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Japan recognises indigenous people

June 07, 2008


TOKYO, June 6: Japan on Friday for the first time recognised the Ainu as an indigenous people, pledging to support the traditionally nature-worshipping community that has endured centuries of discrimination.

It is a landmark step for Japan, which has prided itself on being ethnically homogeneous but where the Ainu have sharply lower incomes and educational levels.

Parliament unanimously approved a resolution recognising the Ainu and calling for “immediate” support to the community. The move is primarily symbolic, although it will likely open the way for economic aid.

“We have turned a significant new page in Ainu history which we have never seen before,” senior Ainu activist Tokuhei Akibe told a news conference next to the parliament building.

“This is wonderful, but still just a first step forward,” said Akibe, wearing a traditional embroidered Ainu gown. “We bear a serious responsibility to make this meaningful.” The resolution comes ahead of next month’s summit of the Group of Eight rich nations on the northern island of Hokkaido, home to most of Japan’s estimated 70,000 Ainu.

The resolution recognises for the first time that the Ainu “are an indigenous people with a distinct language, religion and culture.” “If our country wants to lead the international community, it is crucial for us that all indigenous people retain their honour and dignity and hand down their culture and pride to later generations,” the resolution said.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Nobutaka Machimura said the government would respect the parliamentary resolution, but stopped short of declaring concrete support for the Ainu.

“Our government solemnly accepts the historical fact that the Ainu people were discriminated against and suffered poverty in the process of our country’s modernisation,” the government’s chief spokesman told parliament.

Fairer-skinned and more hirsute than most Japanese, the Ainu traditionally observed an animist faith with a belief that God exists in every creation, respecting trees, hills, lakes, rivers and animals — particularly bears.

The Ainu, who lived by hunting and fishing, formed their society around the 13th century mainly in Hokkaido but also the Kuril and Sakhalin islands, which are now ruled by Russia, and parts of Japan’s main island of Honshu.

Ethnic Japanese gradually settled Hokkaido and in 1899 enacted the Hokkaido Former Aborigines Act, under which the Ainu were forced to give up their land, language and traditions and shift from hunting to farming.

The act was repealed only in 1997 and replaced by legislation calling for “respect for the dignity of the Ainu people.” But that law stopped short of recognising the Ainu as indigenous or, as some activists have demanded, setting up autonomous areas along the lines of Native American reservations in the United States.

Takashi Sasagawa, a senior lawmaker of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, said that many people “had wrong ideas” about the Ainu.

“Today’s historic, courageous decision is significant in reversing those wrong ideas,” he said.