Japan: Does the new Ainu bill truly symbolise progress?
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Japan: Does the new Ainu bill truly symbolise progress?

ON 15 February, the Cabinet of Japan approved a bill that officially recognises the Ainu as Indigenous people of northern Japan, many of which live in Hokkaido. Although Japan formally recognised the Ainu as an Indigenous group in 2008, concrete legal recognition has not been established until now.

The new ‘Bill on the implementation of the policies to realise a society where the pride of Ainu people are respected’ consists of 45 clauses and nine supplementary clauses. The first clause states that the Ainu are the Indigenous people of northern Japan and defines the nature of the bill; the fourth bans discrimination against them.

It even simplifies the procedures individuals must follow to obtain permission to collect timber from national forests for indigenous rituals and to catch salmon in rivers using traditional methods. Moreover, it defines the purpose and structure of the Symbolic Spaces for Ethnic Harmony – a national centre for promoting Ainu history and culture set to open in Shiraoi, Hokkaido, in April 2020. The national government will also be committed to subsidising similar local government projects.

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Shiraoi Ainu Museum is one of the country’s best museums about the Ainu, the indigenous people of northern Japan. Source: PixHound/Shutterstock

The bill, however, ultimately shies away from the genuine protection of Indigenous rights. It fails to directly address welfare policies, including life protection insurance, employment support schemes, and existing gaps in education levels. Furthermore, the bill does not acknowledge the immorality of past assimilation policies that have resulted in immeasurable losses for Ainu populations.

Merely defining a series of administrative procedures, the bill is limited to mandating the national and local governments to actively help preserve Ainu culture and improve the rest of the population’s understanding of it as well as of its people.

As such, it is not very difficult to identify the shortcomings of this so-called reform and condemn the government for its half-hearted approach to Indigenous issues.

Indeed, some activists and specialists have been quick to attack it. Some have argued that Japan’s Indigenous policies do not recognise Ainu self-determination and autonomy, disqualifying the country from meeting international human rights standards despite its government voting in favour of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in 2007.

Nevertheless, it is too early to determine whether the new bill will prove useless or whether it will eventually benefit the Ainu people.

The new bill replaces the 1997 Ainu Culture Promotion Act (ACPA) that had also initially been largely criticised by Ainu activists and experts for explicitly rejecting the general concept of ‘Indigenous rights’. Some argued that the ACPA would not change anything and would fail to improve the socioeconomic status of the Ainu people.

However, the enactment of the ACPA actually encouraged – at least to an extent – individuals from the Ainu community to engage more in promoting their own culture. The Foundation for Ainu Culture, established under the ACPA, has hosted annual craft exhibitions and festivals across Japan that have arguably contributed to raising national awareness. Things seem to have changed, if even slightly, for the better over the past two decades with ACPA in place.

Additionally, in the past, government funding for cultural initiatives was only available on a case-by-case basis. The town of Biratori in Hokkaido, for example, where the famous Ainu village Nibutani is located, has long received financial assistance from the national government to temporarily employ workers in the development of Ainu cultural projects. The majority of project employees from the town have been of Ainu ethnicity.

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Traditional Ainu dishes in Otaru museum. Hokkaido. Japan. Source: ArtNat/Shutterstock

Now, other local municipalities can facilitate similar programs under the new bill as well. That is, local governments can propose or plan an Ainu cultural promotion project and receive subsidies from the national government to create local employment, contributing to social and economic prosperity in the area.

Local Ainu populations naturally possess the required skills to work on these projects, meaning that the hiring process is based on merit rather than ethnicity.

In this way, the new bill can indirectly contribute to easing employment problems faced by the Ainu and to enhancing the socioeconomic status of Ainu communities in the region. Without compromising their identity, the Ainu are more easily able to live amongst other ethnic groups as ‘normal’ citizens of Japan.

While it is true that Japan’s law does not properly define who the Ainu are – only implying equality and rejecting collective Indigenous rights – this also means that regions with big Ainu communities are able to take advantage of the general lack of legal constraints. This results in there being less conflict with existing laws, and allows for greater social and economic prosperity that benefits the entire region instead of just the local Ainu populations.

Like ACPA, this new bill may well change social and economic conditions surrounding the Ainu in the long-term. From here, however, its success depends entirely on the tactics and initiatives local governments and individuals decide to implement.


Naohiro Nakamura is a senior lecturer in the School of Geography, Earth Science and Environment, The University of the South Pacific, Fiji.

This piece was first published at Policy Forum, Asia and the Pacific’s platform for public policy analysis and opinion. 

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