Tochi: Omoni Hokkaido-Jisho-Kisoku Dai-7-jo wo megutte [Land Reform of the Colonial Commission in Early Meiji Era and the Land of the Ainu],” Hokudai-shigaku (51), The Journal of Historical Association of Hokkaido University, 2011, page 3.

[5] Hideaki Uemura, Ainu-Minzoku no “Ryodo-ken” to Shokumin-chi Hokkaido [Territorial Right of the Ainu and Colonized Hokkaido],” International Study Journal, vol. 7 1994, page 133.

[6] Now known as Ogasawara Islands.

[7] This amendment of the land law was made in view of the revision of 1854 Anglo-Japanese Friendship Treaty.

[8] See full text of the Declaration at

[9] Ainu Association of Hokkaido, Supplementary Report on the Ninth Session of the Working Group on Rights of the Indigenous Peoples, 2003.

[10] Kayano, et al., v. Hokkaido Syuyouiinkai [Hokkaido Land Expropriation Committee], 1598 HANREI JIHO 33, 46 (Sapporo District Court, 27 March 1997).

[11] See 2009 Final Report of the Advisory Council for Future Ainu Policy, page 30 at

[12] See Council for Ainu Policy Promotion,

[13] See Overview of the Master Plan for the “Symbolic Space for Ethnic Harmony” in
See also Jiji, “Ainu center operations policy gets Cabinet OK,”