Ainu people lay ancient claim to Kurile Islands: The hunters and fishers who lost their land to the Russians and Japanese are gaining the confidence to demand their rights, reports Terry McCarthy

Terry McCarthy
Monday 21 September 1992 23:02

IN JUNE this year the local governments of Sakhalin in the Russian Far East and Hokkaido, Japan's northernmost island, held a meeting for concerned citizens from both sides on the Kurile Islands dispute. At the meeting, which was held in the city of Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, current Russian residents of the Kuriles and former Japanese residents expelled by Stalin in 1948 were given the opportunity to speak.

Everything was going well, with the Russians delving into historical details and the Japanese offering money for the territories, until Tokuhei Akibe stood up. Mr Akibe is from the Ainu people, an ethnic minority who live mostly on Hokkaido and who have been fighting discrimination by the Tokyo government for years. 'The Kuriles are not Russian, and they are not Japanese either,' said Mr Akibe, who was wearing traditional Ainu robes and an embroidered headband. 'We were the first inhabitants of these islands, and lived there before this territorial problem even appeared.' Some Russians laughed nervously while Japanese listeners studied their shoe-laces.

Mr Akibe produced a map of the Russian Far East, the Kurile Islands and northern Japan, showing the extent of Ainu settlements throughout the region up to the beginning of this century. Fishers and hunters, the Ainu had occupied the Kuriles for centuries before the Russians and the Japanese discovered them in the 19th century. 'You (Russians and Japanese) should both remember the historical rights of the Ainu when you conduct your negotiations,' he said.

The historical rights of the Ainu have not been given much attention until now, particularly by Japan, where most of them live. There are about 25,000 Ainu in Japan, and some on the Russian island of Sakhalin. Until the last century the Ainu lived in relative peace, living off the fish, bear, deer and other wildlife on Hokkaido and the smaller Kurile Islands to the north. But almost simultaneous expansion by Japan and Russia in the middle of the last century squeezed them out of their habitats.

A Japanese government also forced the Ainu to adopt Japanese names, and banned them from fishing and hunting, reducing them to poverty much like the dispossession of the Australian Aborigines. The Ainu are an embarrassment to Japan which likes to maintain that it is an ethnically homogenous society.

The Ainu have been constant victims of discrimination, and even today many Japanese families would strenuously object if their daughter or son wanted to marry an Ainu. Coming originally from Siberia, the Ainu have more body hair than other Japanese - leading a Japanese travel agency in 1981 to promote a tour of Hokkaido including 'a visit to a village of the famous hairy Ainu'.

But in the past 10 years, encouraged by the worldwide trend of indigenous people to reassert their own tradtions, the Ainu have grown in confidence. 'The Ainu are reviving their old culture,' said Jiro Suzuki, a professor of social anthropology at Tokyo's Sokka University.

The campaign by the Ainu to remind people of their historic ties to the Kuriles may not come to much, but Mr Akibe hopes it at least will raise the profile of the Ainu from 'famous hairy people' to human beings who happen to have a different culture to mainstream Japan.

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