Sunday, June 08, 2008

Ainu to be Granted Indigenous Status in Japan

The recently passed United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples has contributed to a variety of activity since its passage in September. For some states, the Declaration has proven to be a means to reaffirm the indigenous character of the naitonla population,. See Larry Cat'a Backer, From Hatuey to Che: Indigenous Cuba Without Indians and the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, Law at the End of the Day, Octiber 21, 2007. For others, it suggests an affirmation of political nationhood, which conrinues to be built "under the radar." See Larry Catá Backer, Hard Soft International Law: Indigenous People and their Treaties, Multinational Corporations and their Contracts Law at the End of the Day, October 24, 2007.

The Yomiuri Shinbum reported that the Japanese Diet has unanimously adopted a resolution urging the government to recognize the Ainu people as indigenous to Hokkaido. Diet Rules Ainu Are Indigenous. Yomiuri Shinbum, June 7, 2008. "In the Meiji Period (1868-1912), the Ainu received the status of "former aboriginals", but suffered under official discrimination for some years. In 1997, a new law was passed which provides funds for the research and promotion of Ainu culture." Ainu,
Chief Cabinet Secretary Nobutaka Machimura indicated that the government would positively respond to the resolution. "The government will strive to work out comprehensive measures [for the Ainu] with the understanding that the Ainu are indigenous people," Machimura said. Machimura's remarks represent a step forward for Ainu people. The government has not clearly previously recognized them as native inhabitants. The government plans to set up a panel of experts tasked with discussing what rights ethnic Ainu people should have. According to the resolution, "Many Ainu were discriminated against and driven into poverty during Japan's modernization process." The resolution urged the government to recognize the Ainu as indigenous people with their own language, religion and culture. In addition, it asks top government officials to compile comprehensive measures after hearing expert opinions.

Diet Rules Ainu Are Indigenous. supra. In a sense, this is easier for the Japanese than for nations in the Western Hemisphere. The Ainu population has decreased substantially in recent years and is unlikely to rebound. "The Ainu are one of Japan's most marginalised groups. Government estimates put the number of people with half or more Ainu ancestry at around 50,000." Julian Ryall, Bear Worshiping Ainu to Flourish Again, Telegraph, July 7, 2008. There is an increasing sense of nostalgia in Japan that is easily satisfied with a focus on the Ainu. And the issue is the Ainu in Hokkaido, not on all of the home islands. In this sense the issue is a relatively easy one for the Japanese, who can be gracuious without a tremendous amount of social reordering. Not so places like the United States, Australia, Canada, and New Zealand (the states voting against the Declaration) or even Bolivia (encountering its own problems as a consequence of such movements. See Larry Catá Backer,An Apartheid for All Seasons: Bolivia and its Autonomy Movements Law At the End of the Day, May 3, 2008. But there is more than convenience at work here.

Part of the reaction of the Diet might reflect frustration. As late as 2000, the "Ainu, Japan's indigenous people, are complaining of growing discrimination despite a landmark law enacted in 1997 that for the first time recognizes their culture as unique and officially promotes their rights." Suvendrini Kakuchi, Ainu Discrimination Defies the Law, Asia Times On Line, May 19, 2000 ("While they are physically similar to the largely homogenous Japanese, their thick beards and hairyness mark them apart and have made them targets for ridicule. Marriage with other Japanese is a problem and access to jobs are often difficult.").
Nonetheless, a genuine and perhaps growing sentiment for inclusion, in light of changes in attitude, may account for some of the move in the Diet, in addition to the reaction to the difficulty of changing attitudes further. And that move is to be applauded.

"We will take seriously the historical fact that during our country's modernization process, many Ainu people were discriminated against and were forced to live in poverty," Mr Machimura's statement said. "Today's resolution will turn a new page in Japanese history," Tadashi Kato, director of the Hokkaido Utari Association, told a meeting of a group of politicians. "I sincerely hope you will continue to support the creation of a society with ethnic harmony."

Julian Ryall, Bear Worshiping Ainu to Flourish Again, supra. Still, from the majority's perspective, the emphasis is on redressing the consequences of discrimination--poverty. From the perspective of the Ainu it will be on the creation of a society of several parts with "ethnic harmony." The two sides are still using similar words to say very different things,and the emphasis of the two groups are far apart. One side sees discrimination in terms of poverty; the other in terms of an opening of social acceptance within an otherwise strongly homogeneous society that tends to view difference sceptically. Both groups speak of harmony to different effect. It will be interesting to see how these two views harmonize as the consequences of the recent action of the Diet plays out.

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