A law recognizing the Ainu ethnic minority as an indigenous people of Japan was enacted 19 April 2019. The legislation was approved at an Upper House plenary session. The law stipulates for the first time that the Ainu are an indigenous people, and calls for the creation of a society in which they can take pride in their heritage. It also holds the central and local governments responsible for promoting measures to achieve the goal. It calls for establishing a subsidy program for regional revitalization aimed at helping local authorities implement projects to promote Ainu culture. It also calls for deregulation to make it easier for the Ainu to gather wood in state-owned forests and catch salmon in local rivers, as part of efforts to help them conserve their cultural traditions. Land minister Keiichi Ishii told reporters that it is important for the Ainu to maintain their ethnic honor and dignity and pass their culture to future generations to create a vibrant society of coexistence.
The Ainu are an indigenous ethnic group of people who live in Hokkaido, the Kurile Islands and Sakhalin. The oldest book of which the Japanese can boast was written AD 712, and in it the following sentence occurs: 'When our august ancestors descended from heaven in a boat, they found upon this island several barbarous races, the most fierce of whom were the Ainu.' This, translated into modern matter-of-fact language, simply means that, when the present race of Japanese first came to Japan in their ships, they found the country already inhabited.
The Ainu mainly live in Hokkaido, northern Japan. In the 19th Century, Japanese people called the northern island of Hokkaido “Ezochi” which means “Land of the Ainu”. The term Ainu generally referred to the fair-skinned, long-haired hunter-gatherer-fishering people with animistic beliefs who had lived there for hundreds of years. From the 15th century, waves of Japanese settlers began crowding out Ainu communities on Honshu island and pushing them northwards. The settlers also brought infectious diseases that caused Ainu populations to fall. Ainu land was redistributed to Japanese farmers.
The second largest minority group among Japanese citizens after the Hisabetsu Buraku is the Ainu, who are thought to be related to the Tungusic, Altaic, and Uralic peoples of Siberia. Historically, the Ainu (Ainu means human in the Ainu language) were an indigenous hunting and gathering population who occupied most of northern Honshu as late as the Nara period (A.D. 710-94). By the Meiji period they were confined by the government to a small area in Hokkaido, in a manner similar to the placing of native Americans on reservations. Characterized as remnants of a primitive circumpolar culture, the fewer than 20,000 Ainu in 1990 were considered racially distinct and thus not fully Japanese. Disease and a low birth rate had severely diminished their numbers over the past two centuries, and intermarriage had brought about an almost completely mixed population.
The missionary John Batchelor wrote in 1892 that "The Ainu people are not a handsome nation, though, as individuals, the race is strong, thick-set, squarelybuilt and full-chested. The chief thing that strikes one on meeting an Ainu for the first time is his fine beard, moppy hair, and sparkling eyes; next, his dirty appearance, poor clothing, and, should he be near at hand, his odour. The Ainu certainly do not, upon first acquaintance, produce a very favourable impression; in fact, to many people they quickly become repulsive, especially on account of their filth. Perhaps this is the reason why so much that is not quite true and that is not very creditable has been written about them. A person who intends to visit the Ainu must be prepared to shut his eyes to a very great deal, and he must not turn up his nose at a little dirt. Foreigners, as a rule, have not much cared to mix with such a filthy and degraded-looking race..."
Aino is a Japanese nickname; and it is always applied by them to the Ainu when they speak of them. It is a term they anciently used to express their contempt for them, and has by degrees come into common use. The word Aino means 'mongrel' or 'half-breed,' and has reference to a degrading Japanese tradition, which describes the descent of the Ainu from a human being and a dog. Therefore, when any person uses the word Aino, he really means, whether knowingly or not, 'mongrel' or 'half brute beast, half human being.' But the name this race of people themselves use is Ainu, which means 'man' or 'men.' The sound is very similar, but the difference of meaning between the two words is emphatic and vital.
Although no longer in daily use, the Ainu language is preserved in epics, songs, and stories transmitted orally over succeeding generations. Distinctive rhythmic music and dances and some Ainu festivals and crafts are preserved, but mainly in order to take advantage of tourism. The UNESCO Interactive Atlas of the World's Languages in Danger (2009) considered the Ainu language critically endangered with only 15 speakers remaining. Grassroots language revitalization efforts have been made and a growing number of youth speak Ainu, although their proficiency levels vary. While policymakers recognize the government's responsibility in reversing language shift, they have yet to articulate adequate policies. The authors conclude with a discussion of the state's positive responsibility to realize the rights ensured by the United Nations of Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
The Diet (Japan's parliament) passed a resolution on June 6, 2008, to recognize the Ainu as an indigenous people. On the same day, Chief Cabinet Secretary Nobutaka Machimura released a comment on the resolution, in which he acknowledged the suffering of the Ainu and recognized them as an indigenous people. There are currently an estimated 150,000 Ainu, located mostly in the northern region of the country. On July 1, 2008, Machimura decided to establish the Panel of Experts for Ainu Policy to discuss measures to recognize the rights and promote the culture of the Ainu, among other issues
Although the Ainu (most of whom live in Hokkaido) enjoy the same rights as all other citizens, when clearly identifiable as Ainu, they faced discrimination. The law emphasizes preservation of Ainu culture, but it lacks some provisions that Ainu groups have demanded, such as recognition for land claims, reserved seats in the Diet and local assemblies, and a government apology for previous policies.
On 21 January 2012, the Ainu Party was formed with the aim of electing Ainu individuals to the Diet, and the party fielded an unsuccessful lower-house candidate in a district in Hokkaido during the December election. In addition, on 14 July 2012, Ainu descendants filed a lawsuit charging Hokkaido University with violating their religious freedom right to honor ancestors when the university took possession of Ainu remains for research without the community’s consent between 1931 and 1955.
But by July 2013 the political group gave up its plan to field 10 candidates in the July 21 Upper House election after failing to collect sufficient campaign funds. The Ainu Party of Japan did not meet the legal requirements to be officially called a political party, and thus needed to put down a deposit of ¥60 million [about US$600,000] and run at least 10 candidates to compete in the proportional representation segment of the election. The group was counting on contributions but raised little money. Few people volunteered to be candidates as well.
In February 2019 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. "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 15 February 2019. "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.
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.
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