Pasar al contenido principal

The Ainu: Beyond the Politics of Cultural Coexistence

In 1899 the Japanese parliament enacted the Hokkaido Former Aborigines Protection Act, a law designed to achieve the assimilation of the Ainu population of northern Japan. The paradoxes of this piece of legislation are evident even from its title. The phrase "former Aborigines" was supposed to emphasize the fact that the Ainu were now citizens of a rapidly modernizing Japan, destined to merge their identity with that of the majority population. Yet, by singling the Ainu out as former Aborigines, and subjecting them to patronizing and oppressive assimilation measures, the Protection Act in fact helped to ensure the survival of prejudice and discrimination against the Ainu within the modern Japanese state.

The Hokkaido Former Aborigines Protection Law was to survive for almost a century. Although some of its most unpopular sections were repealed in the 1930s, it was not until May 1997 that it finally disappeared from the Japanese statute book, to be replaced by a new Ainu Cultural Promotion Law. 1997, indeed, marked something of a watershed in relations between the Ainu people and the Japanese state. In the same year, a district court in the northern island of Hokkaido ruled that the government had failed to respect Ainu cultural heritage and sacred sites when it expropriated land belonging to two Ainu residents for the construction of a dam in the village of Nibutani. The compulsory acquisition of the land had therefore been illegal. The judge did not go as far to demand the demolition of the dam (which had already been completed by the time he handed down his ruling), but his decision did represent the first recognition by a Japanese court of the Ainu as an Indigenous people possessing the right to maintain their own cultural traditions.

For many Ainu people, the repeal of the assimilationist Protection Act and the ruling in the Nibutani Dam case were welcome events. They appeared to herald the start of at least official recognition, if not of "reconciliation," of the Ainu as a community with a distinct history and identity. Yet the celebrations were tempered by a powerful sense of disappointment. The Ainu Cultural Protection Law failed to measure up to the hopes of Ainu activists, who had been campaigning for decades for much more farreaching reforms. Above all, it failed to provide any acknowledgement of Ainu calls for land or resource rights, or for political demands for Indigenous representation in central or local government. Far from satisfying Ainu claims for recognition of Indigenous rights, it has served to fuel debate about notions of self-determination, and about definitions of Ainu culture itself.

The Colonization of Ainu Moshir

Until the middle of the nineteenth century, "Ainu moshir" ["the land of the Ainu"] covered most of the island of Hokkaido, as well as the southern half of Sakhalin and the islands of the Kuril Archipelago (which are now part of the Russian Federation). Earlier, Ainu occupation had extended further south, into the main Japanese island of Honshu. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Ainu society felt the growing impact of the gradual northward expansion of the Japanese state. Japanese merchants established trading posts along the Hokkaido coastline; exchanging goods like rice and ironware for fish and seaweed, and for the Chinese brocades which Ainu traders bought from the Asian continent. Gradually, however, the Japanese presence became more intrusive, provoking several waves of armed resistance from the Ainu. The last major conflict, the Battle of Kunashir-Menash, took place in 1789. Until the middle of the nineteenth century, most Ainu people continued to speak their own language and maintain their own spiritual and material traditions, even though a growing number were persuaded or forced to work for Japanese-run fishing enterprises.

However, with the establishment of a new, centralized, modernizing state in 1868, Japan turned to Hokkaido as a source of natural riches, and as "untamed wilderness" ripe for colonization by land-hungry migrants from rural areas further south. Adopting prevailing western notions of international law, the Japanese government claimed Hokkaido as part of the national territory (and also staked a disputed claim to Sakhalin and the Kuril Islands, which Russia too defined as its own). While asserting Japan's right to independent nationhood, Japanese scholars adopted notions of "progress" and "civilization" which defined the Ainu as "prehistoric hunter gatherers," destined either to extinction or to assimilation into the majority population. As in other parts of the world so too in Hokkaido, the land occupied by the original inhabitants was seen as "terra nullius" to be claimed by the state and distributed to colonial settlers. Ainu were required to adopt Japanese names and speak the Japanese language. Ainu communities were also often moved to remote areas to make room for new Japanese towns and villages. By the early 1880s, the Ainu population of Hokkaido, officially estimated at around 17,000, was already vastly outnumbered by a Japanese settler population of approximately 250,000. (It is worth observing though that given high levels of intermarriage, adoption, and social prejudice, official counts of the Ainu should always be treated with some caution.)

It was against this background that the Former Aborigines Protection Law was passed, both as a means of speeding up the process of assimilation and as a response to the famines and epidemics, which were increasingly ravaging Ainu communities. The Act attempted to turn Ainu into farmers by providing them with tiny plots of land, which would be confiscated by the state, if they were not farmed within a specified number of years. It also placed the financial resources of Ainu communities under the control of the government, which was to use this money for "welfare" purposes.

A Century of Resistance

The Ainu, however, have never been passive victims of colonization. By the early twentieth century, a number of Ainu leaders were voicing resistance to the prejudice that they were experiencing in Japanese society. One of the more interesting instances of protest took place in 1927 when Kaizawa Hiranosuke, an Ainu villager from Nibutani, wrote to the government demanding the right for Ainu and other Indigenous people to be represented at the Congress of Asian Peoples in Nagasaki, an event being organized to promote Japan's status as a leader in the Asian struggle against colonialism. During the 1930s, a number of Ainu activists also participated in campaigns by the newly created Ainu Association of Hokkaido for the revision of the Protection Act. At this stage, though, many Ainu accepted the prevailing view that prejudice and dispossession could best be resisted by acquiring "civilization" in the form of education and majority Japanese modes of dress, housing, and diet.

It was not until the 1950s and 1960s that Ainu activists began to place growing emphasis on the maintenance or revival of disappearing craft skills, rituals, and modes of Indigenous knowledge. Among them was Kayano Shigeru, who put together the large collection of Ainu artifacts now displayed in the Ainu Cultural Museum at Nibutani. In 1994 Kayano became the first Ainu member of the Japanese parliament, taking up a seat in the Upper House, positioning himself for the leading role he would play in preparing the ground for the passing of the 1997 Ainu Cultural Promotion Law.

During the 1960s, while Kayano and others were promoting the revival of Ainu culture, Ainu political consciousness was also being powerfully influenced by the US civil rights movement and by student activism within Japan. In the decades that followed, other trends helped to strengthen this consciousness. One trend was the growing recognition of cultural diversity within Japan. Particularly after Japan's defeat in the Pacific in World War II and the loss of its empire in Asia, Japanese political leaders had fostered the myth of Japan as a "racially homogenous" society devoid of ethnic minorities. By the 1980s, however, the increasing presence of foreign migrants in Japan, and the expression of minority identities -- by, amongst others, descendants of prewar and wartime Korean migrants to Japan and inhabitants of Okinawa -- made this myth difficult to sustain. Growing demands for an active promotion of ky...sei -- "coexistence" in the context of social and cultural diversity challenged the complacent belief in the ethnic and cultural homogeneity.

At the same time the international Indigenous rights movement was also gathering momentum. In 1987 Ainu representatives participated for the first time in the deliberations of the UN Working Group on Indigenous Populations. Interaction with Indigenous peoples worldwide gave encouragement to the Ainu cause, and promoted renewed debate amongst activists about issues such as Indigenous knowledge, resource rights and self-determination. A key issue which emerged from this debate was the demand by Ainu representatives that the Ainu should be acknowledged as a minzoku -- a Japanese word approximately equivalent to the German term "Volk," which may be translated into English either as "ethnic group," "people" or "nation."

In the words of the 1989 Ainu submission to the UN Working Group: "The term `people' [ppuru] as used by the Japanese government is full of deception, especially when translated as a plural word for persons [hitobito]. We believe that it should be clearly expressed that the term `people' connotes the people's right to self-determination. Furthermore, we claim the group rights of the Ainu people [Ainu minzoku]."

From "Protection" to "Cultural Promotion"

This claim to self-determination as a minzoku is clearly not a claim for "political independence" in the conventional sense of the word. Rather, its implications are suggested by the proposal for a New Ainu Law adopted by the Ainu Association of Hokkaido in 1984. This proposal called for concerted efforts to eradicate racial discrimination, the creation of guaranteed seats for Ainu representatives in Parliament and local assemblies, measures to promote the maintenance and transmission of Ainu culture and language, the granting of increased amounts of farm land to Ainu, the recognition of fishing and forestry rights, and the establishment of an "Ainu Independence Fund" to promote economic autonomy.

So began a prolonged campaign, which led to the passing of the 1997 Cultural Promotion Law. However, as its title suggests, the measure, which was finally enacted in 1997, took up only one part of the original Ainu proposal: the part concerned with culture. The 1997 Act provides government financial support for teaching, promoting and researching Ainu culture, which it defines as consisting of "the Ainu language as well as music, drama, crafts and other cultural properties passed down by Ainu, and other cultural properties developed therefrom." As well as seeking to promote the maintenance of culture as a source of Ainu identity, the law also addresses the issue of "coexistence" by encouraging the inclusion of material on Ainu language and traditions in mainstream education and media.

While many people have welcomed the law's recognition of Ainu culture and history as distinct and valuable, the problems raised by the legislation are profound. In the first place, there are practical concerns about the ways in which cultural projects will be identified and approved for funding. Almost incredibly, the Ministry of Education, which administers the law, immediately proceeded with plans to establish an implementing body -- the Organization to Promote and Research Ainu Culture -- which included not one single Ainu member. In the 1990s, though, not even the Ministry could get away with such highhandedness. After loud protests, the Organization was restructured to make room for 13 Ainu members out of a total of 35. But the process for applying for funding remains complex and commentators have expressed fears that the benefits are more likely to flow to non-Ainu academic researchers than to Ainu themselves.

Continuing Controversies

So far, the law's most obvious result has been to focus attention on the fundamental question, "how and by whom is `Ainu cultural heritage' defined?" The whole notion of "cultural heritage," as embodied in the new law, implies notions of continuity rather than change, stability and order rather than conflict. It also tends to suggest the unique and special: that which can somehow be separated from the mundane struggle for daily existence. It promotes "coexistence" or "reconciliation" (though the latter word is not generally used in Japanese discourse) in the sense that it recognizes and supports the survival of a sphere of "difference" within Japanese society. At the same time, though, this sphere of "difference" is rendered apolitical and unthreatening by being removed from the realms of everyday life, and confined to a supposedly "timeless" realm of ritual, myth, and artistic production.

But as Ainu commentator Tahara Ryoko points out in a recent collection of essays on the new law, "Ainu culture is not limited to language or ceremonies or dance. It is Ainu life itself. Whatever happens every day within the household is Ainu culture." From this point of view, the attempt to separate a politically non-contentious realm of "Ainu cultural heritage" -- as something to be preserved and admired -- from politically contentious issues of Indigenous political and economic rights becomes difficult. Ainu knowledge, beliefs, and ceremonies themselves are inseparably connected to the land -- to a lived relationship between humans and the natural world. Echoing earlier debates in Australia, North America and elsewhere, Japanese critics question whether the revival of traditional Ainu ceremonies mean anything if Indigenous people continue to be denied the rights to use and control of the land which sustained those ceremonies.

From a somewhat different perspective, one can also ask whether the "other cultural properties passed down by Ainu" include memories of the long struggle against discrimination, and if not why not. Some presentations of Ainu culture have sought to focus not only on long-standing traditions like the bear ceremony but also more modern "traditions" such as the campaign for human rights. A touring exhibition of photographs organized by activist Yamamoto Kazuaki, for example, placed pictures of Ainu dance and religious ceremonies alongside pictures of Ainu political demonstrations and meetings with Indigenous representatives from other parts of the world. It remains to be seen, however, whether the Japanese government is willing to provide support for the transmission of such visions of "Ainu culture."

For many Ainu people and their political supporters, in other words, the Ainu Cultural Promotion Law is not the end of a struggle for recognition, but rather the start of an ongoing process of negotiation with the Japanese state about the boundaries of self determination. The law's most important feature is that it does at least mark recognition by the state that there is something to negotiate about and someone to negotiate with. In this sense, it represents an important break with the entrenched assumption that all Japanese citizens share a single race, culture and identity. Given the unequal power relationship of the participants, however, this new phase of negotiation will be a long and difficult one whose outcome remains uncertain.


Siddle, Richard. (1996). Race, Resistance and the Ainu of Japan. London and New York: Routledge. Kayano, Shigeru. (1994). Our Land was a Forest: An Ainu Memoir. (trans. K. and L. Selden). Boulder: Westview Press.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

Our website houses close to five decades of content and publishing. Any content older than 10 years is archival and Cultural Survival does not necessarily agree with the content and word choice today.