• Indigenous peoples in Japan

    Indigenous peoples in Japan

Indigenous World 2020: Japan

The two Indigenous Peoples of Japan, the Ainu and the Okinawans, live on the northernmost and southernmost islands of the country’s archipelago. The Ainu territory stretches from Sakhalin and the Kuril Islands (now both Russian territories) to the northern part of present-day Japan, including the entire island of Hokkaido. Hokkaido was unilaterally incorporated into the Japanese state in 1869.

Although most Ainu still live in Hokkaido, over the second half of the 20th century, tens of thousands migrated to Japan’s urban centres for work and to escape the more prevalent discrimination on Hokkaido. Since June 2008, the Ainu have been officially recognised as Indigenous people of Japan. The most recent government surveys put the Ainu population in Hokkaido at 13,118 (2017) and in the rest of Japan at 210 (2011), though experts estimate the actual population to be much higher.1

Okinawans, or Ryūkyūans, live in the Ryūkyū Islands, which make up Japan’s present-day Okinawa prefecture. They comprise several Indigenous language groups with distinct cultural traits. Japan colonised the Ryūkyūs in 1879 but later relinquished the islands to the United States in exchange for independence after World War II. In 1972, the islands were reincorporated into the Japanese state and Okinawans became Japanese. The island of Okinawa is home to 1.1 million of the million Okinawans living throughout the Ryūkyūs. The Japanese government does not recognise Okinawans as Indigenous

Japan has adopted the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) – although it does not recognise the unconditional right to self-determination. It has not ratified ILO Convention 169.

A “New Ainu Law” and after

Allowed by an intensive discussion of propositions for a New Ainu Law2 in 2018,3 the Act Promoting Measures to Achieve a Society  in which the Pride of Ainu People is Respected, as it is known officially,4 was finally enacted in April 2019.This marked a historic moment within Ainu politics in Japan by including the Ainu as Indigenous people of Japan for the first time in Japanese national legislation, as opposed to the previous recognition, which had remained only at the level of a Diet (Japan’s legislature) Resolution and comments by the Chief Cabinet Minister.

Ainu themselves were divided in their view of the enacted law. While Article 4 of the new law explicitly bans discrimination against Ainu on the basis of ethnicity, it falls short of recognising the rights of Indigenous people as enshrined in the UNDRIP.

Criticisms in regard to the law in the first half of the year revolved around what Ainu activist groups perceived as a lack of broad consultation with a wide constituency of Ainu individuals in regard to Ainu policy overall,6 in other words, an absence of Ainu self-determination as well as an understanding of the new law as constraining and founded in government-driven tourist incentives.7 The new law neither makes any mention of collective rights, nor of community development grounded in Ainu Indigenous self-determination;8 rights of the Ainu people to land, natural resources and economic and political self-determination have not been included. In principle, local municipalities that receive financial subsidies made possible through the law for promotion of Ainu culture are to consult with local Ainu about the implementation of these initiatives, but whether the minority Ainu opinion will be included remains to be seen.

What has been touted as the central features of the law, creation of a new National Museum and Park in Shiraoi, Hokkaido, loosening of restrictions on plant and timber harvesting, and on salmon fishing,9 are seen by Ainu activists as merely easements designed to assist in the arena of cultural promotion, rather than to further Ainu collective rights to economic and political self-determination.10

In fact, granting of limited rights to salmon harvesting for ceremonial purposes has already been possible through local Hokkaido Ordinances since 2005, a governmental control of which Ainu are resentful.11 The fact that new initiatives are limited to cultural activities and the responsibility for their implementation and administration is given to municipalities once again underlines the lack of recognition of Ainu’s collective rights and specifically of their right to self-determination.12 In other words, one side of the law aims at preservation and further development of the Ainu culture, however the access to natural resources needed to preserve and develop Ainu culture remains limited and controlled by the government. Therefore, rights to enjoy and maintain Ainu culture as Indigenous Peoples of Japan remain unrecognised.13 In protest to the lack of progress towards full recognition of the rights of Ainu people, the chairman of the Monbetsu Ainu Association and vocal Ainu activist, Satoshi Hatakeyama, organised salmon fishing in the Monbetsu River in Hokkaido without seeking the required licence from the authorities, referring to the rights of Indigenous Peoples to do so.14 Meanwhile, developments associated with the new Law have prompted deeper divisions among Ainu activists. Criticism of the Ainu Association of Hokkaido, which acted as a representative of Ainu people in negotiations with the government over the bill and which supported the new law, as well as related government decisions concerning what some Ainu see as the immoral transfer of Ainu ancestral remains to the memorial facility in Shiraoi, was strong enough to cause half of the Shizunai Ainu Community to form a new Ainu Association.15 The Ainu Association of Hokkaido has also given its approval for the controversial set of ethical standards proposed by Japanese scholastic societies.16 These standards have been criticised by some Ainu groups for allowing scientific research on Ainu ancestral remains buried before 1868, as well as for not offering an apology for the moral wrongdoings committed by scientists during the process of Japan’s colonisation of the Ainu people. How the new Shizunai Ainu Association and other Ainu groups critical of the Ainu Association of Hokkaido will be treated by local municipalities under the funding structures of the new law is a major focal point for future attention.

2019 witnessed both advances and stalemates in terms of Ainu ancestral remains repatriation. On the positive side, yet another Ainu ancestor was repatriated to the Ainu community of Urahoro. The Urahoro Ainu community also embarked on a litigation against Tokyo University for the repatriation of its ancestors’ remains,17 making Tokyo University

the third university to be litigated against by the Ainu people, after Hokkaido University and Sapporo Medical University. Hokkaido University, which transferred the bulk of Ainu remains on its campus to the memorial facility in Shiraoi in early November, did so without making a formal apology to the Ainu people,18 thus clinching fears that the transfer might create exemption for the university’s past wrongdoings.

Slow food movement in Ainu Mosir (Hokkaido)

In October 2019, an international slow food conference initiated by Indigenous Terra Madre in collaboration with Slow Food Nippon and hosted by the Ainu Women’s Association Menoko Mosmos was held over four days at the Ainu Cultural Promotion Center just outside Sapporo.19 The event welcomed 200 Indigenous delegates from 27 countries, all of whom shared and experienced dances, songs and a foraging excursion in the woods adjacent to the Sapporo City Ainu Cultural Promotion Center in the mountains surrounding the city.20

The event highlighted an increasing general interest in organic and sustainable food in Japan, and emphasised an important connection between traditional Ainu food and Indigenous rights, such as the right to cultural transmission through ceremonies and other events revolving around dishes prepared from traditional natural foodstuffs. The conference confirmed that protecting and retaining Ainu food culture is also about the human right to have access to natural resources and food, which are crucial to the Ainu people’s livelihood.

The event raised the critical question of the very survival of Indigenous culture and of peoples who urge for further attention to basic Indigenous rights to resources, including food, so that the Ainu may maintain their traditional knowledge. At the heart of the event were the prospective benefits to humanity of learning from Indigenous wisdom. Such an innovative approach to Ainu food culture may provide a useful tool to reconfirm the value of Ainu traditional knowledge, and how such knowledge can be used in the most sustainable way.


Notes and references

  1. Population figure for Hokkaido taken from the 2017 Survey of Ainu Livelihoods conducted by the Hokkaido prefectural government in cooperation with the Ainu Association. Hokkaido Government, Environment and Lifestyle Section. Hokkaido Ainu Survey on Livelihood Report. Accessed 10 January 2019: http:// www.pref.hokkaido.lg.jp/ks/ass/H29_ainu_living_conditions_survey_digest.pdf Population figure for the rest of Japan taken from the 2011 Survey of NonHokkaido Ainu Livelihoods conducted by the Council for Ainu Policy Promotion. 2011. Non-Hokkaido Ainu Survey on Livelihood Report. Accessed 10 January 2019: https://www.kantei.go.jp/jp/singi/ainusuishin/dai3/haifu_siryou.pdf. Many with Ainu ancestry do not publicly identify as Ainu due to discrimination and stigma in Japanese society. Ainu observers estimate the actual population of those with Ainu ancestry to be between 100,000 and 300,000, with 5,000 in the greater Kanto region alone. See body of the report for further discussion on the 2017 survey.
  2. The formal title of the New Ainu law is: Act Promoting Measures to Achieve a Society in which the Pride of Ainu People is Respected. https://www.kantei.jp/jp/singi/ainusuishin/index_e.html#policy_overview ; https://kanpou.npb. go.jp/old/20190426/20190426g00087/20190426g000870005f.html
  3. See more in Uzawa, K. (2019). Japan. In Berger & S. Leth (Eds.), The Indigenous World 2019 (pp. 269–274). Copenhagen: International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs (IWGIA)
  4. This law is sometimes referred to as the Ainu Policy Promotion Act (APPA).
  5. Hokkaido Shimbun. “Ainu new law enactment, “Indigenous people” stated for the first time, to an inclusive ” Hokkaido Shimbun, 20 April 2019: https:// www.hokkaido-np.co.jp/article/297861
  6. Morris-Suzuki, Performing Ethnic Harmony: The Japanese Government’s Plans for a New Ainu Law. The Asia-Pacific Journal | Japan Focus, Vol 16, Issue 21, No 2. Accessed 2 March 2020: https://apjjf.org/-Tessa-Morris-Suzuki/5212/ article.pdf
  7. “Empty words’: Rights groups say Japan’s bill recognizing Ainu as Indigenous group falls short” Japan Times 2 March 2019: https://www.japantimes.co.jp/ news/2019/03/02/national/empty-words-rights-groups-say-japans-bill- recognizing-ainu-Indigenous-group-falls-short/#.Xi81FS2ZPGJ
  8. “Ainu to Litigate for Indigenous Rights, Issue to revolve around salmon fishing righs, Urahoro Ainu Association. Tokyo Shimbun Morning Edition, 13 January 2020.
  9. “Bill on new Ainu law submitted to lower house, clear designation as ´Indigenous Peoples´, first step to comprehensive measures.” Hokkaido Shimbun, 16 February, 2019.
  10. “Litigation planned to demand confirmation of Indigenous rights, Urahoro Ainu Association, salmon harvesting rights”. Chugoku Shinbun, 13 January,
  11. Cit (8)
  12. Op Cit. (9)
  13. “‘Empty words’: Rights groups say Japan’s bill recognizing Ainu as Indigenous group falls short” Japan Times, 2 March, 2019: https://www.japantimes.co.jp/ news/2019/03/02/national/empty-words-rights-groups-say-japans-bill- recognizing-ainu-Indigenous-group-falls-short/#.Xi81FS2ZPGJ
  14. “Ainu association chief objects to criminal accusations over salmon fishing”. Mainichi Shimbun, 16 September, 2019: https://mainichi.jp/english/articles/20190916/p2a/00m/0na/011000c
  15. “Shizunai Ainu Association kicks off on 15th, vice chairperson of Kotan no Kai to serve as Director” Hokkaido Shimbun, 13 September 2019: https://blog.goo.jp/ivelove/e/92043d1a8820c05aa5813814e60c55b4
  16. “Citizens’ Alliance demands apology, repatriation of Ainu human remains before Ethical Guidelines for Ainu Research are formulated”. Hokkaido Shimbun, 8 February
  17. “Ainu launch into litigation against Tokyo University for repatriation of ancestral remains”. NHK, 28 January 2020: https://www.nhk.or.jp/sapporo/articles/slug- n79eaaef53290
  18. “Return of Ainu human remains, All universities should apologise and make verification.” Hokkaido Shimbu, 16 November, 2019: https://editorial.x-winz.net/ ed-113124
  19. “Indigenous Terra Madre Asia and Pan-Pacific in Ainu Mosir Closes with ” Slow Food, 14 October 2020: https://www.slowfood.com/Indigenous-terra- madre-asian-pan-pacific-in-ainu-mosir-closes-with-joy/
  20. Ibid.

Dr. Kanako Uzawa is an Ainu researcher, Ainu rights advocate, and member of the Association of Rera in Tokyo. She recently completed her PhD at the Arctic University of Norway on urban Ainu experiences with a framework of diasporic Indigeneity, raising the question of what it means to be Indigenous in a city. Kanako is also an editorial board of AlterNative: An International Journal of Indigenous Peoples in Aotearoa New Zealand.

Jeff Gayman is full Professor in the School of Education and Research Faculty of Media and Communication at Hokkaido University, where his research focuses on issues of empowerment of the Ainu in educational arenas. He has been engaged in support of Ainu rights advocacy for over a decade.


This article is part of the 34th edition of the The Indigenous World, a yearly overview produced by IWGIA that serves to document and report on the developments Indigenous Peoples have experienced.  Find The Indigenous World 2020 in full here



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