The Ainu and Japan’s Colonial Legacy

Ainu People

The Ainu Promotion Act aimed to end discrimination against Hokkaido’s indigenous people – but Ainu activists argue that it merely perpetuates colonization.

Photo by Torbenbrinker on Wikimedia Commons

Japan’s Ainu Promotion Act, which came into force in May 2019, finally grants the country’s Ainu legal recognition as an indigenous people and promotes education about Ainu traditions.  Ainu broadly refers to the indigenous people of present-day Hokkaido Prefecture, as well as Russia’s Sakhalin Island and the Kuril Islands. There are around 20,000 Ainu living in Hokkaido today, though the exact number is estimated to be higher as census data is based on self-identification. The bill is promoted as the government of Japan’s effort to ban discrimination against the group, but it has met with a lukewarm response from activists, who have criticized it as merely being the latest incarnation of over a century of colonial rule. The problems, they argue, stem from poor communication with Ainu representatives throughout the bill’s drafting process, the ongoing challenges faced by many Ainu in Japan, and the lack of clarity surrounding indigenous rights within the law itself.

On June 15, 2019, in Ebetsu, Hokkaido, the Karafuto Ainu Association hosted its fortieth annual memorial service, honoring the forcibly relocated Karafuto Ainu. Karafuto is the Ainu-turned-Japanese name for the island Sakhalin, which, after nearly a century of on-and-off conflict, was ceded fully to Russia in the 1951 Treaty of San Francisco. In the last days of the Second World War, Russian forces invaded South Sakhalin, then known as Karafuto Prefecture. This two-week operation resulted in nearly 4,000 Japanese civilian casualties, 18,000 prisoners of war, and at least 100,000 civilians relocated, including Ainu who would come to live in Hokkaido.

The service in Ebetsu, however, also honors even earlier victims of forced relocation under Japanese colonial rule. In the 1875 Treaty of Saint Petersburg, Japan ceded its half of Karafuto to Russia in exchange for the Kuril Islands. While the treaty supposedly allowed the Karafuto Ainu to choose which nationality to adopt (which is to say, they could choose between Russian and Japanese; there was no option to simply be their own people), Japanese authorities were quick to relocate the Ainu to support colonial Hokkaido’s labor shortage. As a result, 841 individuals from 108 Ainu households were transported, first to Sōya and then to Tsuishikari in Ebetsu, and forced to farm in unproductive lands where Japanese colonists would not move. Within a decade, a combination of the unhealthy, swampy environment and exposure to Japanese settlers caused outbreaks of cholera and smallpox to decimate nearly half of the struggling population, while poverty, depression, and alcoholism pushed many to commit suicide.

A memorial erected in 1890 for the victims of the epidemic eventually became the site of the first annual ceremony in 1979. In his opening address at the 2019 service, the Karafuto Ainu Association’s chairman, Tazawa Mamoru, stressed to the roughly sixty attendees gathered in Ebetsu’s Municipal Cemetery that the Karafuto Ainu’s history must never be forgotten. Yet the urgency of his appeal startlingly contrasted with the optimistic coverage of the then recently enacted Ainu law, widely hailed as a legal milestone for the Ainu who for most of the past century were considered “former aborigines,” all but absorbed into what was publicly considered a homogenous nation. This optimism was not shared by Tazawa – the day after the law passed, he had reportedly pointed out that “no measures are really taken for the Ainu, let alone the Karafuto Ainu.”

Tazawa’s cynicism shouldn’t be surprising. According to the Centre for Environmental and Minority Policy Studies (CEMiPoS), the Japanese government has continually ignored the Karafuto Ainu Association’s efforts to record its members’ ancestry despite its past promises to preserve Ainu culture. The 2019 law, which also champions cultural preservation, neither outlines collaboration with the Ainu, nor guarantees that its policies will be implemented towards directly improving their lives and wellbeing, suggesting that the legislation will change little for the Ainu themselves.

The Hokkaido Former Aborigines Protection Act

The passage of the 1899 Hokkaido Former Aborigines Protection Act placed Ainu assimilation into Japanese law, effectively denying the Ainu – now considered fully integrated “former” aborigines – their right to self-identity. This law was passed under the guise of promoting agriculture, education, and welfare in their displaced communities, but far from protecting the Ainu, it allowed the redistribution of Ainu land to Japanese colonizers, prohibited traditional hunting and fishing practices, and forced the Ainu to undergo Japanese language education while actively discouraging the learning of their own language. Efforts to curb the rampant disease and poverty were superficial – without medical facilities, tuberculosis brought by the colonists tore through Ainu communities, accounting for nearly half of Ainu deaths in certain districts, compared to just 7.5 percent for the Japanese.

The act rendered the Ainu all but invisible in the eyes of the law for nearly 100 years. In 1997, however, after over a decade of pressure and debate surrounding the Hokkaido Development Agency’s (HDA) expropriation of two Ainu landowners’ properties to build a dam under the Eminent Domain Law, the Sapporo District Court stated that as the indigenous people of Hokkaido, and thus a minority group in Japan, the Ainu had the right to enjoy their own culture under Article 13 of the Constitution of Japan. Even though the HDA had long since built the dam by the time the court made their decision, the ruling was cause for celebration nonetheless, as the Ainu were acknowledged in court as indigenous people for the first time.

In a matter of months, a new Ainu Cultural Protection Act finally replaced the almost century-old Former Aborigines Protection Act. But the law lacked the court’s explicit language, instead focusing exclusively on the promotion of Ainu culture rather than their indigenous rights. More than a decade later, only a year after the United Nations Declaration on the Rights Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) was adopted in 2007 and just a week before a G8 summit meeting in Hokkaido, Japan’s Diet passed a resolution that recognized the Ainu as indigenous people with a “distinct language, religion, and culture.” But precisely what “indigenous” meant under Japanese law remained unclear.

The Council for Ainu Policy Promotion

Shortly after the passage of the 2007 resolution, the government established the Council for Ainu Policy Promotion “to comprehensively and effectively promote Ainu policy, taking views and opinions of Ainu people into consideration.” While the Council’s formation appeared to be a step towards bringing Ainu representation into the Japanese government, instead it revealed both the government’s lack of preparation and its unwillingness to support indigenous rights. According to Professor Maruyama Hiroshi, director of CEMiPoS and expert on indigenous rights, the structure of the Council itself reveals little interest in considering the opinions of the Ainu. Not only is the majority of the Council ethnically Japanese, but only Ainu organizations directly tied to the government are represented, hence excluding smaller organizations like the Karafuto Ainu Association.

The Council’s predisposition towards the government was immediately evident in its approach to new policies. In 2009, the Council summarized the history of offenses against Ainu by Wajin (ethnic Japanese), the current conditions of Ainu people, and the implementation of new policies in a three-section, 40-page report. Although the last section of the report listed measures that could be made, no timelines or outlines are provided of when or how they should be implemented. Perhaps more telling is the report’s vague support of UNDRIP, which states in one of its articles that “indigenous peoples have the right to the lands, territories and resources which they have traditionally owned, occupied or otherwise used or acquired.” While the report celebrates the Declaration as a “significant achievement,” it also states that “Japan should establish its Ainu policy in line with the current conditions of the country as well as of Ainu people themselves.” Finally, the report made no attempt at condemning the past actions of the government itself, thus minimizing the direct role that it played in the Ainu’s forced relocation and harsh living conditions.

Present Day: The New Ainu Promotion Act

Ten years after its formation, the Council once again demonstrated the government’s halfhearted commitment to the Ainu through its draft of the new legislation enacted in February 2019. According to Maruyama, the new law was brought to the Cabinet just three months after being introduced during an Ainu policy meeting the previous December. The minutes for the meeting suggest that little deliberation about the law’s contents had taken place, with a particular omission of discussion over whom the law would help and how. The resulting law focused on preserving culture and traditions, while failing, according to Maruyama, to embody any guarantee of self-determination or autonomy.

The law bans discrimination against the Ainu people, relaxes restrictions on traditional practices like salmon fishing, and proposes $9 million in subsidies to promote tourism initiatives for local economic growth, including opening the National Ainu Museum and Park in Shiraoi, Hokkaido by April 2020.  But none of its 45 clauses explicitly define indigenous status or the rights of the Ainu as indigenous people, nor do they outline specific anti-discrimination measures, or make any reference to the standards set by UNDRIP. In this regard, the law is barely distinguished from the 2008 resolution.

The law also neglects to address income and education inequality or offer strategies for employment. These omissions called into question the extent to which the promised subsidies would actually help the Ainu people rather than simply boosting their surrounding municipalities in preparation for the anticipated tourist influx to Japan around the 2020 Olympic Games.

While the primary focus of the law was on respect for Ainu culture is concerned, it also fell short of making meaningful progress on this issue. According to Hatakeyama Satoshi, head of the Monbetsu Ainu Association, Ainu are still denied the right to freely observe rituals like salmon fishing, as permission from the Hokkaido government remains necessary. Furthermore, in spite of decades-long protests calling for the repatriation of Ainu ancestral remains collected from grave sites by research institutions throughout the country, the new museum in Shiraoi will not only be used to house these remains, but will allow researchers to study them.

Looking Forward

Though the 2019 law may help to develop public awareness of the Ainu in Japan, it ultimately does little to directly improve the status quo. On the contrary, relying so heavily on tourism to revitalize Ainu communities seems likely to disproportionately benefit areas accessible from populous cities like Sapporo, pushing smaller groups like the Karafuto and Monbetsu Ainu even further into the periphery.

In response, a growing community of critics, allies and activists continue to pressure the central government through community events, protests, and civil disobedience. In 2018, CEMiPoS held an international seminar on indigenous salmon fishing practices. Last September, Hatakeyama of the Monbetsu Association was apprehended and interrogated by the local police after conducting an Ainu fishing ritual without permission from the Hokkaido Prefectural Government. Though the government’s position on the matter remains unchanged, the Hokkaido Television Broadcasting Network’s coverage of the incident has provided Hatakeyama and other activists a valuable platform for informing the public about their criticisms. The Citizens’ Alliance for the Examination of Ainu Policy has also created a petition urging the Hokkaido Prefectural Government to revoke its restrictions on fishing. It seems unlikely that the educational efforts mentioned in the 2019 law will truly serve to highlight current conflicts or the government’s role in instigating them – but perhaps awareness can provide a starting point for Ainu like Hatakeyama to reclaim their own narrative from the central government in Tokyo.

Mashiyat Zaman is a Tokyo-based machine learning engineer and member of The Centre for Environmental and Minority Policy Studies. His research interests include labor rights, ethnicity, and civic media. He received his BA from Amherst College, where he studied physics, astronomy, and Asian studies

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