Sunday, February 07, 2010

Ainu claim independence to Prime Minister Hatoyama

Ainu were recognized as indigenous people in 2008, they now want independence!

Being Japanese, an illusion of homogeneity?

On Hokkaido, northern island of Japan, the original inhabitants are the Ainu (アイヌ). An indigenous ethnic group of Japan like Maori or Tahitians in the Pacific. Historically they spoke their own language and lived in Hokkaido, the Kuril Islands, and much of Sakhalin.

Most of those who identify themselves as Ainu still live in this same region, how many are they today? Ainu backgrounds hiding their identities and confusion over mixed heritages makes it difficult to answer. Official estimates of the population are of around 25,000, whilst unofficially the number is upwards of 200,000 people.

The Ainu people were victims of a genocide since the 15th century. Oppressed, hunt, murdered, they never stopped claiming that the land and their culture be given back, never heard by Japanese rulers. Nothing to envy to Tibetans facing China invasion in the 1950's or the "Bretons" of France killed by the French republicans in the 18th century.

In 1899 the Japanese government passed an act labeling the Ainu as former aborigines, with the idea they would assimilate - this resulted in the land the Ainu people lived on being taken by the Japanese government, and was from then on under Japanese control. Also at this time, the Ainu were granted automatic Japanese citizenship, effectively denying them of being an indigenous group.

Today, many Ainu dislike the term Ainu because it had once been used with derogatory nuance, and prefer to identify themselves as Utari (comrade in the Ainu language). In official documents both names are used. Today Ainu leaders claim recognition of their language, culture, and from the new Democrat government of Yukio Hatoyama.

This interview is the most impressive I ever made of an Ainu leader obtained while I visited Hokkaido very recently invited by the 2010 APEC Sapporo Secretariat, an interview of Mr Sawaiaku who is the head of the International affairs department of the Ainu Association. Cheerful, a lot of humanity, he compares the political movement of the Ainu to the fight for peace and freedom of Pacific territories aborigines. Pay attention to the last question asked.

VDO (at Ainu cultural promotion center and museum, Sapporo Pirka Kotan)

Mr. Sawaiaku: "The most urgent thing I'll ask to Yukio Hatoyama is the return of our territorial rights to the Ainu people."

His requests are strong: Ainu independence, Ainu territory rights and recognition of the land of the Ainu and of their way of life and language. His requests in this outing also show they want to disband from the Japanese economic and social system ruled by Japanese government, this document testifies the hardship endured by Ainu for generations.

For many Ainu people and their political supporters, in other words, the Ainu Cultural Promotion Law is not the end of a struggle for recognition, but rather the start of an ongoing process of negotiation with the Japanese state about the boundaries of self determination. The law's most important feature is that it does at least mark recognition by the state that there is something to negotiate about and someone to negotiate with. In this sense, it represents an important break with the entrenched assumption that all Japanese citizens share a single race, culture and identity. Given the unequal power relationship of the participants, however, this new phase of negotiation will be a long and difficult one whose outcome remains uncertain.

Ainu are indeed indigenous and minority peoples

As signatories of the United Nations Treaty, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) which was signed by Japan in 1979, the Japanese had been forced to face the issue that the Ainu were indeed indigenous and minority peoples, which supported the Ainu in their pursuit of their rights to their distinct culture and language. There are many different organizations of Ainu trying to further their cause in many different ways.

There is an umbrella group of which most Hokkaido Ainu and some other Ainu are members, called the Hokkaido Utari Association, originally controlled by the government with the intention of speeding Ainu assimilation and integration into the Japanese nation-state, which now operates mostly independently of the government and is run exclusively by Ainu.

On 6 June 2008, a bi-partisan, non-binding resolution was approved by the Japanese Diet calling upon the government to recognize the Ainu people as indigenous to Japan and urge an end to discrimination against the group. The resolution recognized the Ainu people as "an indigenous people with a distinct language, religion and culture" and rescinds the law passed in 1899.

Though the resolution is historically significant, Hideaki Uemura, professor at Keisen University in Tokyo and a specialist in indigenous peoples' rights, commented that the motion is "weak in the sense of recognizing historical facts" as the Ainu were "forced" to become Japanese in the first place.

History, a review of the Ainu genocide

In the mid-1400's, "the Japanese extended their influence over southern Hokkaido, primarily Esashi and Matsumae. Later, they came to op-press the Ainu. To resist the oppression by the Japanese, the Ainu waged the Battle of Kosyamain in 1457, the Battle of Syaksyain in 1669, and the Battle of Kunasiri-Menasi in 1789. The Ainu lost each time. After losing the Battle of Kunasiri-Menasi in particular, the Ainu fell completely under the control of the Japanese.

They remained oppressed and exploited by the Japanese until the Meiji era. In the Meiji era, under the government policy of assimilation, the Ainu were prohibited from observing their daily customs. Given the status of former aborigines, the Ainu were forced to abide by Japanese daily customs. In 1899, the Hokkaido Aborigine Protection Act was passed. The act primarily aimed to provide relief for the Ainu and help them become engaged in agriculture. However, the act designated the Ainu as "former aborigines" and clarified the distinction between the Japanese and the Ainu.

In the late Meiji era, with an increasing number of Japanese colonizing Hokkaido from Honshu, the oppression and exploitation of the Ainu was replaced by discrimination against them. Discrimination against the Ainu still remains today and has become a major social problem.

Various activities are being vigorously promoted to revive the Ainu language and to preserve and maintain Ainu culture, such as traditional dancing and various ceremonies. Ainu language classes are being held in various parts of Hokkaido. Moreover, associations to preserve traditional dancing have been organized to revive and conduct ceremonies such as Iyomante and Chipsanke.

Ainu who lived in Hokkaido, the Kurile Islands and Sakhalin were called "Hokkaido Ainu", "Kurile Ainu" and "Sakhalin Ainu" respectively. Most Ainu now live in Hokkaido. It has been confirmed that a few Ainu people now live in Sakhalin. The census of the Ainu was started by the Japanese in the 1800 s for various purposes, e.g. for putting them to work. The Ainu population from 1807 to 1931 varied as follows : 1807 : 26,256 1822 : 23,563 1854 : 17,810 1873 : 16,272 1903 : 17,783 1931 : 15,969.

These figures (estimated ones) show that the population decreased particularly sharply from 1822 to 1854. The reasons for the decrease were, among others, the spread through the Ainu population of such diseases as smallpox, measles, cholera, tuberculosis and venereal diseases and the breakup of families due to forced labor. According to a current survey conducted by the Hokkaido Government in 1984, the Ainu population of Hokkaido then was 24,381."

June 6, 2008 will go down in the pages of history as a groundbreaking memorial day. On this day, the Diet resolution calling for the government to recognize the Ainu as an indigenous people and to further implement related measures was unanimously passed and approved during the Upper House plenary session. Will Yukio Hatoyama and the new leadership pay attention to what constitutes, brutality included, an other unbearable outrage to humanity?

History of the Ainu

Japan's Minorities: The Illusion of Homogeneity Book by Michael Weiner; Routledge, 1997

Quotes of Richard Siddle :

"The Ainu are the indigenous people of northern Japan. At first glance this may appear a straightforward and uncontroversial statement; after all, the subordination and dispossession of the Ainu under a colonial regime in Hokkaido has numerous parallels among other Fourth World populations like Native Americans, Australian Aborigines, Inuit, Maori, Sami and others, estimated to number between 200 and 300 million people. Sparked into political activism during the wave of worldwide decolonization following the Second World War, many internally colonized ‘native’ or ‘tribal’ populations have redefined themselves as ‘indigenous peoples’.

In common with these other groups, the Ainu were dispossessed of their ancestral land and resources by the expansion of a vigorous colonial state. Traditional life-ways collapsed as hunting and fishing territories were settled by waves of immigrants and transformed into agricultural land. Government policies of relocation and assimilation aimed at the eventual extinction of the Ainu as a people, aided by a system of ‘native education’ that actively discouraged Ainu language and customs.

While clearly supported by the historical record, such an interpretation arouses considerable opposition within Japan. Official and popular history views the creation of Hokkaido as an exercise in ‘development’ (kaitaku), not colonialism. At the level of commonsense understanding a master narrative of seamless national homogeneity denies the existence of the Ainu as an ethnic minority group; the Ainu are regarded as either totally assimilated or biologically extinct.

Nevertheless, a striking ‘ethnic revival’ is underway among the Ainu. The cultural symbols and rhetoric of Ainuness have become highly visible in recent decades as Ainu leaders press their claim for justice and rights as a separate and indigenous people."

(sources: Ainu museum, Hokkaido university, Wikipedia, Reporter's notes)

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