BBC Türkçe, 25 Apr., 2019 — Kenji Matsuda runs a ramen shop around Akan Lake in the Ainu district of Hokkaido, the northernmost island of Japan.
Now in his 70s, he remembers his grandmother recounting her memories of how, as an indigenous Ainu, she had to conceal her identity for many years — even taking up a Japanese name.
Japan’s population of just over 125 million is dominated by the Japanese race and the government had long insisted on not recognizing the Ainu people.
The Japanese parliament has passed a bill last week, finally granting the Ainu an ethnic minority status for the first time.
The new bill obliges central and local governments to protect the culture of Ainu and take steps to improve their social and economic situation.
The Ainu, however, believe these steps are not enough to eliminate the discrimination they have experienced throughout history. They want Japan to comply fully with the 2007 United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Ethnic Peoples.
Fighting for inclusiveness
The Ainu is an indigenous people living in northern part of Japan, spread around an area which includes Hokkaido Island of Japan; Sakhalin, the largest island of Russia in the Pacific Ocean; and the controversial Kuril Islands.
The word ”Ainu” means ”human” in the ethnic Ainu language.
During the Meiji Era (1868 and 1912), when the Japanese government attempted to westernize the country, they confiscated Hokkaido and made the Ainu Japanese citizens. Yet they also took their land and banned the Ainu language.
Within the framework of years of assimilation policies, thousands of Ainu names, including Matsuda’s grandmother’s, were changed to Japanese. Fearing for possible repercussions and the prospect of marginalization, the elder Ainu even advised the young to forget their past and assimilate into the Japanese society.
Yet the Ainu facial features are very different from the Japanese, which make it hard to conceal their identity, making them an open target for discrimination.
In the 1930s, the Japanese researchers at Hokkaido University went even further.
Under the pretext of researching the Ainu ethnic origin, researchers opened the sacred Ainu ancestral graves and illegally transported hundreds of human remains and private belongings to the laboratories of the Hokkaido University Medical School.
In the past decade, the Ainu have tried to get back their legacy and sued the university. Only recently, have the researchers been ordered to return some of the remains to their families.
Future of the Ainu
In 1997, the Japanese government voted to change its assimilation policy, but it did not take the next step to define the Ainu as an ethnic minority.
In 2008, one year after the rights of persons belonging to national or ethnic, religious and linguistic minorities were guaranteed by the U.N. charter, the Japanese government finally put an end to the assimilation policy officially. But by that time, it was too late — generations of young Ainu generation had lost their ethnic identity.
It wasn’t only the indigenous culture and customs that were lost during the assimilation years. The Ainu were also banned from pursuing their traditional lifestyle of fishing and hunting, and were forced to become farmers instead.
Even today, thousands of years ago, they are not allowed to collect wood and other materials from the national park for salmon fishing and rituals.
Speaking to the Japan Times, and a director of the association, 77-year-old Satoshi Hatakeyama, criticizes the new law because he did not return the unjustly seized fishing rights.
“Nothing changes. We still have to get permission from the local government in Hokkaido,” says Hatakeyama.
As in the case of other minorities around the world, from the Aborigines in Australia to the Native Indians in America, the economic and social disparity between the Ainu minority and the Japanese majority is stark.
According to a survey conducted in Hokkaido in 2017, only one out of every three Ainu attend the university, which is 10 percent lower than the Japanese average.
The Japanese government hopes that the new bill will attract 1 million tourists in the first year by allowing to open a national Ainu museum and a national park in Shiraoi, Hokkaido by April 2020.
Today, only 13,000 Ainu remain in Japan, according to the 2017 census data.
Matsuda says after his father’s death, he moved from Sapporo, Hokkaido’s capital, to the vicinity of Akan National Park and took over the woodcarving business from his father.
“When I lost my mother as well, it was inevitable for me to do something to protect our language, customs and culture,” he says.
The law adopted last week brings a number of conveniences and rights. However, it does not include practices that are compatible with the United Nations Declaration for 2007, which envisages the provision of basic human rights for ethnic peoples, such as self-government and education.
Kazushi Abe, vice president of an Ainu advocacy association in Hokkaido, underlines that they are determined to continue the struggle:
“I hear that ethnic people abroad are developing certain policies based on the relevant laws [aimed at their recognition]. We will continue discussions to get our rights back.”
A revised version of this article has been published in BBC Türkçe.