Out of Japan: An outcast of the island fights to regain his birthright

Click to follow
The Independent Online
TOKYO - Shigeru Kayano was only a boy when his father was arrested in front of him. Mr Kayano senior's crime, on the surface at least, was to have caught a salmon in the local river to feed his family. But his real offence, according to his son, was to have been born an Ainu, one of Japan's barely acknowledged ethnic minorities who have experienced the full brunt of the country's intolerance of racial diversity.

His father's arrest happened 60 years ago, but Mr Kayano says his memory of it is still strong. For him it was the beginning of his struggle to gain some respect for the Ainu and their culture.

The Ainu today live mostly in Hokkaido, Japan's northernmost island, which is under snow half of the year. Like the Okinawans in the very south of the Japanese archipelago, they have their own language and are ethnically distinct from the Japanese. Thought to have come originally from Siberia, the Ainu inhabited Japan long before today's ancestors of the Japanese arrived from the Asian mainland. Traditionally they lived from hunting deer and bear and fishing for salmon.

For centuries the Ainu were left more or less on their own in Hokkaido, but after Tokyo decided to open up the island, in 1868, a ruthless policy of assimilation was pursued to 'Japanise' them. They were forced to change their names into Japanese and prevented from continuing with their traditional way of life - hunting, fishing and cutting down trees were forbidden to them.

Poverty was the inevitable result. 'There were plenty of salmon,' said Mr Kayano, 'but from then on they were only for the Japanese.' In Ainu language, the word for salmon is shiepe, which means 'real eating thing'. The populations of deer and bear have been greatly reduced by the tree-cutting and land-clearing of the past 120 years, and Mr Kayano has no hopes of regaining the right to hunt them for his people. But for salmon he is prepared to fight.

He is now a grandfather, but still an imposing figure. He is taller and heavier than an average Japanese, and his hair, including his eyebrows and eyelashes, is turning grey. He does not mince his words. Calling discrimination against the Ainu 'the worst in the world against any indigenous people', he pours scorn on the Japanese government, which has denied, even at the United Nations, that there are any ethnic minorities in Japan.

'The government doesn't want to hear the truth or see the truth, so it will not speak the truth,' he said, miming the three proverbial monkeys with his large, sun-wrinkled hands.

Mr Kayano's chance to take on the establishment came in 1984, when the government announced it would build a dam across the Saru river in Hokkaido. The dam would flood some land behind it, for which the government would have to pay compensation. Much to the government's dismay, and to his delight, some of this land belongs to Mr Kayano himself. When the Japanese first expanded into Hokkaido, they appropriated most of the best land, assigning barren areas or marsh to the Ainu. At the time, the strip of riverside land owned by the Kayano family did not seem worth much. Now it is Mr Kayano's most potent weapon.

He simply refused to sell. Environmentalists became involved, claiming that the dam was unnecessary and would kill off wildlife. The fight was on. Citing economic necessity, the government announced it would issue compulsory purchase orders. Mr Kayano has countered by taking the issue to the courts. He also stood in the last elections, campaigning on the sole issue of Ainu rights - he did not expect to win, merely to attract attention to the existence of the Ainu in Japan.

In fact, he says, he doesn't really mind if the dam is built. But, in return for dropping his opposition, he wants the government to give back to the Ainu the right to fish for salmon. He points out that indigenous people in other parts of the world have gradually won back their rights to pursue their traditional ways of life - he once stayed with some American Indians who can catch as many salmon as they want, while fishing is restricted for 'the white people'.

He keeps an open mind on whether his battle in the courts for restoration of the Ainu's right to fish for salmon will succeed or not. The governor of Hokkaido is sympathetic, but the central government in Tokyo seems more intent on pushing the whole issue out of sight. 'And you know the Japanese courts,' he said. 'The whole thing could drag on for 10 years or more.'