Decolonizing Japan?

The headline is obviously optimistic, but the Japanese state is being increasingly forced to deal with the realities of Japanese society, its imperial legacy, and its aftermath. From proclaiming itself in official ideology as a homogeneous state, the Japanese government has now moved to recognize the Ainu people as “indigenous.”

On June 6, Bloomberg (“Japan’s Parliament Recognizes Ainu as Indigenous People” — June 6, 2008) reported that Japan’s parliament passed a resolution recognizing the Ainu and urging an end to discrimination against them. It was an Ainu group based in Tokyo itself that in May submitted a petition from 6,419 individuals and 180 organizations pressing the government for official recognition of the Ainu. Osamu Hasegawa, an elder leader of the group, stated: “What I want from the government most is for it to accept its political responsibility for what they have done to us and apologize.”

A survey by the government of Hokkaido Island claims that 23,782 Ainu live on the island. Critics of the survey say that the number is much larger in reality because many have chosen to hide their identity, or have left the island and are thus not counted as part of the Ainu nation. Contact with resurgent indigenous groups in other countries was important in fomenting Ainu pride in some cases: “While growing up in Hokkaido, I tried to hide my identity,” Mina Sakai said in an interview. She is the leader of a Tokyo-based performance group called the Ainu Rebels — “I went to visit the indigenous people in Canada when I was a high school student. It was my turning point. I was shocked to see how proud they were of their culture and tradition. Now, I say proudly that I am Ainu.”

Japan voted to support the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in September of 2007. The leader of the Democratic Party of Japan stated:

“I want the government to have the courage to admit that the Ainu are indigenous to Japan….Expert studies clearly show they were in the Hokkaido area before us and co-existed with nature. There is much to learn from their lifestyle.”

It is not the only time that “expert studies” are mentioned, without identifying the experts for the most part. A member of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party stated, “Once we recognize them as indigenous people, experts can move on to discuss their rights and demands.”

The Christian Science Monitor also reported the story (“Japan’s Ainu hope new identity leads to more rights: Japan’s parliament identified the group as the country’s indigenous people on Friday” — June 9, 2008). This article does more to emphasize the injustices of forced assimilation, and links the quest for recognition to demands for an official apology:

“I’m glad to learn the resolution,” says Saki Toyama, an 80-year-old Ainu woman who lives in Urakawa, a serene outpost in Hokkaido, the northern island that the ethnic group had dominated for centuries. “But I’d also like the government to apologize and make way for the sake of the Ainu people.”

The Japanese government established a development commission on the island [of Hokkaido] in 1869, which led to the migration of Japanese and the island’s acquisition. That was followed by the forced assimilation and relocation of the group. The Ainu were also banned from practicing certain traditions, including men wearing earrings and women getting tattooed, and they were forced to learn the Japanese language and adopt a Japanese name.

“When I think of having been treated like trash and discriminated against because of our ethnicity, I feel like screaming at the sky,” says Ms. Toyama.

“You see so many place-names on this land are from the Ainu language,” says Koji Yuki, a secretary-general of the upcoming Indigenous Peoples Summit in Ainu Mosir. The government “had better come clean.”

The Ainu also suffer from greater poverty and receive less formal education than the rest of Japan’s current population:

The Ainu people also hope the move could help upgrade their living and educational standards. According to a 2006 local government survey, 38.3 percent of the Ainu in Hokkaido are on welfare, compared with the local average of 24.6 percent. Moreover, only 17.4 percent of the Ainu receive a college education while 38.5 percent of the locals do.


Among the experts that could have been cited is Canadian anthropologist, Dr. Mark Watson, who has recently joined the Department of Sociology & Anthropology at Concordia University as one of our newest colleagues, and one whose research interests bridge Canadian aboriginals and the Ainu of Japan, among whom he did his ethnographic research. (Welcome Mark!)

One thought on “Decolonizing Japan?

  1. Pingback: » links for 2008.06.09

Comments are closed