Japan’s new policy on the Ainu is misleading

Though Japan recognised them as an indigenous people in 2008, the New Ainu Policy Bill represents a continuation of the nation’s colonisation of Hokkaido and its native inhabitants

By Hiroshi Maruyama , Leni Charbonneau
Published: Thursday 21 February 2019
A traditional Ainu marriage ceremony. Credit: Wikimedia Commons A traditional Ainu marriage ceremony. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

On December 31, 2018, reporters at a leading newspaper on Hokkaido, Japan’s second-largest island, received word of a forthcoming bill related to the Japanese government’s New Ainu Policy, soon to be enacted as law within the national Diet.

The bill has garnered critical response from the Ainu community, with revered activists such as Yuji Shimizu who has expressed concern by questioning: “Who is this bill for? It is certainly not for us.”

The forthcoming bill maintains the legacy of colonising attitudes of the Japanese government towards the Ainu that have persisted for generations and thus should be seen as yet another piece of colonial legislation, though the Japanese government announced in June 2008 that the Ainu are its indigenous people. We justify this stance by outlining the decision-making processes involved with the bill in addition to its contents.

An outline of the bill was brought to a meeting by the Council for Ainu Policy Promotion organised by the Cabinet Office of the Japanese government in the form of a handout on December 19, 2018.

Based on the minutes for the meeting, however, there is no indication that the council comprehensively discussed or deliberated the bill’s contents. This means that there was no active conversation to determine how the outline fulfills Japan’s obligations to international human rights standards relevant to policies and actions pertaining to the Ainu.

In addition to the lack of deliberation around the outline of the bill, the council itself has severe structural issues. First, the Ainu members of the Council represent a minority within its numbers. In other words, Japanese individuals dominate the Council, which determines the policies on behalf of the Ainu.

Second, the five Ainu members on the council do not represent an adequate diversity of the different Ainu interest groups or associations as only a few of select Ainu organisations are represented. Other organizations across the vibrant spectrum of activism and interests of the Ainu community — such as the Karafuto (Sakhalin) Ainu Association, the Monbetsu Ainu Association, or the Ainu Women’s Association — have been excluded from the decision-making processes with priority instead given to those groups directly tied to government.

Not only has the council failed to adequately disclose how it has met the concerns of Ainu in its policy, but the bill is set to be enacted into law through the Diet without explicit consent or endorsement from representatives of the Ainu community.

This is inconsistent with Japan’s supposed adherence to international human rights standards regarding indigenous peoples, which guarantees the rights of indigenous groups to free, prior, and informed consent on all matters concerning their communities.

Japan has ratified conventions put forth by the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD), which stresses that no decisions relating directly to indigenous peoples are to be taken without their informed consent in its General Recommendation No. 23 (1997). This is just one of many international conventions to which Japan is bound concerning the human rights of indigenous populations.

Media outlets in Japan are highlighting headlines of their reports on the new bill, exalting the bill for its official recognition of the Ainu as Hokkaido’s indigenous population and for the supposed measures the bill takes to ban discrimination against them. However, such headlines praising the measure by the Japanese government are rather short-sighted in their analysis of what the bill does for the Ainu people. 

These articles do not address the fact that there are no stipulations in the bill which guarantee the indigenous status of the Ainu or take comprehensive anti-discrimination measures in ways which would accord with the international human rights standards to which Japan is bound. This is equally true of the forthcoming bill as it was for its predecessor, the Ainu Culture Promotion Act (ACPA, 1997).

The new bill is, thus, another iteration of the Japanese government’s inability to protect and guarantee the rights of the Ainu in a satisfactory way. The media pieces commending the council’s actions with the New Ainu Policy then should be read as a lip service to the government which easily mislead the Ainu and the public about what the new policy actually ensures for them.

For example, the distortion of what the new policy can actually be said to accomplish can be seen with Article 1 of the bill. This provides that traditions and culture are the pride of the Ainu as an ethnic group and the purpose of the new policy is to work towards the realisation of a society which will respect the pride of the Ainu as an ethnic group.

There are a number of notable things in this statement. First and foremost, the Ainu are regarded as a distinct ethnic group, which is significantly different from recognition as indigenous peoples and implies a completely different set of rights and guarantees according to international human rights standards.

Secondly, the emphasis on culture and traditions does not embody any notion of self-determination and autonomy that should be guaranteed to indigenous persons. In its current framing, the new policy solely seeks to preserve Ainu culture as a perceived stagnated cultural relic and to disseminate knowledge on Ainu traditions. The prominence given to culture and traditions is exactly the same objective as seen in the previous policy, the ACPA.

Article 2 of the bill reinforces the constraints on the Ainu by providing a very narrow definition of what culture is, one that is again consistent with that outlined the ACPA, although in opposition to indigenous culture as defined by a number of international conventions.

For example, the UN Committee on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights put forth a definition of indigenous cultural rights in their General Comment No. 21 in 2009. This document states that indigenous cultural values and rights stem from their association to ancestral lands, and all resources tied to such lands should be protected in order to prevent the degradation of their particular way of life.

This, in effect, safeguards indigenous means of subsistence, works against the loss of natural resources, all of which are bound up with cultural identity. In contrast, the new policy relegates and restricts Ainu culture to limited activities such as salmon fishing in fresh water and foraging in Hokkaido forests solely for the purpose of performing certain rituals or disseminating their traditional knowledge, rather than accommodating self-determination of the Ainu to enjoy their own culture.

In effect, the policy defines Ainu culture on behalf of the Ainu themselves, as opposed to allowing for self-determination. Article 5 of the bill reinforces this distorted representation by allowing the state and municipalities to take the lead in adopting and implementing Ainu policy.

Once again, we see direct opposition to the rights guaranteed to the Ainu by international human rights standards. Consider the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), Article 3 of which protects the right to self-determination.

Article 4 of UNDRIP furthermore ensures that in exercising their right to self-determination, indigenous peoples have the right to autonomy or self-government in matters relating to their internal and local affairs, as well as ways and means for financing their autonomous functions.

Thus, the New Ainu Policy, in its negligence to incorporate and ensure Ainu self-determination and autonomy, should be seen as a continued failure of the Japanese to protect and ensure the rights of their indigenous citizens.

There is an underlying motivation for the policy, which has evaded the attention of the media and provides pretext for why the government is swiftly introducing the bill. The contents of the bill are meant to allure local municipalities by the sway of government subsidies which they may obtain if efforts are made to link Ainu culture to tourism.

The timing of this bill and its intentions must be understood within the context of the upcoming Summer Olympic Games which are to be held in Tokyo in 2020. The Games are anticipating to reel in at least 40 million international tourists, and as a result, Japan is undergoing infrastructural and culture-based projects around the country to maximise revenue intake.

The Ainu and their culture have been victims to this developmental scheme, notably with the current reconstruction of the Ainu cultural village and museum in Shiraoi, Hokkaido, which falls under the larger “2020” project.

The renovation at Shiraoi also features the construction of a memorial hall which will consolidate Ainu ancestral remains which have been kept in research institutions throughout the country. Ainu activists have been protesting for the repatriation of these remains to their originating villages for decades.

Instead of the government properly reckoning and apologizing with its historical and contemporary injustices then, its approach to its indigenous inhabitants is rather to disregard their rights, desires, and concerns and instead promote projects such as those in Shiraoi, which deceptively operate under such names as “The Symbolic Space for Ethnic Harmony.”

The New Ainu Policy, in all of its vagaries and deceit, will furthermore accommodate exploitation of Ainu culture and the spaces of Hokkaido for the sake of municipal gain and tourist-based revenue.

The New Ainu Policy and its contents, then, should be taken to represent a continuation of Japan’s colonization of Hokkaido and its native inhabitants. Any positive proclamation of the drafted bill and its contents is misleading to the Ainu and the public and represents a critical failure to hold Japan accountable for its obligations to uphold international human rights standards.

On 16 February, the day following the approval of the bill by the Cabinet Meeting, Ainu activist Mamoru Tazawa critically remakred, “No measures are really taken for the Ainu, let alone the [diverse groups like the] Karafuto Ainu.”

Rather than pursuing such underhanded policy measures, the government of Japan should immediately renounce its continued colonial endeavors, issue a formal apology and take comprehensive measures to include an adequate consultation from the Ainu people, all of which would be much more in line with international human rights standards. 

Hiroshi Maruyama is honorary doctor, Uppsala University, Sweden and Professor Emeritus, Muroran Institute of Technology, Japan. In 2017, he founded the Centre for Environmental and Minority Policy Studies (CEMiPoS) in Sapporo. Lately, he has published books and articles on Indigenous policy in internationally recognized publishers. Leni Charbonneau is a researcher affiliated with CEMiPoS.

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