Japan admits it wasn't there first Heritage: Court, legislative actions acknowledge the Ainu people's existence contrary to Japanese religious belief.

Sun Journal

October 04, 1997|By Michael Zielenziger | Michael Zielenziger,KNIGHT-RIDDER NEWS SERVICE

NIBUTANI, Japan -- The salmon-skin boots and dugout canoes displayed here in the Ainu Historical Museum document the culture of an aboriginal people who have inhabited Japan for nearly 10,000 years.

Until two months ago, however, the Japanese government denied this Ainu history ever existed.

Now, in two landmark actions, a court and Japan's national legislature have taken the first steps to recognize that Japan's Ainu (EYE-new) people predated the Yamato race that conquered its land and systematically attempted to stamp out its existence. For Japan, a nation with a near-religious belief in the homogeneity of its people, these decisions mark the first time it has ever formally acknowledged a minority group living in its midst.

Discrimination persists

But the recent legal actions, Ainu leaders say, will not change prevailing attitudes in a society where the estimated 50,000 Ainu are still discriminated against at work, bullied at school and lack the economic and social status of other Japanese people. Hoping to blend into Japanese society, at least half of these Ainu deny their ethnic heritage.

"We need to change the situation so we are considered to be human beings the same as other Japanese people," says Giichi Nomura, 82, former president of the Ainu Association of Hokkaido, Japan's northernmost island. "No one has even begun to talk about the land and resources that were stolen from us."

In many ways, the Ainu's experience with a colonizing power compares to the long struggle of America's Indians against white settlers. As early as the eighth century, Japanese shoguns on the main island of Honshu sent troops north to battle Ainu who migrated south from their strongholds on Hokkaido, as well as the Sakhalin Peninsula and Kuril Islands now held by Russia. History records that in most of these early confrontations, the Ainu emerged victorious, though eventually they were driven out of Honshu.

It took nine more centuries, however, for the rival shoguns within Japan's main islands to consolidate their power. Only after that, in the Meiji Era that began in 1868, did Japan's central government systematically seek to colonize Ainu lands in Hokkaido.

Practices banned

While there are no records of wholesale slaughter of the Ainu, the Meiji government did ban many shamanistic practices of the Ainu people, took away their right to hunt and fish and urged them to learn farming. The government also banned certain Ainu customs, such as the tattooing of women, and forbade the use of the Ainu language in schools.

In a nation laden with unwritten social codes, Ainu still bear heavy social stigmas. It is common for a Japanese family to block a marriage if a son or daughter chooses to marry an Ainu.

In schools today, Japanese textbooks provide a few bare sentences about the Ainu but do not detail Japan's extensive efforts to eradicate their cultural distinction. That is because the Ainu's very existence flies in the face of traditional Japanese belief.

Japanese are taught that their Yamato race descended from the sun god, Amaterasu, who created the Japanese islands. All Japanese people maintain this same unique heritage, according the nation's Shinto beliefs, and today's emperor is considered a divine descendant of that god. Recognizing the Ainu as a people who might have existed on Hokkaido before the Yamato race would confound this powerful national myth that melds religion, identity and statehood.

Origin unclear

It was former Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone who prompted the Ainu to demand a change in the turn-of-the-century law that sought to "Japanize" their people. In 1986, Nakasone declared that Japan had achieved educational levels superior to racially diverse America because the Japanese were a "monoracial" people.

The origins of the Yamato people remain unclear. But archaeological evidence clearly shows the Ainu ranged over a wide area of the Japanese archipelago in prehistoric times.

Their recent dealings with the government demonstrate how formal victories sometimes ring hollow:

In March, the Sapporo district court ruled the central government had illegally taken Ainu property in 1993 when it began to build a dam on the Saru River, flooding Ainu farmlands. It was the first time a court had ever criticized the government's policy of forcing the Ainu to assimilate.

"The Ainu fall under the classification of a minority aboriginal race," the presiding judge ruled. "The government should have done its utmost to consider the unique culture of the indigenous Ainu minority." But since the lake behind the dam had already been filled with water, the court said it would not force the government to tear it down, saying doing so would not be "beneficial to public welfare."

1899 law revised

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