• Leaders of Ainu groups, dressed in traditional outfits, have criticised a bill put forward by the Japanese government as tokenistic. (NITV)Source: NITV
Efforts to promote Ainu culture are part of a tourism push ahead of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
Ashleigh Dollin

4 Mar 2019 - 2:49 PM  UPDATED 4 Mar 2019 - 2:57 PM

Japan’s government has been criticised by rights groups after it introduced a bill last month to recognise the country’s ethnic Ainu minority as Indigenous people for the first time.

The Ainu people – many of whom live in northern Hokkaido – have long suffered the effects of a forced assimilation policy and while discrimination has receded, inequality persists.

The ruling Liberal Democratic Party said the objective of the bill was to "realise a society which will respect the pride of the Ainu."

If passed, legal restrictions would be relaxed to allow the Ainu to continue traditions such as salmon fishing and timber collection, and 1 billion yen ($12 million) would go towards growing tourism around their culture.

However, some representatives of the ethnic minority said the bill does not do enough to reverse the historical injustices they suffered since losing control of their ancestral lands more than a century ago.

Yuji Shimizu, chairman of the Ainu Kotan no Kai association, said it was full of “empty words”.

“There has been no apology,” he told the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan.

“There are no clauses in the bill which guarantee indigenous rights, such as the right to self-determination or land rights.”

A new national Ainu museum and a park scheduled to open in the Hokkaido town of Shiradoi next year are expected to bring in up to one million visitors.

“This is going to feed a few mouths but this is not a typical situation in our Ainu society,” said Satoshi Hatakeyama, chairman of the Mombetsu Ainu Association.

“I would like to see actualisation of inherent Indigenous rights such as the right to fish and to harvest whales.”

Professor Hiroshi Maruyama, an expert in environmental and Indigenous studies at the Muroran Institute of Technology in Hokkaido, has denounced the bill as being reminiscent of colonial-era policies.

He argued that under international law “free, prior and informed consent” is required by revising the legislation based on in-depth consultation with Indigenous groups.

 “The bill is set to be enacted into law in the Japanese parliament without explicit consent or endorsement from representatives of the Ainu community,” he said.

When the Meiji Restoration began 150 years ago, Japan did away with the military rule of shoguns and rapidly modernised under the consolidated power under an emperor.

The Ainu people were banned from practicing their customs and using their language and, like many Indigenous people around the world, struggled to keep their traditions.

A law passed in 1997 replaced the previous assimilation law and acknowledged the Ainu as an ethnic minority – not an Indigenous group.

The proposed legislation aims to change that, but has not appeased everyone.

Activists from Ainu groups holding banners and flags took to the streets of Hokkaido's capital city Sapporo on Sunday in protest. 

“Positioning Ainu culture at the centre of proposals and measures to promote tourism is nothing other than a scheme to sacrifice or exploit Ainu as a resource for tourism,” Mr Shimizu said.

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