The Ainu People and Japan – Recognition over Reconciliation

The upcoming 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo have led to the Japanese government to implement policies and campaigns that have emphasized Japan’s international role in the world and growing acceptance of diversity. Whether it be rising public acceptance of biracial and foreign figures in Japanese sports and culture, greater emphasis on language and government support for foreign residents in Japan or the loosening of Japan’s notoriously strict immigration policies, the Japanese government has indeed made diversity and openness a key focus for the next four years. Although commendable efforts to accommodate tourists and foreign residents in Japan have been made, the marginalized status of indigenous and ethnic minorities in Japan casts doubts over the intentions and sincerity of these ‘diversity’ policies. The treatment and discrimination faced by the Ainu – an indigenous minority residing in Hokkaido – has notably led to questions over the commitment of the government to a policy of acceptance and diversity.

The Ainu are a historically indigenous of Hokkaido, Sakhalin and the Kuril Islands, located in the northernmost regions of Japan. With an estimated population of around 25,000, the Ainu constitute a small minority within Japan’s 180 million strong population. The Ainu people have a culturally distinct lifestyle from that of Japanese culture, being traditionally hunter-gatherers and having distinct clothing and physical appearance when compared to the majority of Japanese people. Although Japanese contact with the Ainu dates back to the 15th century, it was in the late 1800s, with the culmination of the Meiji Restoration period, that the Japanese government embarked on a wide-scale assimilation program, forcing the Ainu to adopt Japanese names, culture and language while restricting the traditions and practices of the Ainu themselves. The Ainu population were forcibly stripped of their land and forced to give up their hunter-gatherer lifestyles in order to become farmers and labourers in nearby towns.

This policy of forced assimilation continued much into the 20th century, only repealed in 1997 by the Ainu Cultural Promotion Law that provided “financial support for teaching, promoting and researching Ainu culture.” Following the passing of this law, a 2008 landmark decision by the Japanese government formally recognized the Ainu people as an indigenous group within Japan.

Although these two decisions by the Japanese government certainly represented a positive change for the Ainu people, little has changed on the ground to tackle the marginalization faced by Ainu communities in modern Japan. Both the 1997 and 2008 rulings had only recognized the cultural rights of the Ainu people, insufficient to address the socioeconomic and political rights that the Ainu people have lacked since the Meiji period. The Japanese government’s decision to separate the “politically non-contentious realm of Ainu cultural heritage – as something to be preserved and admired – from politically contentious issues of Indigenous political and economic rights” has been criticized by Ainu advocates and activists, who have argued that Ainu cultural preservation means little if land, political and economic rights are not respected as well.

The importance of addressing the socioeconomic rights of the Ainu is paramount given the disparities that exist between Ainu communities and Japanese society today. Government reports indicate welfare levels, educational attainment and wages that are dis proportionally inferior among the Ainu communities in comparison to the rest of Japan; a consequence of the historical injustices suffered under the Japanese government. For many Ainu communities, government efforts to promote Ainu culture through language courses and public presentations have little resonance in their lives given the economic hardships faced. Kouchi Kaizawa, an Ainu activist, summed up the dilemma aptly, stating “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”.

It is little surprise that political and economic rights have been refused to the Ainu given the Japanese government’s unwillingness to come to terms with the historical injustices and suffering that the Ainu community experienced at the hands of the government during much of the 20th Century. Japan has consistently refused to accept and apologize for the suffering endured by the Ainu people at the hands of the government-sanctioned assimilation policies, a stance it has kept concerning the plight of other ethnic minorities in Japan as well. By only recognizing the cultural and traditional differences of the Ainu, the Japanese government has confined the struggles that many Ainu face today to an apolitical and limited space of contention that does little to threaten the historical discourse reproduced by the government. Without a formal apology and recognition of the government’s role, Japan’s relationship with the Ainu has little chance going beyond mere recognition.

Without properly apologizing and recognizing the injustices of the Ainu people, however, the Japanese government has inadvertently condoned and permitted the continuation of discrimination and prejudice attitudes towards the Ainu. Despite symbolic recognition of the Ainu people by the Japanese government, attitudes of government officials remain deeply steeped in prejudice and discrimination – the same attitudes that had ultimately led to the implementation of the assimilation policies of the Meiji era. Many politicians and government officials continue to perpetuate prejudicial statements and remarks targeted towards the Ainu, denying their legitimate status as an indigenous minority to perpetuate an idea of Japan as an ethnically homogeneous nation. As recent as 2014, two political figures in Hokkaido made incendiary statements questioning the validity of status of the Ainu as an indigenous minority, one going as far of stating “there are no such people as the Ainu any more, are there? [But] they constantly demand rights they don’t deserve. How can this be reasonable?

With discrimination and prejudice being commonplace within the government, it is no wonder that these attitudes continue to perpetuate Japanese society as a whole. Recent surveys conducted by the Japanese government revealed that almost 3/4 of Ainu individuals continue to face discrimination in Japanese society, causing many Ainu individuals to hide and mask their heritage and ethnic background to avoid such discrimination. Without a strong anti-discrimination legislation in place (a 2016 law was passed but has widely been panned for its narrow scope and weak power), Japan’s efforts to curb discrimination against the indigenous Ainu Japan seems ineffective and perhaps more dangerously, no more than a mere attempt to sweep the issue away from public view.

Despite Japanese efforts to promote Ainu culture and traditions, the future relationship between Japan and the Ainu risks remaining one founded on symbolic recognition rather than of reconciliation. Without Japan’s formal recognition for its role in the suffering of the Ainu people, there is little hope that the historically marginalized status that the Ainu people continue to have in the present day will be resolved. The Japanese government has initiated plans for a modern Ainu cultural centre in Hokkaido in preparation for the 2020 Olympic Games. However, with little less than three years to go, there seems to be little indication that political and economic rights will be accorded to the Ainu people any time soon. If Japanese government is committed to displaying the world the country’s growing acceptance of diversity, it can begin by addressing the inequalities it has inflicted on its indigenous minorities.

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