The Ainu of Japan: political situation and rights issues

Kanako Uzawa, April 2007

Political and social situation

Ainu territory stretches from Sakhalin and the Kurile Islands (now both Russian territories) to the northern part of present-day Japan, including the entire island of Hokkaido, which constitutes 20% of Japan’s current territory. The greatest portion of Ainu land was unilaterally incorporated into the Japanese state and renamed Hokkaido in 1869. Although most Ainu still live in Hokkaido, over the second half of the 20th century tens of thousands migrated to Japan’s urban centers for work and to escape from the more prevalent discrimination in Hokkaido.

Japan does not conduct population surveys using ethnic criteria so the ethnic make-up of Japan is not clear. However, a survey conducted by the government of Hokkaido Prefecture in 1999 of 73 cities, towns, and communities of Hokkaido estimated the Ainu popu­lation at 23,767. This figure is likely to under-represent the actual size of the Ainu population for several reasons. First, the 1999 survey did not cover every area in which Ainu reside. Second, it is difficult to provide an accurate number of the Ainu population in Japan since many of them remain reluctant to reveal their background on account of lingering predudices. Another challenge is to define who is an Ainu and who is not, as most of them are mixed with Japanese and have moved to different regions for various reasons.

Ainu population estimates

  • 24,381 according to a government survey in 1984
  • ca. 50,000 people with half or more Ainu ancestry
  • ca. 150,000 Japanese people with some Ainu ancestry

(some estimates on the number of Japanese with some Ainu blood range as high as 1,000,000)

Much of Ainu culture such as language, handicrafts, religious belief and ceremonies have survived into modern times even though the Ainu people and their lands were exploited during the shogunate[1] period, which ended in 1868. It was because of a political restriction from the shogunate and its local Ezo (Hokkaido) governors, the Matsumae clan, that Japanese immigration was not allowed into the Ainu mosir[2]—the Ainu homeland, located in the northern part of Japan. This restriction was not enforced to protect the Ainu people or culture, but rather to prevent other Japanese from competing with the profitable Matsumae monopoly of Ezo products[3].

The name of Ainu mosir was changed from its traditional term “Ezo” to “Hokkaido” under an official decree as a part of a harsher blow to the Ainu when the modern nation of Japan was established during the Meiji Restoration (1868–1912). An aggressive assimilation policy was established which imposed the Japanese culture and educational system on the Ainu. In 1899 the Meiji government enacted the Hokkaido Former Aborigines Protection Act, which was similar to the 1887 Dawes Act in the United States. Ainu were forced to be farmers on poor land allotted to them by the Japanese government, which ended unsuccessfully. Also, they were only allowed to go to boarding schoosl to learn the technical skills necessary for physical labour, and the use of the Ainu language was strictly prohibited. Therefore, it was very difficult for the Ainu to get jobs since they were not trained in terms of Japanese economic thinking. These two elements, unsuccessful agriculture and difficulty in the job market, brought severe economic hardships. On 1 July 1997, the Law for the Promotion of the Ainu Culture and for the Dissemination and Advocacy for the Traditions of the Ainu and the Ainu Culture (Ainu Shinpo, literally: “Ainu New Law”) was enacted[4]. As this legislation was limited to the promotion of Ainu culture and language many Ainu were dissatisfied by it. It also failed to make a binding resolution to recognize the Ainu as an indigenous people or to recognize their rights as an indigenous people of Japan.

Today, the Ainu continue to face oppression at both the institutional and individual levels. Despite the Japanese government’s insistence that Ainu enjoy rights as Japanese citizens, the government’s persistent denial of their indigenous identity prevents the Ainu from exercising their indigenous right to self-determination.

According to the survey conducted in 1999 by the Hokkaido prefectural government, 28.1 percent of the Ainu interviewed stated that they had experienced being discriminated against or knew someone who has. The most common area for discrimination was at school (46.3%). The next one was in marriages (25.4%). 9.5% was at the workplace. The survey also indicated that 95.2% of Ainu children went to high school, compared to the local average of 97%. When it comes to the university level, the difference is much more marked: only 16.1% of Ainu youth attend university, while the general average is 34.%.

Awareness of human rights in Japan

According to the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, a foundation of the Constitution of Japan, which is the supreme law in Japan’s legal system, is the principle of people’s sovereignty. Two other important pillars are the respect for fundamental human rights as well as pacifism. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs states:

The fundamental human rights guaranteed by the Constitution are “conferred upon this and future generations in trust, to be held for all time inviolate”(Article 97), and the philosophy of respect for fundamental human rights is clearly shown in Article 13, which provides that “all of the people shall be respected as individuals.” The fundamental human rights include: (1) civil liberties such as the right to liberty, the right to freedom of expression, thought, conscience and religion; and (2) social rights such as the right to receive education and the right to maintain the minimum standards of wholesome and cultured living. Paragraph 1 of Article 14 of the Constitution provides that “all of the people are equal under the law and there shall be no discrimination in political, economic or social relations because of race, creed, sex, social status or family origin,” guaranteeing equality before the law without any discrimination, including either racial or ethnic discrimination, which is the subject of this Convention.[5]

These provisions are bound together with the three sources of power: the Diet (legislative), the Cabinet (administrative) and the Court (judicial). These three organs are responsible for protecting human rights and eliminating racial discrimination.

Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs states further that:

in cases where the rights of the people are infringed, the Court can offer them redress. (Article 32 of the Constitution provides that “no person shall be denied the right of access to the courts.”) The Constitution guarantees the judges of their tenure and ensures independent and fair trials, providing that “all judges shall be independent in the exercise of their conscience and shall be bound only by this Constitution and the law.”(Article 76, Paragraph 3)

Provisions of treaties concluded by Japan have legal effect as a part of domestic laws in accordance with Paragraph 2 of Article 98 of the Constitution, which provides the obligation to observe treaties and international law and regulations. Whether or not to apply provisions of the conventions directly is judged in each specific case, taking into consideration the purpose, meaning and wording of the provisions concerned.[6]

A recent official statement by the Government of Japan submitted on 26 June 2006 to the Secretariat of the Commission of Human Rights regarding the Ainu states:

The Government of Japan recognizes that the Ainu, who have developed a unique culture including the Ainu language as well as original manners and customs, lived in the north of Japan, especially in Hokkaido before the arrival of so-called “Wajin”[7] as a historical fact. (A/HRC/ 1/G/3 p. 13)

In terms of its policy on human rights issues in Japan, the Government of Japan states:

The Japanese Government formulated this Basic Plan of Human Rights Education and Encouragement through a Cabinet decision in March 2002 based on Article 7 of the Law for the Development of Human Rights Education and Encouragement. The Basic Plan lists the specific human rights problems, which need to be addressed, such as the issues of Dowa[8], the Ainu people and foreign nationals, and provides that measures to eliminate prejudice and discrimination against such persons should be promoted. The measures for human rights education and encouragement under the Basic Plan are reported to the Diet as an annual report in accordance with the provision of Article 8 of the law.

In addition, the human rights organs of the Ministry of Justice have carried out various activities to promote human rights on a nation-wide basis throughout the year. In particular, during Human Rights Week (December 4 – 10), the human rights organs have conducted promotion activities, setting priority targets such as “Eliminate Dowa discrimination,” “Improve understanding of the Ainu people” and “Respect the human rights of foreign nationals.”

Official government statements aside, the visit of Mr. Doudou Diene, UN Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance, sheds light on the reality of human rights conditions in Japan today. The Government of Japan welcomed the visit of Mr. Diene from 3 to 11 July 2005. His mission was to assess the factors that have caused discrimination towards minority groups (including indigenous people, descendants of former Japanese colonies, foreigners and other migrant workers), such as the caste-like class system, and to examine how the Government of Japan handles these problems and to assess whether these measures are appropriate. To carry this out, Mr. Diene collected information from the Government of Japan, local authorities, NGOs, and victims of discrimination in Japanese society.

Mr. Diene’s report on his mission to Japan was submitted in January 2006 to the UN Commission on Human Rights at its sixty-second session[9]. From 13 to 18 May 2006, the Special Rapporteur unofficially returned to Japan to follow up the report by visiting Okinawa, Osaka and Tokyo.

The report concluded that there is racial discrimination and xenophobia in Japan, which affects three circles of discriminated groups: 1), the Buraku people, the Ainu and the people of Okinawa; 2), people and descendants of former Japanese colonies (Koreans and Chinese); and 3) foreigners and migrants from other Asian countries and the rest of the world[10].

A meeting to allow the Ainu themselves to present their situation to the Special Rapporteur was organized by the International Movement against All Forms of Discrimination and Racism (IMADR) in July 2005. The Special Rapporteur made several assessments of the Ainu, and acknowledged the historical fact that the assimilation policy adopted in 1867 that damaged Ainu society and culture continued until the twentieth century. Mr. Diene’s assessment starts with an indication of the fact that Ainu language is in danger of vanishing even though Ainu language education at school is guaranteed under the Law for the Promotion of the Ainu Culture and for the Dissemination and Advocacy for the Traditions of the Ainu and the Ainu Culture. This is because one does not call for the creation of a writing system tailored to the Ainu language, which is necessary to prevent the language from disappearing. The report also pointed out disparate levels of education, social welfare, health, employment, legal services and discrimination compared to the wider Japanese population, and makes an analysis of how prejudice has been built up over the years in Japanese society and history.

The report provided two other assessments. The first regards gender inequality. Ainu women would like to have greater representation in the Ainu Association, the largest Ainu organization comprising exclusively registered Ainu members in Hokkaido. Of the 20 members of the association, only one is a woman. (There is a separate association of Ainu women, with 10 members.) The second point concerns political representation: the Ainu are absent in the national political sphere, with one exception in the past.

Finally, two strategies suggested by the Ainu community were introduced in the report. One is that educating the general population about the Ainu is the key to tackling discrimination; many Japanese, especially on the main island, do not know anything about the Ainu. Second, it is crucial that the Ainu are recognized as an indigenous people. The Law for the Promotion of the Ainu Culture and for the Dissemination and Advocacy for the Traditions of the Ainu and the Ainu Culture of 1997, which only promotes Ainu culture, is not sufficient in this respect.

In response, the Government of Japan submitted its concerns about the report to the Secretariat of the Commission on Human Rights on 26 June 2006, saying that there were many statements which were beyond the Special Rapporteur’s mandate, and that the Special Rapporteur’s mandate is to resolve the various human rights issues confronted all over the world. The Government of Japan stated that the mandate of the Special Rapporteur is to examine

incidents of contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, any form of discrimination against Blacks, Arabs and Muslims, xenophobia, negrophobia, anti-Semitism, and related intolerance, as well as governmental measures to overcome them.[11]

The Government of Japan also pointed out that the Special Rapporteur statements about the past, such as “forced labor” and “comfort women” during World War II, have no bearing on the issue of “contemporary” forms of discrimination.

The official statement by the Government of Japan illustrates that a continuous and invisible assimilation norm still exists. The question is who decides what is best for minority groups and indigenous peoples, and what measurements are used for further understanding of the minority groups and indigenous peoples. It is clear that there are social, economic, cultural and political gaps between Japanese and Ainu. The damage caused by the former assimilation policies has surely continued in the modern society, which should be considered counted as bearing on “contemporary” forms of discrimination. Discrimination and prejudice never exist independently, but are interconnected to social actions.

Despite the Government’s negative response, the Special Rapporteur’s report has been highly valued at the grassroots level, as indicated in the NGO Joint Statement in response to the report. This statement was released on 7 March 2006 and has been signed by 85 minority and human rights groups in Japan as of 31 October 2006[12].

Portions of this article appeared in the Japan Country Report by Kanako Uzawa of "Indigenous World 2006", IWGIA (Copenhagen). Parts are taken from the author’s MS thesis (in preparation): “A comparison between Norway and Japan regarding ILO-C169 Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention, 1989”.

The author, Kanako Uzawa, is of Ainu descent. She was born in Tomakomai, Hokkaido (Japan), but grew mainly up in Tokyo and its environs. She has been active in reviving traditional Ainu dance and song and has lately worked with main­taining the traditional form in the contemporary style of dancing. Kanako is in­volved with domestic and international indigenous movements, and is a member of the Association of Rera (cultural association of the Ainu in Tokyo). She took part of her education in the USA, and is now a graduate student of the Master’s Programme in Indigenous Studies at the University of Tromsø (Norway).

[1] Shogunate: State administration by shoguns, high generals or warlords, in Japan from 1192 to 1868.
[2] Mosir means “land” or “world” in the Ainu language.
[3] Kazuyoshi Ohtsuka. “Tourism, Assimilation, and Ainu Survival
Today”, in Ainu Spirit of a Northern People, William W. Fitzhugh and Chisato O. Dubreuil, eds. Los Angeles: Perpetua Press, 1999.
[4] Teruki Tsunemoto. “The Ainu Shinpo: A New Beginning”, in Ainu Spirit of a Northern People, William W. Fitzhugh and Chisato O. Dubreuil, eds. Los Angeles: Perpetua Press, 1999. See also .
[6] Note verbale dated 30 May 2006 from the Permanent Mission of Japan to the United Nations Office in Geneva addressed to the Secretariat of the Commission on Human Rights, A/HRC/1/G/3 26 June 2006.
[7] Wajin: ethnic Japanese, majority population of Japan.
[8] Dowa: an administrative term for the issue of discrimination against the Buraku people, called Dowa people by the administration. See
[9] Report of the Special Rapporteur on Contemporary Forms of Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related -Intolerance, Doudou Dine, E/CN.4/2006/16/Add.2, 24 January 2006.
[11] Note verbale dated 30 May 2006 from the Permanent Mission of Japan to the United Nations Office at Geneva addressed to the Secretariat of the Commission on Human Rights, A/HRC/1/G/3 26 June 2006.