Japan's native Ainu fight for cultural survival

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The Independent Online

Japan's native people, the Ainu, once hunted bears and fished for salmon in the wild forests of the country's far north, but today they are an ethnic minority fighting for their cultural survival.

Like indigenous peoples elsewhere, the Ainu suffered through an era of forced assimilation which took a heavy toll on their customs, language and way of life, leaving them a disadvantaged minority in modern Japan.

As the group keeps struggling to redress past wrongs and revive its rapidly fading traditions, its community leaders say they hope for support from Japan's new centre-left government, which took power in mid-September.

The electoral seat of Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama is on Hokkaido island, part of the ancient homeland of the Ainu, which once stretched from northern Honshu island to the Kuril and Sakhalin islands now ruled by Russia.

Hatoyama, in a recent parliamentary address, said he wants a society free of discrimination and prejudice and hopes to promote cultural diversity, including by "respecting the history and culture of the Ainu people."

His Democratic Party of Japan has promised a kinder, gentler society after more than half a century of almost unbroken conservative rule, and the premier often speaks of his vision of a society shaped by "fraternity."

The Ainu hope the new spirit of brotherhood will also apply to them as they continue to struggle with higher incidences of unemployment and poverty than the rest of Japan and lower levels of health and education.

"After a long, negative period, I believe that great possibilities are opening up now that, in the political world, the Democratic Party of Japan is about to launch a new era," Haruzo Urakawa, a former chairman of the Tokyo Ainu Association, wrote in a letter to Hatoyama.

The new premier, days after his August 30 election win, met Tadashi Kato, chairman of the Ainu Association of Hokkaido, who urged the incoming government to establish a new Ainu law and boost measures to support his people.

The Ainu were only recognized in June last year as Japan's indigenous people, in a resolution passed months before Japan hosted a summit of world leaders, the Group of Eight conference, on Hokkaido.

Japan signed up in 2007 to the UN Declaration on the Right of Indigenous Peoples but still lacks a national law to formally recognise the Ainu.

"At the moment the most urgent issue for us is the establishment, in concrete terms, of specific legislation at the national level," said Kato.

Although the content of such a law has not taken shape yet, Ainu have in the past called for greater self-determination, control over natural resources, school texts in their native language and a formal apology for past wrongs.

Most of Japan's people, Kato said, have a lot to learn about the Ainu, whose number has been estimated at 70,000 but is uncertain because many have integrated with mainstream society and some have hidden their cultural roots.

Some anthropologists believe the Ainu once lived across Japan's four major islands but were pushed northward by later waves of migration from mainland Asia.

Fairer-skinned and more hirsute than most Japanese, the Ainu traditionally observed an animist faith with a belief that God exists in every creation - trees, hills, lakes, rivers and animals, particularly bears.

Ainu men kept full beards while women adorned themselves with facial tattoos which they acquired before they reached the age of marriage. Ainu clothes were robes spun from tree bark and decorated with geometric designs.

Ethnic Japanese gradually settled Hokkaido and in 1899 enacted the Hokkaido Former Aborigines Protection Act, under which the Ainu were forced to give up their land, language and traditions and shift from hunting to farming.

The act was repealed only in 1997 and replaced by legislation calling for "respect for the dignity of the Ainu people."

But that law stopped short of recognising the Ainu as indigenous or, as some activists have demanded, setting up autonomous areas along the lines of Native American reservations in the United States.

The historic assault on their culture has echoes today, the Ainu say.

A survey last year on Hokkaido found that the average household income for Ainu is about 60 percent of the national average, and that about one third of respondents said they lived in an impoverished state.

Many reported prejudice, while school and university drop-out rates were far above the national average, according to the survey of 5,700 people by the Hokkaido University Centre for Ainu and Indigenous Studies.

While many Ainu complained of discrimination by mainstream society, some 60 percent also said they had lost touch with their cultural roots and reported no knowledge of traditional Ainu story-telling, songs or dances.

A panel of Ainu experts in a report released in July recommended steps to boost Ainu pride and a cultural revival, and to educate both members of the ethnic minority and the rest of Japan about their culture.

The panel's report "represents a big and fruitful change for the better," said Yukio Sato, managing director of the Ainu Association of Hokkaido.

Osamu Hasegawa, an Ainu living on Japan's main Honshu island, said history texts must be rewritten to "take into account the Ainu's point of view."

Ainu elder Urakawa, in his letter to the premier, suggested that the ancient wisdoms of his people could help Japan as it tackles 21st century environmental challenges at home and worldwide.

Teaching Ainu history and culture to Japan's youth, he wrote, would mean sharing "the spiritual values of our culture, the respect for nature we inherited from our ancestors and the wisdom of our lifestyle."