After decades of discrimination, the government of Japan has introduced a bill to recognise the country’s ethnic Ainu minority as an “indigenous” people for the first time – a move welcomed by activists as a “first step” towards achieving equality.
The Ainu people, traditionally a society of hunter-gatherers on the northern island of Hokkaido, have long suffered the effects of a policy of forced assimilation that threatened to wipe out their culture. Even though discrimination has receded gradually, income and education gaps between them and the rest of Japan remain.
“It is important to protect the honour and dignity of the Ainu people and to hand those down to the next generation to realise a vibrant society with diverse values,” top government spokesman Yoshihide Suga told reporters on Friday.
“Today, we made a cabinet decision on a bill to proceed with policies to preserve the Ainu people’s pride.”
The bill is the first to recognise the Ainu as “indigenous people” and calls for the government to make “forward-looking policies”, including measures to support communities and boost local economies and tourism following a long history of exploitation and cultural suppression.
In the late 19th century, the modern Japanese government annexed land from the Ainu people and prohibited them from practising their customs and using their language.
The Ainu traditionally observed an animist faith, the men wearing full beards and women adorning themselves with facial tattoos before marriage. They lived mainly by hunting, fishing and farming.
But, like many indigenous people around the world, most of Japan’s Ainu have lost touch with their traditional lifestyle after decades of forced assimilation policies.
The Ainu population is estimated to be at least 12,300, according to a 2017 survey, but the real figure is unknown as many have integrated into mainstream society and some have hidden their cultural roots.
Official estimates of the Ainu population in the early 2000s had put the figure at around 25,000.
“It is the first step for ensuring equality under the law,” Mikiko Maruko, who represents a group of Ainu people in eastern Japan near Tokyo, told AFP news agency, commenting on the government’s move.
“There are lots of things to be done, for example, creating a scholarship for families who struggle to send their children to high schools,” she added, referring to Ainu living outside Hokkaido who cannot access existing Ainu scholarship programmes on the island.
Under the new plan, the government will also allow the Ainu to cut down trees in nationally-owned forests for use in traditional rituals.
“It is a major step forward on policies towards the Ainu people,” said Masashi Nagaura, chief of the Ainu policy bureau of the Hokkaido prefectural government that has spearheaded policies for the ethnic minority.