Discrimination against Ainu in Japan

The Ainu are a group of people in northern Japan whose traditional life was based upon a hunting-fishing and plant-gathering economy. Starting from the eighteenth century the Ainu suffered the systematic encroachment and subsequent colonization by the Japanese. After the Ainu Shinpo (new law) was enacted in 1997, there were some positive changes seen by Ainu people in Hokkaido. However discrimination against the Ainu still is a major social problem in life of indigenes.

In this paper we will investigate the conflicting narratives of identity, history and contemporary reality. While broadly tracing the outlines of Ainu history and the colonisation of Hokkaido, the main focus is on the making and remaking of Ainu identity by both the dominant Japanese and the Ainu themselves. By focusing on the dynamics between racialisation and ethnic mobilisation within the context of colonial relations of domination, we will consider Ainu ‘ethnicity’ as a response to racism.

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Discrimination against Ainu in Japan The Ainu, descendants of the early inhabitants of Japan, were slowly driven off the main island over the years and eventually settled in Hokkaido. Accounts of the campaign to conquer the Ainu appear in historical records as early as the eighth century. The office of the shogun was originally established to subdue the “barbarians,” meaning the Ainu (Nomura, 1996). In the Tokugawa period, for instance, the Tokugawa shogun granted trading rights to one of the northern feudal lords.

The feudal domain gradually tightened its economic control over the island, reducing the native Ainu to a condition of semislavery and compelling them to harvest marine products (FRPAC). Although only about eighteen thousand of the Ainu now live in Hokkaido, the northernmost island of Japan, this population was much larger in the past and their homeland included at least southern Sakhalin, the Kurile Islands, northern parts of Honshu (the main island of Japan), and adjacent areas.

Despite outsiders’ frequent use of the blanket term “the Ainu,” Ainu culture was rich in intracultural variations (Seligman & Watanabe, 1963). Not only was their hunting-gathering economy vastly different from that of their agricultural neighbors (the Japanese, Koreans, and Chinese), they spoke a language of their own, and some of their physical characteristics were thought to distinguish them from their neighbors. The question of Ainu identity continues to press today without a definitive answer (FRPAC). The Kurile Ainu were the hardest-hit victims of the Russians and the Japanese; the last of them died in 1941.

Sakhalin south of 50° N had been the homeland of the Sakhalin Ainu, while the territory north of 50° N belonged to the Gilyaks and other peoples. The Sakhalin Ainu, estimated to have been between 1,200 and 2,400 in number during the first half of the twentieth century, most likely moved from Hokkaido, possibly as early as the first millennium A. D. , but definitely by the thirteenth century (Nomura, 1996). They were in close contact with so-called native populations both on Sakhalin and along the Amur, such as the Gilyaks, Oroks, and Nanays.

The history of contact with outsiders is equally complicated for the Hokkaido Ainu, whose territory once included north-eastern Honshu. As the Japanese central government was formed and its force expanded toward the northeast, the Ainu were gradually pushed north away from their territory (FRPAC). Systematic contact between the Ainu and the Japanese started at the end of the sixteenth century with the establishment of the Matsumae clan, which claimed as its territory the south-western end of Hokkaido and the adjacent areas.

In 1799 the Matsumae territory in Hokkaido came under the direct control of the Tokugawa shogunate for the purpose of protecting Japanese interests against Russian expansion southward. Administrative control changed again in 1821 to the Matsumae and then back to the shogunate in 1854 (Nomura, 1996). Most drastic and enduring changes took place shortly after the establishment of the Meiji government in 1868. It brought Hokkaido under the central government’s direct administration and set out to foster Japanese settlements and develop the island’s economy.

The Ainu lost their land and their hunting and fishing rights. In order to Japanize the Ainu, the government banned traditional Ainu practices and forced Ainu children to learn Japanese in the school system (Layland, 2000). In 1875 the central and northern Kuriles came under the political control of the Japanese government, which made several attempts to “protect” the Ainu, but without success and often with adverse effect upon them (Nomura, 1996). The new government abolished the residential restriction for both the Ainu and the Japanese, who could then live anywhere in Hokkaido.

It also encouraged the Japanese to immigrate to Hokkaido in order to utilize its natural resources. The Ainu were enrolled in the Japanese census registers and forced to attend Japanese schools established by the government. Beginning in 1883, the Ainu were uprooted from their settlements, granted plots of land more suited for agriculture, and encouraged to take up agriculture (Layland, 2000). In the post-World War II years, a movement among the Ainu to preserve their culture, language, and way of life emerged.

The leadership of the Ainu Association of Hokkaido has requested the Japanese government to guarantee the basic rights of the Ainu people and respect their cultural and ethnic identity (Layland, 2000). Just as the Ainu contacts with the Japanese went through a series of historical changes, so did the Japanese attitude toward them. Since the Ainu homeland is located in what used to be Japan’s northern frontier – a hinterland for many Japanese until recently – the Ainu stood outside of the reflexive structure of the Japanese during earlier historical periods.

By the eighteenth century, however, the Ainu had clearly become one of the marginalized internal others within Japanese society (Nomura, 1996). Historical agents directly involved in this process were the Japanese governmental officials of different historical periods and the Japanese in the Ainu land. They viewed and represented the Ainu as uncivilized or primitive. But the primitive always have another side — for some Japanese, especially those in parts of Japan distant from the Ainu homeland, the Ainu were and are even today the exotic other.

This is especially so with Ainu women, living in “nature,” whose “deep-set eyes” had exotic sexuality – a familiar picture in almost every case of colonial-colonized or majority-minority relationship (Nomura, 1996). The Japanese perception and representation of the Ainu are most systematically expressed in a series of Ainu – Japanese artists’ portrayals of the Ainu and their lives that appeared during a period of a little more than a century, from the beginning of the eighteenth century to the midnineteenth century, that is, at the height of Japanese efforts to colonize Ainu territory.

The hallmarks of otherness depicted in these paintings include hunting scenes, the bear ceremony, women’s tattoos, men’s body hair and beards, and Ainu use of jewellery. In contrast to the Japanese, whose deities are primarily plants, the supreme deity of the Ainu is the bear – a sign of Ainu proximity to animals. The association the Japanese made between the Ainu and animals is also seen in their painstaking representations of the bodies of Ainu.

The Japanese, who do not have much body hair, often point to the abundant body hair of the Ainu, as well as of Westerners, and use it as “evidence” that these people are close to animals (Layland, 2000). The dispossession of the Ainu, which had largely been accomplished by 1890 through the expropriation of Ainu land (and fishing grounds) as the primary economic resource on which colonial development was based, was institutionalised by the enactment of the Protection Act of 1899 (Nomura, 1996).

With the Law for the Protection of Native Hokkaido Aborigines, a policy of assimilation was forced upon the Ainu. As a consequence, their social structure and living environment went through a number of drastic changes as restrictions were put on their customs, language, and means of livelihood. The 1899 law contained new land policies that violated the Ainu’s territorial integrity. It banned traditional subsistence strategies such as deer hunting and salmon fishing, and also forced the Ainu to cultivate rice for the Japanese mainland.

The law also prohibited the practice of ancient Ainu customs and Ainu languages; with no writing system of their own, these prohibitions furthered the cultural destruction of Ainu society. There has also been a high rate of marriage between Ainu and Japanese that has contributed further to the erosion of the Ainu language and culture. It is not surprising, then, that traditional Ainu society had been largely destroyed by the beginning of the 20th century. In the last 100 years, Ainu traditional lifestyles have largely disappeared, and their rights have been overlooked within Japanese society.

The traditional Ainu settlement – kotan – can no longer be seen, and the traditional grass thatch Ainu huts – chise – are almost non-existent, the exceptions being tourist areas where music and dance performances or handicraft souvenirs are offered (Weiner, 1997). The Protection Act focused on three main areas of Ainu policy: agriculture, education and welfare assistance, notably in the area of medical care. Ainu families engaged, or wishing to engage, in agriculture were to be granted up to five hectares of undeveloped land as an allotment (kyuyochi) without charge (Article One).

This did not mean full rights of ownership; various restrictions were placed on the transfer of the allotments which could not be sold or used to secure a mortgage, although they were exempt from land registration fees, local tax and land tax for thirty years (Article Two). Land not developed within fifteen years, however, would be repossessed (Article Three). Agricultural tools and seeds were to be made available for needy families (Article Four). Education was to be provided through the medium of special Native Schools (Kyudojin gakko) to be constructed at national expense in Ainu villages (Article Nine).

Financial assistance was available for school fees (Article Seven). For the destitute, sick, and people too old or too young to support themselves, medical fees would be paid. Funeral expenses were also covered (Articles Five and Six). Some of the money for these measures was to come from the profits of Ainu communal property, which was under bureaucratic control, the rest from the national treasury (Articles Eight and Ten). Article Eleven empowered the Governor to issue “police orders”—fines and periods of imprisonment—with regard to protection matters (Weiner, 1997).

Later, in the 1950s and 1960s, interest in ethnic tourism and in the Ainu people began to grow. This raised questions about the substance and meaning of Ainu cultural identity in relationship to the culture and identity of the more numerous Japanese. The image of Ainu with their traditional costumes and exotic facial features became increasingly prevalent through the development of tourism. Group photographs taken with Ainu chiefs in traditional costumes reflected the fascination with difference within the Japanese population.

Many touristic souvenirs comprised Ainu bear woodcrafts and “couple dolls” (Kindaiti, 1941). Thus, the increase in post-war tourism, and its focus on the Ainu as commodity and symbols of indigenous Japan, contributed in a positive way to some modest revitalization within the Ainu community, but also raised question about their position in the social and political hierarchy of Japan (Weiner, 1997). The existence of the Ainu is virtually ignored elsewhere in the society, most conspicuously in the classroom.

A report conducted in 1993 showed that only ten out of twenty high school Japanese history textbooks mentioned the background of contact between the Ainu and mainstream Japanese and the assimilation policies forced upon the Ainu since the nineteenth century; only four mentioned the Hokkaido Former Aborigines Protection Act (Weiner, 1997). However indigenous rights are becoming more widely discussed and cultures of indigenous peoples are becoming recognized throughout the world, the Ainu indigenous movement has also been raised to the international level, urging constitutional reforms to expand their leverage, recognition and rights at home.

In 1993, the year before the International Year of the World’s Indigenous People, Nomura Giiti, the President of the Ainu Association of Hokkaido, was invited to participate in an international meeting organized by the United Nations (Layland, 2000). In his speech, Nomura shared Ainu concerns with other indigenous groups, including the experience of the Ainu under the Japanese government’s policy of assimilation after the late 19th century. He called for the United Nations to set international standards against discrimination and support the Ainu people in negotiating with the Japanese government.

The Ainu Shinpo (meaning “new law”) was drafted and proposed in 1984, and finally passed on 8 May 1997. It states that: The law aims to realize the society in which the ethnic pride of the Ainu people is respected and to contribute to the development of diverse cultures in our country, by the implementation of the measures for the promotion of Ainu culture, referring to the situation of Ainu traditions and culture from which the Ainu people find their ethnic pride … “Ainu Culture” in this law means the Ainu language; music, dance, rafts and other cultural properties that have been inherited by the Ainu people; as well as other cultural properties developed from these (Weiner, 1997). Thus, the Japanese government had finally given limited formal recognition to the Ainu as the indigenous minority within Japanese territory, at least in Hokkaido. The general reaction from the Ainu at the time of the endorsement of the new law was that it was “late in coming and did not include enough concrete change”.

Yet with this initial step, both Ainu and Japanese people assumed and expected more cultural preservation of language and traditions, as well as legal protection for traditional land use, anti-discrimination policies, and a general improvement in Ainu social status. After the Ainu Shinpo was enacted in 1997, there were some positive changes seen by Ainu people in Hokkaido. They saw an increase in financial support for various kinds of cultural activities; and conference, exhibition, and cultural exchanges with other indigenous groups in other countries increased.

This provided the Ainu with opportunities to enhance their “indigenous” status in Japan, and to build contacts and share information with indigenous people around the world (Layland, 2000). With the enactment of the Ainu Culture Promotion Law, the Japanese government took a significant step towards officially acknowledging the existence of the Ainu as an ethnic minority. The law is Japan’s first legislation to acknowledge the existence of an ethnic minority in the country and, unlike the Hokkaido Former Aborigines Protection Act which the new law replaces, the Ainu were involved in the process of its enactment.

This preliminary move, however, stopped short of recognising the Ainu as an indigenous people as defined by the United Nations. The Hokkaido Ainu thus remain virtually invisible in a country they have inhabited for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. One venue that plays a vital role in the representation of the Ainu in Japan today is ethnic tourism, which centres on tourist villages scattered across Hokkaido (Layland, 2000).

The Foundation for Research and Promotion of Ainu Culture (FRPAC) was established in 1997, almost at the same time as the enactment of the Ainu Shinpo. The FRPAC started with an endowment of JPY100 million (of which JPY 90 million is from the Hokkaido government and JPY 10 million is from 62 municipalities in Hokkaido that include Ainu residents) allocated to support diverse activities (FRPAC). With their two offices in Hokkaido and Tokyo, FRPAC operates under the four basic policies in promoting Ainu cultural traditions in Japan and the rest of the world (Weiner, 1997).

During the past few years, FRPAC’s work has included providing different kinds of publications such as textbooks for primary and junior high schools, a handbook on place names (terminology) in Ainu language with relevant elaboration. Also, exhibition catalogues, monographs on Ainu history and culture (in different languages) for Japanese and foreigners, as well as other related materials, have been published with the support of FRPAC. A number of comprehensive exhibitions were co-sponsored by overseas institutes for the enhancement of public interest in Ainu culture in Japan (Weiner, 1997).

According to the 1999 population survey, the percentage of Ainu students who attended high school was 95. 2%, that rose up from 69. 3% in 1979, and the percentage that went on to college was 16. 1%, from 8. 8% in 1979. These figures are lower than the 1999 national average figures of 97. 0 and 34. 5%, respectively (Layland, 2000). Despite some improvement during the last three decades, further reduction of the education gap will be necessary for the improvement of the Ainu’s social status.

Since the changes that occurred after the 1997, Ainu culture is now facing another critical period. The survival of Ainu culture, whatever form it will take, depends on how the indigenous rights of Ainu are interpreted at both individual and national levels; on how seriously the Japanese government implements the laws protecting indigenous and minority rights and cultural heritage; and on whether Ainu as “other” remain important to the Japanese in the articulation of their identity (Weiner, 1997).

The Ainu Shinpo and institutions such as the Foundation for Research and Promotion of Ainu Culture, already represent a step in a new direction in Ainu – Japanese relations. The cultural park establishment as well as the reterritorialization of the iwor (traditional hunting ground of the Ainu) (in Hokkaido at least), represents another concrete and progressive measure allowing the Ainu private control of their natural resources, reaffirmation of their identity, and legitimization of their lifestyle and customs.

Despite continuing challenges, we are sure to see new cultural forms generated from the interaction between Ainu self-determination and the larger Japanese society (Layland, 2000). Doubtlessly, what has changed most since the 1997 is the awareness among the Ainu that they need to preserve their cultural traditions for their descendants (Weiner, 1997). However, as stated above, there remain so few Ainu who are able to speak Ainu as their mother tongue, and most are no longer practicing their traditional ways.

As in the case of other ethnic minority groups around the world, the Ainu in Japan require an environment in society in which they can express how they think and ask for what they expect. I think that exhibitions in Ainu museums, broadcast programs for Ainu language and cultural exchanges in the form of performing arts have to be organised today. Then Ainu culture will be more visible and give people the impetus to think about what it means to be Ainu. The Ainu should adapt to modern ways since it is not easy or feasible to live in the old ways.

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Discrimination against Ainu in Japan. (2016, Sep 21). Retrieved from https://graduateway.com/discrimination-against-ainu-in-japan/