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Japan Recognizing Ainu Minority

February 8, 1998

TOKYO (AP) _ Tatsue Sato grew up in a society that saw her people as a dying and alien race, an embarrassing anomaly within Japan’s much-touted social homogeneity.

To many Japanese, her Ainu people remain a mystery _ and a target of discrimination. But Sato, who owns an Ainu restaurant in Tokyo, says things are finally beginning to change.

``It’s no longer a question of being accepted or not. It’s more like we’ve become one, like a married couple,″ she said.

The status of the tens of thousands of Ainu in Japan has been in the national spotlight over the past year because of a debate in Parliament that led to a new law officially recognizing them as a minority.

That may not sound like much, but it marks a major change in direction for Japan _ though maybe not quite major enough for many Ainu.

Past government policy in Japan stressed assimilation or refused to acknowledge that Ainu even existed. The new law, however, calls for respecting Ainu ``ethnic pride″ and promoting Ainu culture.

``I think the new law has demolished the argument that Japan is mono-racial,″ said Kazuyuki Tanimoto, director of the Hokkaido Ainu Culture Research Center, which is financed by the Hokkaido government.

Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost main island, is where most Ainu live.

Official statistics put the Ainu population nationwide at 25,000, although the actual number could be twice that because the fear of discrimination has led many Ainu to hide their origins.

Despite the new law, the Ainu have a long way to go.

Discrimination still exists in marriage and jobs, and the Ainu continue to lag in education and standard of living.

A survey of Ainu life by the Hokkaido government found the percentage of Ainu on the island receiving welfare benefits was twice as high as for non-Ainu. Thirty-three percent of Ainu described their lives as ``very hard,″ compared with only about 10 percent of non-Ainu on Hokkaido.

Behind the lingering stigma against the Ainu is the old ideology strongly reinforced during Japan’s militarist rise earlier this century that Japan is a single-race nation centered on the emperor, said Osamu Hasegawa, an Ainu activist.

``Japan as a country hasn’t changed,″ he said.

The mono-racial idea has never really been true. Along with the Ainu, Japan’s 125 million people include several other minorities.

The 1.2 million Okinawans who inhabit the Ryukyu Islands on Japan’s southern fringe are one of the largest minority groups. Others include ethnic Chinese and the descendants of Koreans, some brought forcibly during Japan’s colonial rule of Korea earlier this century.

The largest group is the ``burakumin,″ descendants of a social class considered unclean in feudal times for dealing with death and animal slaughter. Estimates of their number range as high as 3 million.

Scholars generally agree modern Japanese come from a fusion of peoples and cultures heavily influenced by migrations from other parts of Asia. But only the Ainu are considered to have a claim to being indigenous.

Some Ainu differ physically from Japanese, often characterized by deeper-set eyes, but most often there are few physical distinctions because of intermarriage.

Only a handful of people, mostly older, can still speak the Ainu language with true fluency, though in recent years there has been increased interest in teaching and learning it.

Thought by some scholars to be related to the languages of Siberian peoples, Ainu has a rich oral literature characterized by the reciting of long epics known as ``yukar.″ The language is also characterized by liberal use of suffixes and prefixes that can result in very long words.

Ainu groups once populated much of northern Japan, hunting, gathering, trapping and fishing in rivers and coastal waters.

By about a thousand years ago, Japanese expansion confined the Ainu mostly to Hokkaido. Japanese eventually began crossing over to Hokkaido as well, culminating in large-scale, state-sponsored migration beginning in the late 19th century.

As the Ainu lost their hunting grounds and saw traditional fishing spots for salmon _ their staple food _ come under strict regulation, maintaining a traditional way of life became virtually impossible.

The resulting combination of poverty, despair and brutal assimilation took its toll in the form of population decrease, weakened self-esteem and loss of economic independence.

But recent years have seen a resurgence of ethnic pride.

``I’ve taken pride in being an Ainu and have gone out and worked hard because of it,″ said Sato, the restaurant owner. ``And I think it’s tremendous people have recognized that.″

A big boost for the Ainu came in 1994, when Shigeru Kayano became Japan’s first Ainu member of Parliament. He was a major force behind the new law recognizing the Ainu as a minority.

In a landmark ruling on Hokkaido last March, a Japanese court for the first time called the Ainu Japan’s indigenous people.

The next day, Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto became the first Japanese leader to support that view. The United Nations, for its part, recognized the Ainu as a native people in 1992.

Japan’s Parliament, however, stopped short of that in the new law, recognizing the Ainu only as a minority.

Kayano says that while the legislation was a good start, the Ainu haven’t lost sight of their ultimate goal.

``We want Japan to admit that Hokkaido belongs to the Ainu,″ he said.

But such an admission likely would open the door to a new fight, over compensation for lost lands and resources.

``The state is worried that if Ainu rights are recognized, then the Ainu will formally demand payment for all the fish, mineral and forestry resources on Hokkaido,″ Kayano said.

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