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Friday, June 06, 2008

Japan moves to recognize indigenous people

Shingo Ito
AFP

TOKYO - Japan on Friday moved to recognize the Ainu as an indigenous people, pledging to support the traditionally nature-worshipping community that has endured centuries of discrimination.

It is a landmark move for Japan, which has prided itself on being ethnically homogeneous but where the Ainu have sharply lower incomes and educational levels.

The upper house of parliament voted 231-0 to adopt the resolution on the Ainu. The lower house was expected to follow suit with a unanimous vote later in the day, parliament officials and lawmakers said.

The resolution comes ahead of next month's summit of the Group of Eight rich nations on the northern island of Hokkaido, home to most of Japan's estimated 70,000 Ainu.

The resolution submitted jointly by ruling and opposition lawmakers stipulates for the first time that the Ainu "are an indigenous people with a distinct language, religion and culture."

It urges the government to "immediately" provide support for the Ainu.

"If our country wants to lead the international community, it is crucial for us that all indigenous people retain their honour and dignity and hand down their culture and pride to later generations," the resolution said.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Nobutaka Machimura said the government would respect the parliamentary resolution, but stopped short of clarifying concrete support for the Ainu.

"The government will promote measures for the Ainu people, recognizing that Ainu people are indigenous, having lived in the northern part of the Japanese archipelago, particularly in Hokkaido, with a distinct language, religious and culture," Machimura said.

Fairer and more hirsute than most Japanese, the Ainu traditionally observed an animist faith with a belief that God exists in every creation, respecting trees, hills, lakes, rivers and animals - particularly bears.

The Ainu, who lived by hunting and fishing, formed their society around the 13th century mainly in Hokkaido but also the Kuril and Sakhalin islands, which are now ruled by Russia, and parts of Japan's main island of Hokkaido.

Ethnic Japanese gradually settled Hokkaido and in 1899 enacted the Hokkaido Former Aborigines Act, under which the Ainu were forced to give up their land, language and traditions and shift from hunting to farming.

The act was repealed only in 1997 and replaced by legislation calling for "respect for the dignity of Ainu people."

But that law stopped short of recognizing the Ainu as indigenous or, as some activists have demanded, setting up autonomous areas along the lines of Native American reservations in the United States.

Ainu activists had vowed to press forward their demands as the spotlight turns to Hokkaido for the July 7-9 Group of Eight summit at the mountain resort of Toyako.

The United Nations last year adopted a non-binding declaration upholding the human, land and resources rights of the world's 370 million indigenous people, including the Ainu.

Japan voted for the UN declaration but stressed it would not accept any moves by indigenous people for independence or unilateral demands for property rights.

Ainu remain among Japan's poorest people, with only 17 per cent graduating from university, just half the national average, according to a survey by a community association.

Japan, particularly since World War II, has prided itself on being ethnically homogenous and has rejected large-scale immigration despite a falling birth rate.

© AFP 2008

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