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Friday, May 23, 2008

Ainu press case for official recognition

Staff writer

Hundreds of Ainu from all over Japan and their supporters staged a protest Thursday in Tokyo's Nagata-cho political district, demanding the Diet and the government recognize them as indigenous people.

News photo
Making their presence felt: Ainu and their supporters stage a march Thursday from Hibiya Park in Chiyoda Ward, Tokyo, to the Diet building, demanding they be recognized as an indigenous people and granted rights accordingly. MASAMI ITO PHOTO

Petitions were submitted to both houses of the Diet and to the prime minister's office seeking official recognition as a native people and legal measures to improve the Ainu's social and financial circumstances.

Japan was among 144 member states that voted in favor last September when the U.N. General Assembly adopted the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Even so, the government continues to deny recognition of the Ainu, arguing there is no "official" definition of who are indigenous people.

"Through the Meiji, Taisho, Showa and Heisei eras, we have been unwaveringly demanding one thing — (our) human rights," said Tadashi Kato, chairman of the Ainu Association of Hokkaido. "Human rights is the (source of) life and existence for Ainu — and that (will be realized) when the government (recognizes) our position."

With the Group of Eight summit coming up in July in the Ainu homeland of Hokkaido, a nonpartisan group of lawmakers from the prefecture are set to draft a Diet resolution to recognize them as indigenous. The group said it hopes the resolution can be adopted early next month before the Diet session ends June 15.

Hiroshi Imazu, a lawmaker from the ruling Liberal Democratic Party who heads the group, appeared at a rally in Hibiya Park before the Ainu marched to the Diet.

He recalled a conversation he had with the late Kyoko Sugimura, who was actively involved in promoting Ainu culture.

"I was taught (by Sugimura) that as a lawmaker from Hokkaido, I must share the same awareness (as Ainu) and feel the same distress and pain, and shed tears together," Imazu said. "I have made a fresh resolve now, at this time, to do whatever it takes to properly pass a Diet resolution to (recognize the Ainu's) pride and dignity as indigenous people."

Muneo Suzuki, a former LDP lawmaker and now an independent, pointed out at the rally that the G8 summit's main theme is the environment, which is closely tied to the Ainu people and their culture.

"Speaking of the environment, the people who have lived most symbiotically with nature were the Ainu," Suzuki said. "Be it fishing for salmon or hunting bears, (the Ainu) never took more than what was necessary. In this way, (the Ainu) respected nature and protected it."

Hideo Akibe, an Ainu participant from Kushiro, Hokkaido, said government recognition as an indigenous people amounts to protection of their human rights.

"If Japan recognizes the Ainu as indigenous, I think the whole flow of the world (for indigenous people) will change," Akibe said. "Japan can set a good example" for the entire planet, he added.

The history of the coming of the Japanese to Hokkaido and forced assimilation of its native people dates back to 1869, when the central government unilaterally gave Hokkaido its current name and created Kaitakushi (the Development Commission) to rule and develop the northern island.

At the time, Ainu were prohibited from practicing their traditions and "encouraged" to learn the Japanese language.

The Ainu say they have suffered discrimination and disparity in education and work.

"It has taken a long time to get where we are. I mean Japan is a country that has not very smart lawmakers who say it is a racially homogenous nation," Akibe said. "But for us, (being recognized as indigenous) is just the beginning."

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The Japan Times

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