by: Andy Thomason
On March 27, 1997, in response to a lawsuit brought by the Ainu people, the Sapporo District Court ruled that the Ainu should be granted recognition as an indigenous people of Japan and entitled to the protection of their distinct culture.
As big a step as the Act is, it can only be regarded as the first toward addressing the needs of the Ainu culture. The Act does not include any apology or deliberation on past assimilation or discrimination policies. Although the Bill provides financial support for traditional dance, crafts, and learning the Ainu language, many feel that the Japanese government is still ignoring the Ainu’s basic problems.
The new law does not mention any form of recognition or protection of indigenous rights. It provides no guarantee or dispensation for allowing the Ainu to live their traditional culture or incorporate it into their daily lives. Some see the Act as the government's arrogant attempt to define Ainu culture as "the language and 'cultural properties' such as music, dance, crafts." It also does not take into account the Ainu living outside of Hokkaido.
Ainu Culture and Discrimination Today
The basic perception of the Japanese government and the people of Japan is that there is no ethnic problem. Little about the Ainu are taught in Japanese schools. The image of traditional Ainu culture held by most Japanese consists almost entirely of tourist trade Ainu villages, "ethnic" performances, commercialized woodcarvings and other such "folk art" objects.
Yet discrimination against the Ainu is still a problem. In July, 1998, in a statement to the U.N. Working Group on Indigenous Populations the Ainu International Network stated that the Ainu continue to be thought of and treated as a "barbaric" minority in Japan.
The authors went on to say that the Ainu people "oppose any international convention or domestic law which holds an assimilationist program as its basic orientation, and believe that the rights to control our own economic, social, cultural and other aspects of development as much as possible, to stand equal based on our own institutions, and to mutually cooperate with the national society should be recognized."