Japan's indigenous Ainu still fighting for their land and dignity

by AFP/Francoise Kadri, Nov 22, 2002 | Destinations: Japan / Tokyo

TOKYO, Nov 21, 2002 - Discriminated against and almost wiped out as a distinct ethnic group by disease and assimilation, Japan's surviving indigenous Ainu people are fighting a legal battle to defend their rights and heritage which culminates in two court hearings next month.

In a case before District Court in Sapporo, prefectural capital of Hokkaido, Japan's northernmost main island, the Ainu are demanding the return of land seized from them and compensation for two centuries of exploitation by settlers and merchants until the early 20th century.

In particular, they are asking for a Japanese government compensation offer of 1.5 billion yen (12.3 million dollars) -- which they claim is based on the value of their land in 1899, the year the Hokkaido Former Aborigines Act was passed -- to be adjusted for inflation.

The cases arise from the passage in 1997 of a new law replacing the 1899 legislation, the Law for the Promotion of Ainu Culture, and Dissemination and Enlightenment about Ainu Traditions, which obliges the government to make restitution for assets including seized land.

"The law ...meant that we could receive a certain amount of compensation for land and funds for self-support, but we received no compensation and no fund," said Ainu rights campaigner Shinrit Eoripak Ainu Kawamura at the Foreign Correspondents' Club of Japan this week.

"560 million yen has been budgeted but it can only be used for Japanese teachers to study the Ainu language, not for the Ainu themselves," said the bearded director of the Kawamura Ainu Museum in Asahikawa, Hokkaido.

Kawamura, 51, resplendent in a traditional ceremonial jacket with floral designs, decried the low level of the compensation on offer, estimating that it would mean the 49 Ainu families in his village would have to share a payout of just 750,000 yen.

The next hearing in the suit which opened in 1999 is set for December 19 and a ruling is expected next year.

"If we win the case and receive compensation, we would like to use it to create a fund to give pensions to Ainu and scholarships to children," Kawamura said.

With 30 percent of Ainu working in agriculture, 30 percent in fishing, and only 10 percent in business and manufacturing, while another 30 percent get by as day labourers, the Ainu are among Japan's poorest people.

"Many left Hokkaido for Tokyo and now are in the Sanya (day labourers') area: they left because they had no jobs but now they have no jobs in Tokyo either," Kawamura said.

The second case handled by the Sapporo High Court concerns a history of the Ainu by an anthropologist Motomichi Kohno published in 1980.

The book reproduces two lists drawn up by doctors in 1896 and 1916 identifying by name Ainu who died of diseases carrying social stigma such as tuberculosis, leprosy, syphilis, without saying they were victims of introduced diseases against which they had no resistance.

"Those diseases were brought to Ainu people by the merchants and the farmer-soldiers sent by the Meiji (1868-1912), government to Hokkaido.

"They list the personal names of people whose grand-children are still alive. It is a violation of privacy. We want to have the publication stopped and the books recalled from the stores," said Kawamura, adding the suit sought "to restore Ainu's pride."

The case brought by five Ainu plaintiffs was rejected in a district court ruling last June, but they have appealed and the first hearing in the appeal will be held on December 24.

There are around 70,000 Ainu in Japan, including about 5,000 in the Tokyo region, according to Kawamura, although after a century of assimilation, very few are full-blood Ainu.

The government puts the Ainu population of Hokkaido at some 25,000 and the true figure is hard to gauge.

"Many Ainu have not come out because they fear they will suffer from discrimination at school, in marriage, at work, in other ways," Kawamura said.

Some scholars believe the Ainu are of Caucasian origin with their fairer skin and large amounts of body hair in contrast to the Japanese.

Experts think Ainu once populated much of north and central Honshu, Japan's main island, as attested by surviving Ainu place names, but were gradually pushed back to Japan's extreme -- and in winter, inhospitable -- north.

The Ainu language, which was banned until 1997, has been kept alive by a tiny handful. Other Ainu traditions including salmon fishing, marriage and burial rites, tattooing around the mouth for women, and the wearing of earrings by men were also outlawed.

In the five years since the law was changed Ainu culture has undergone a real revival, with 17 schools teaching traditional dance opening in Hokkaido, as well as 14 Ainu language schools, according to Kawamura.

A local private television channel and radio station also broadcast Ainu language courses, while Kawamura himself regularly tours the rest of the country to teach Japanese children about Ainu culture.

The Ainu are fighting a rearguard action against the disappearance of their traditional way of life, which for some means setting up their own autonomous areas, similar to reserves for Native Americans.

"The government is planning to establish seven national parks in Hokkaido. We are not sure of what kind of parks will be established, but it could be territory for those Ainu people who want to live in a traditional way in houses made of bamboo," Kawamura said.

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