- The Washington Times - Friday, August 8, 2008

URAKAWA, Japan | In a country long proud of being ethnically homogeneous, a decision by Japan’s parliament in early June to recognize the ethnic Ainu as the country’s indigenous people was a major step. But for the minority that claims years of discrimination, it is not enough.

“I’m glad to learn the resolution [passed],” said Saki Toyama, an 80-year-old Ainu woman who lives in Urakawa, a serene outpost on Japan’s northernmost island of Hokkaido that the ethnic group had dominated for centuries. “But I’d also like the government to apologize and make way for the sake of the Ainu people.”

“The Japanese government should reflect on its previous Ainu policies, and should issue an official apology to the Ainu people in clear language in a public forum,” according to an appeal from the Indigenous Peoples Summit in Ainu Mosir 2008, which was held prior to this year’s summit meeting of the Group of Eight industrialized nations in Hokkaido. The Ainu call the island Ainu Mosir, which means Land of Human Beings.

In the late 19th century, Japan advanced north and established a development commission on the island, which they renamed Hokkaido. That led to the migration of Japanese and the island’s acquisition - followed by the forced assimilation and relocation of the Ainu. The ethnic group was also banned from practicing certain traditions, including men wearing earrings and women getting tattooed, and they were forced to learn the Japanese language and adopt a Japanese name.

“When I think of having been treated like trash and discriminated against because of our ethnicity, I grow infuriated and feel like screaming at the sky,” said Mrs. Toyama.

While the Ainu worship nature, the Japanese government also ravaged the island’s environment, they said.

“My father, Shigeru, used to say the Japanese turned woodland areas into money,” said Shiro Kayano, president of Nibutani Ainu Museum. “The government has failed to apologize in a serious manner and also long resisted creating laws to protect the rights of the Ainu.”

Shigeru Kayano, the first Ainu lawmaker to sit in the Japanese Diet, founded the museum.

Local government estimates show that 23,782 Ainu people remain on the island, while Ainu leaders and experts say the number could be much larger because of many other Ainu people who are thought to hide their identity for fear of discrimination or who may have left the island.

According to a 2006 local government survey, 38.3 percent of the Ainu in Hokkaido are on welfare, compared with the local average of 24.6 percent. In addition, only 17.4 percent of the Ainu receive a college education, while 38.5 percent of the locals do.

The government’s assimilation policy has turned many Ainu people ignorant of their culture, language and history. Ainu leaders, however, hope the resolution and the Indigenous Peoples Summit could help change that.

“We are at a turning point,” said Koji Yuki, a secretary-general of the Indigenous Peoples Summit, who is also an Ainu printmaker. “Whether we are proud of being Ainu or we hide our identity makes a huge difference to our children.”

Japan now finds itself in a moral necessity to own up to its history just like the United States, Canada and Australia have done in the recent past with regard to their own indigenous peoples, analysts say.

“Japan modernized itself while denying its diversity and multiculturalism,” said Hideaki Uemura, a professor and expert of indigenous people’s rights at Keisen University, and director of Citizens’ Center for Diplomacy. “However, the nation, which aspires to a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council, has already come to an international stage where they have to acknowledge it.”

The resolution recognizing the Ainu came just weeks before the G-8 meeting. It’s no coincidence that the decision came ahead of the summit, as Japan did not want any protests to detract from the high-profile gathering.

Japan was among the 144 nations that supported the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which was adopted by the U.N. General Assembly in September. The government, however, had stopped short of recognizing the Ainu, asserting that “official” definition of indigenous people does not exist.

“While the resolution is not satisfactory, it is significant in that it urges the government to refer to the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples,” Mr. Uemura said.

The Ainu are not allowed to even fish for salmon in their traditional way for their ceremonial rites, and Japan’s public television, NHK, has no shows on the Ainu culture, history and language, he said. But “these are stipulated in the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.”

Mr. Uemura said the recognition of the indigenous Ainu could also make them an interested party in the dispute over the Northern Territories between Japan and Russia.

The Ainu had once inhabited in a wide range of regions, including, Sakhalin, Kurile Islands, Kamchatka, Hokkaido and northern part of Japan’s mainland.

“Russia and Japan have failed to recognize the rights of the Ainu, which makes the territorial issue complicated,” Mr. Uemura said.

“We demand that the Japanese government must include the Ainu people as a sovereign people in negotiations concerning the return of the so-called ‘Northern Territories,’” reads the appeal from the Indigenous Peoples Summit.

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