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  5. A Critique on the New Ainu Policy: How Japan's Politics of Recognition Fails to Fulfill the Ainu's Indigenous Rights

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FOCUS June 2019 Volume 96

A Critique on the New Ainu Policy: How Japan's Politics of Recognition Fails to Fulfill the Ainu's Indigenous Rights

Leni Charbonneau and Hiroshi Maruyama

On 19 April 2019, the Japanese parliament (Diet) passed the New Ainu Policy (NAP) that replaced the 1997 Ainu Cultural Promotion Act (ACPA). When the NAP bill was proposed on 15 February 2019, news of the bill was swiftly picked up by both the Japanese and international media. The majority of the news reports depicted the bill as a positive measure and inferred that it would serve as Japan’s long overdue recognition of the Ainu as Indigenous Peoples. This is a pattern that has reemerged and continued with the news of the Japanese Diet’s passing of the bill into law, as widespread praise continues to resonate through the media circuit over Japan’s recognition of the Ainu.

This recognition is in many ways a culmination of generations of Ainu struggle against the colonial Japanese government and, to echo the sentiment of many other commentators on the matter, can be seen as a step forward.1 This article, however, will shed light on the misguided perception of Japan’s NAP by the media, and will voice caution on the implications of the supposed recognition of the Ainu embedded within the policy. We argue that the NAP is a continuation of the colonial domination to which the Ainu have been subjected to for generations under the Japanese state. This stance has two critical dimensions. First, the operation of the politics of recognition in the Japanese colonial context preserves the exploitation of marginalized communities like the Ainu. Second, the Japanese government through the NAP merely reinforces its constraints over Ainu self-determination and autonomy. In doing so, we demonstrate that the media, in promoting these recent movements by the Japanese government, can be complicit in the reproduction of an exploitative colonial order when it fails to critically assess the motivations steering Japan’s “recognition” of the Ainu. This approach is based on a distinction between genuinely transformative action and affirmative operations, the latter works only to support the status quo. True transformative action, we argue, is found both in the critical voices of the Ainu, which the government is continuing to obscure through symbolic facades like the “recognition” offered by the NAP, and a genuine confrontation with colonial history.

Media Praise of “Recognition”

The first news report of the proposed bill in English was published by the Asahi Shimbun Press on 6 February 2019,2  following a joint meeting of representatives from the ruling Liberal Democratic Party. The article is titled, “Bill Finally Recognizes the Ainu as Indigenous People of Japan.” The favorable word choice of “finally” suggests a forward momentum, depicting the bill as a progressive deed on the part of the Japanese state. The Asahi Shimbun perhaps set a precedent with this tone in its reporting, as several media outlets followed in applauding this assumed paradigm shift for Japan and its stance towards its Indigenous inhabitants.3 Since the passing of the bill into law on 19 April 2019 the reception by the media has overwhelmingly been the same, with Japan’s “recognition” given priority in headlines.4 

Despite the insinuation that this recognition of the Ainu represents a significant shift in Japan’s attitude towards its Indigenous (as well as minoritized) civilians, it (recognition) should be seen as a strategic tool to maintain a certain colonial order which has been the status quo in the country for generations. To see this point, we must consider what is at stake in the recognition that Japan is depicted as “giving” to the Ainu.

Recognition has long been problematized by voices within the colonized and minoritized classes, perhaps most notably by Martinique-born Frantz Fanon, who was critically engaged in struggles against French colonial exploits in Africa and who was instrumental in accelerating a post-colonial discourse in the 20th century. Drawing on Hegel’s master/slave dialectic, Fanon assessed the colonial context as one in which the colonizer grants recognition to its colonial subject in an effort to construe a relationship of dependence, and therefore domination.5 The very acknowledgement of existence of a colonial subject becomes marked by the colonizers’ recognition and therefore, legitimation of the colonial subject in the eyes of the colonizer. In recognizing the colonial subject as such, the colonizer subjugates the Indigenous person to a set of terms delimiting their possibilities of existence. In other words, when Indigenous status is recognized by a colonizer in the form currently underway in Japan, what is recognized is indigeneity as seen by the colonizer, instead of that which is freely determined by the Indigenous people themselves.

The NAP embodies this point in that it takes a prescriptive approach to Ainu culture and Ainu indigeneity. An examination of the contents of NAP makes this clear. The reference to the Ainu indigeneity is only found in the first line of Article 1, which states the objectives of the policy. This line describes the Ainu as the original inhabitants of Hokkaido, and does so without any admission to Japanese colonial history. In other articles of the NAP, the Ainu are referenced in terms of ethnicity, which paves a sly deviation from Indigenous rights and works to reproduce colonial policy and attitudes towards them. To fully understand this point, it is useful to first outline what it is that the NAP is purported to replace to fully see how the new policy is simply a continuation of colonial policy.



Protest against the new Ainu Policy by the Citizens' Alliance on the Examination of Ainu Policy, 3 March 2019, Sapporo

Ainu Exploitation

Exploitation of Ainu people and lands has been ongoing for centuries, though the colonial era was solidified with the establishment of the Meiji government in 1868 and the formal incorporation of the island of Hokkaido into the Japanese empire. In 1899, the colonial government passed the Hokkaido Former Aborigines Protection Act, which simultaneously worked to deny the contemporaneous existence of an aboriginal population while aggressively assimilating those identified as Ainu into the Japanese culture. This act was in effect until 1997 when the Japanese government passed the ACPA, which primarily regulated and constrained what was allowed as “Ainu culture” in the eyes of the Japanese state. The NAP claims as its mission the “realization of a society in which the Ainu can live with their ethnic pride,” as is stated in Article 1 of the policy. Article 2 elaborates on the sentiment, by narrowly relegating the sources of Ainu ethnic pride to cultural products such as traditional way of life, music, dance, and cultural artifacts.

The language of the policy is erroneous in multiple respects. First, the NAP and media reports combine indigeneity with ethnicity. NAP stresses the ethnic pride of the Ainu, which is drastically different from their identity and entitlements as Indigenous peoples. While rights and representation as a minority group are essential for the Ainu and all minority communities,6 NAP does not contain the rights of the Ainu as original inhabitants of Hokkaido. The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People (UNDRIP), which Japan voted for, affirms the right of Indigenous peoples to self-determination, which is the right to freely determine and develop their political status and to freely pursue their economic, social, and cultural development.7 Also, the NAP follows the ACPA by obstructing the Ainu’s ability to develop their culture on their own terms by prescribing what is considered as “Ainu culture.” The NAP’s impediment to Ainu self-determination also infringes upon other international agreements to which Japan is party. The International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), defines Indigenous cultures as those with indispensable communal ties to traditional lands and resources.8 It outlines the states’ obligations on this basis:

States parties must therefore take measures to recognize and protect the rights of Indigenous peoples to own, develop, control, and use their communal lands, territories, and resources, and where they have been otherwise inhabited or used without their free and informed consent, take steps to return these lands and territories.

The NAP does not contain provisions regarding reparations, which would be in line with genuine recognition of Indigenous citizens and their rights and entitlements on those grounds. Rather, the recognition in the case of the NAP is not about facilitating the Ainu’s realization of their rights but about the manipulation of the terms of recognition so that it benefits the Japanese government, and its own motivations. This can be understood in the context of ongoing developments in Japan.

Ainu Culture and Economic Gain

In 2020, in preparation for the hosting of the summer Olympics in Tokyo, Japan is pursuing a development program that would stimulate tourist-based revenue throughout the entire country. Hokkaido is one place that has been the target of these economic aspirations, and the Ainu community has been pulled into the scheme. One particular locus is the town of Shiraoi, which is currently seeing large-scale reconstruction of an Ainu cultural theme park. Of note in the park is the so-called Symbolic Space for Ethnic Harmony, a mausoleum where the ancestral remains currently held in research institutions across the country9 will be consolidated despite decades of protest by Ainu activists for the return of their families’ remains to their places of origin. The culture park is expected to draw many tourists in coordination with the upcoming Olympics. These projects have fostered concerns about how Japan will face pressure from the international community to reconcile its colonial past with the Ainu, which has provided some impetus for its recognition of the Ainu. However, Japan’s recognition and its passing of the NAP should be read as a facade which facilitates continued exploitation of the Ainu - in this case for economic gain. This was even made explicit by Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga in the aforementioned Asahi Shimbun Press article, who was instrumental in drafting the NAP and was quoted, “Having the world understand the splendid aspects of Ainu culture will contribute to international goodwill and lead to promotion of tourism.”10 [emphasis ours] Thus, the motivations of the Japanese government in its recent moves with the Ainu legislation and its “recognition” are clearly an attempt to extract more use-value out of the Ainu, their culture, and their land, for the benefit of the state. Such a relationship based on exploitation is a textbook example of colonizing tactics. Yet, the NAP and the supposed “recognition” of the Ainu have been able to maintain a guise of progress. A majority of the media has fallen for this trap and in its misguided representation of the implications of the NAP has contributed to a perpetuation of the colonization of the Ainu.

Under-represented Ainu

The fact that the self-determination of the Ainu is compromised with the NAP is a direct reflection of the structures which created the policy. Ainu representation in the drafting process of the NAP has been severely kept to a minimum. Two primary advisory councils are responsible for drafting the NAP: The Advisory Council for Future Ainu Policy and The Council for Ainu Policy Promotion. The objectives for the NAP were established in 200911 by the former group in its final report of that year, and the Council for Ainu Policy Promotion drafted the 2019 bill in accordance with those outlined objectives. On both advisory councils, Ainu members are a minority. The Advisory Council for Future Ainu Policy, for example, has only one Ainu member among the body of eight members. Furthermore, there has not been any observable effort to obtain remarks and consensus from the diverse voices and interests of the Ainu community, such as the double-minoritized groups as the Karafuto12 Ainu Association or the Ainu Women’s Association. The lack of overall representation or attempts at diversity demonstrates the tendency of government elites to inaccurately homogenize the Ainu, despite their vast differences across geographical locations and interests. The NAP then acts as a prescriptivist document, which dictates possibilities for the Ainu based on inaccurate and impersonal assumptions, and without seeking adequate input from the very people of concern. In this way, the NAP is authoritative and does not impart any self-determination or Ainu autonomy. By its very nature, the NAP does not transform a colonial relationship but rather affirms it. It furthermore lacks a foundation of recognition of colonial history, which would be a genuinely progressive form of recognition.
In conclusion, the media’s reception of the NAP and its fixation on recognition are complicit with government schemes, which are ultimately working to perpetuate the exploitation of the Ainu. The passing of the NAP should present an opportunity to critique the Japanese government and its failure to acknowledge its legacies of dispossession, as opposed to a blind, uncritical wave of support for an empty and manipulative form of recognition.

Hiroshi Maruyama is the Director of the Centre for Environmental and Minority Policy Studies (CEMPOS), while Leni Charbonneau is a researcher in the Center.

For further information, please contact: Hiroshi Maruyama, Centre for Environmental and Minority Policy Studies (CEMPOS); e-mail:;


1 The bill for a New Ainu Policy was described as such by Ainu activist Shiro Kayano in an Asahi Shimbun Press article in February 2019. Shiro is the son of Shigeru Kayano, a renowned Ainu activist and the first Ainu member of the Japanese Diet from 1994-1998. The New Ainu Policy was described in a similar manner by Mark John Winchester, a scholar of Indigenous studies, in a CNN article dated 20 April 2019.
2 The Asahi Shimbun, “Bill finally recognizes Ainu as indigenous people of Japan,” 6 February 2019,
3 Notable articles are:
The Mainichi, “Gov't backs bill recognizing Ainu as indigenous, gives cash support,”;
The Japan Times, “Japan to recognize indigenous Ainu people for the first time,”; Xinhuanet, “Gov’t approves bill recognizing Ainu as indigenous people,”;
Simon Denyer, “Japan prepares law to finally recognize and protect its indigenous Ainu people,” The Washington Post, 15 February 2019,
4 Emiko Jozuka, “Japan’s ‘vanishing’ Ainu will finally be recognized as indigenous people,”;
    Kyodo News, “Law enacted to recognize ethnic Ainu minority as indigenous people,”
    “Law recognizing indigenous Ainu enacted,” NHK, 20 April 2019,
5 For an excellent treatment of Fanon’s theory of recognition in the colonial context see: Coulthard, G.S., “Subjects of empire: Indigenous peoples and the ‘politics of recognition’ in Canada,” 2007. 
6 The term wajin refers to the majority Japanese ethnic group, and any other group is considered a minority. This would include populations with extended histories in Japan such as the Zainichi Koreans and other migrant groups. This also includes the Indigenous inhabitants of Okinawa, who have yet to receive acknowledgement of their Indigenous status as the Ainu have.  
7 Indigenous Peoples and the United Nations Human Rights System, Fact Sheet No. 9,
8 International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, United Nations,
9 There are currently over 1600 Ainu remains being held hostage, with over 1000 of these being stored at Hokkaido University. Ainu activists have been fighting for the return of these remains to their villages of origin for decade, as many of them were taken without free, prior, and informed consent from their respective Ainu relatives.
10 The Asahi Shimbun, op. cit.
11 See the Final Report:
12 The Karafuto (Sakhalin) Ainu were forcibly relocated to Hokkaido as a result of Japan’s geo-political contentions with Russia.