Reclaiming the Rights of the Ainu People*

by Miura Tadao, Ainu Peoples’ Resource Center Director
Pastor, Rumoi Miyazono Church, Hokkai District

In recent years there has been a lot of action all over the world around
the issue of indigenous peoples’ rights. On Sept. 13, 2007, the United
Nations General Assembly approved the “United Nations Declaration on the
Rights of Indigenous Peoples.” In June 2008, the Japanese Diet passed a
resolution recognizing the Ainu people as indigenous people of Japan.
However, a detailed look at these documents reveals that there are still
many issues to be considered. The Japanese government voted in favor of
the UN Declaration. However, before actually voting, each country gave a
speech indicating its position with regard to the Declaration, and
Japan’s speech made clear that although it would vote in favor of the
Declaration, there was to be no consideration of any kind of autonomy
for indigenous people and that any land claims would have to be dealt
with in accordance with existing Japanese law.

After that, nothing happened in Japan until just before the G8 Summit
held in Hokkaido in July 2008, when members of the Japanese Diet
suddenly took action. On March 26 a multi-party “Diet Members’ Group to
Consider the Rights of Ainu People” was formed and encouraged Japan, as
host country of the Summit, to issue a statement recognizing the Ainu
people as indigenous people of Japan, as a sign to the world that Japan
is a mature, developed, industrial democracy since this was in Japan’s
national interest. On June 6, the resolution to establish the rights of
the Ainu people was passed in both the Upper House and Lower House at
lightning speed.

After passing the resolution, the Cabinet on July 1 approved the
establishment of a panel of experts to consider a new policy regarding
the Ainu people. The purpose of this panel was to allow a high level of
government to receive the opinion of experts so that a new overall
policy in relation to the Ainu people could be developed. Areas to be
considered by the panel included an investigation of the living
conditions of Ainu people and their experience of discrimination, an
evaluation of past policies regarding the Ainu people, and a
consideration of the policies of other countries towards indigenous
peoples in the light of the UN Declaration. The final goal was the
development of a new and appropriate policy concerning the Ainu people,
with specific suggestions for implementing it.

A fundamental problem with the panel of experts was that only one Ainu
person was included as a member and the time limit of one year was far
too short for the panel to do its work. So far the panel has met four
times and is beginning a discussion of concrete issues. The issues are
numerous. And yet, in response to questions about the June resolution in
the Japanese Diet, the Japanese government has indicated repeatedly that
because there is no clear definition of “indigenous people” in the
resolution that recognized the Ainu people as “indigenous people,” it is
not clear whether the Ainu would fit the category of “indigenous people”
as laid out in the UN Declaration. Such cowardly behavior is not helpful.
However, this kind of attitude illustrates the important role that the
panel of experts has to play. These experts must evaluate carefully
government policies of the past and offer new directions by making clear
the painful history and the discrimination that the Ainu people have
suffered under past policies and see that their position as indigenous
people is set down clearly in the law. A multi-racial group called
“Chi-kara-nisatta” (Building Tomorrow Together) was formed in 2008 and,
rather than watching idly as the panel does its work, this group is
studying the UN Declaration in order to make recommendations to the
panel. The Ainu Peoples’ Resource Center is pleased to be able to work
with this group and will join it when concrete suggestions are presented
to the panel of experts in the near future.

Hokkai District, reflecting on its own past history of walking on the
side of the invader and oppressor, established the Ainu Issues Committee
in 1985, at the time of the Nibutani land claim court case, in an
attempt to join with the Ainu people in their struggle to reclaim their
rights. To be even more active in this work on a daily basis and to
enable church people to see the reclamation of Ainu rights and the end
of discrimination as valid mission concerns, the district established
the Ainu Peoples’ Resource Center. It has worked slowly but surely to
deepen the relationship between the church and the Ainu people. However,
with the exception of Hyogo District and committed individuals, the
situation is that the Kyodan as a whole does not seem to perceive these
issues as mission concerns. I think a big part of our job is to find a
way for the entire Kyodan to recognize and to share the importance of
this work. (Tr. RW)

*The Ainu, the indigenous people of Japan, have their own unique culture
and language and have historically occupied the southern portion of the
Sakhalin Islands, Kurile Islands, all of Hokkaido, and the Tohoku
(northeast) region of Honshu Island (Japan’s main island).