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Japan: New Ainu Law Becomes Effective

(Aug. 5, 2019) A new act that legally recognizes the Ainu as the indigenous people of Japan was promulgated on April 26, 2019, and became effective on May 24, 2019. (Act on Promoting Measures to Realize a Society in Which the Pride of the Ainu People Is Respected, Act No. 16 of 2019 (Ainu Promotion Act), KANPOU (official gazette), Extra Ed., No. 87, Apr. 26, 2019, at 5 (in Japanese), Kanpou website.)

Brief History of Ainu Relations with Non-Ainu Settlers in Hokkaido

The Ainu are indigenous people residing in the northern part of Japan, especially Hokkaido. (Summary of Ainu Policy, COUNCIL FOR AINU POLICY PROMOTION, CABINET OFFICE (in Japanese) (last visited July 31, 2019).) Since the 15th century, the Ainu have waged an unsuccessful battle against the encroachments and attacks of non-Ainu Japanese settlers in Hokkaido. (History, AINU MUSEUM POROTO KOTAN (last visited July 31, 2019) (in Japanese).) In 1869, the Japanese government established the Hokkaido Development Commission and officially incorporated Hokkaido as part of Japan. (Ken’ichi Ochiai & Teruki Tsunemoto, On Policy Measures for the Socio-Economic Betterment of the Ainu People, 64(2) HOKKAIDO LAW REVIEW 301, 302 (July 31, 2013).) From around that time, non-Ainu Japanese people immigrated to Hokkaido on a large scale. (Id.) The government gave the Ainu people Japanese nationality in 1871 (id.) but has always placed priority on the development of Hokkaido over the quality of the Ainu’s way of life. Consequently, the ways the Ainu could make a living have diminished. (History, supra.) In 1899 the Imperial Diet, the Japanese parliament until 1947, enacted the Act to Protect the Aborigines in Hokkaido and gave some lands to the Ainu, but after the non-Japanese immigrants took the lands that were suitable for farming, the Ainu could not obtain good lands. (Id.)

Previous Legislative and Executive Actions in Japan and Approval of UN Declaration on Indigenous Rights

After lobbying by the Ainu, the government of Hokkaido in 1988 requested the national government to enact a law to protect the rights of the Ainu and promote Ainu culture. (History of Ainu Culture Promotion Act, OFFICE OF AINU MEASURES PROMOTION, GOVERNMENT OF HOKKAIDO (last updated Apr. 4, 2018).) In 1997, the Diet (Japan’s current parliament) enacted the Act on the Promotion of Ainu Culture and Dissemination and Enlightenment of Knowledge About Ainu Tradition, etc. (Act No. 52 of 1997, House of Representatives website (in Japanese).) This Act abolished the Act to Protect Aborigines in Hokkaido. (Id. Supp. Provisions, art. 2.) Under the Act, the Minister of Land, Infrastructure, Transportation and Tourism and the Minister of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology provided the basic policy concerning the measures to ensure promotion of Ainu culture. (Outline of the Act on the Promotion of Ainu Culture, and Dissemination and Enlightenment of Knowledge About Ainu Tradition, etc. (Act No. 52 of 1997) (undated) (in Japanese and English), Cabinet Office website.) The Hokkaido government provided the basic plan concerning the measures to promote Ainu culture in accordance with the basic policy. (Basic Plan Concerning the Measures to Promote Ainu Culture (in Japanese) (use browser “reading view” to read small Japanese text) (last updated Mar. 19, 2019), Government of Hokkaido website.)

In 2007, the United Nations adopted the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. (United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (A/RES/61/295) (Sept. 13, 2007), UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs: Indigenous Peoples website.)  Japan voted to support the Declaration. (Resolution Seeking Government’s Recognition of the Ainu as Indigenous People, June 6, 2008 (in Japanese), House of Councillors website.)  In June 2018, both Houses of the Diet adopted resolutions requesting the government to recognize the Ainu as indigenous people. (Id.)

New Law

The new Ainu Promotion Act abolished the Act on the Promotion of Ainu Culture and Dissemination and Enlightenment of Knowledge About Ainu Tradition, etc. and recognized the Ainu as indigenous people. (Ainu Promotion Act Supp. Provisions, arts. 1 & 2.) Under the Act, the government is to open a national Ainu museum and park in Hokkaido in April 2020. (Id. art. 7, para. 2; see also National Ainu Museum and Park, UPOPOY (last visited July 31, 2019).)

The Ainu Promotion Act obligates the government to adopt policies to facilitate people’s understanding of the traditions of the Ainu and the importance of the diversity that ethnic groups contribute to society. In addition, the government must adopt measures to ban discrimination against the Ainu. (Id. arts. 3, 4 & 5.)

The Act provides that the national government is to subsidize local government efforts to preserve the traditional culture of the Ainu. (Id. art. 15.) According to the Act, the Ainu people may apply for special rights over national lands, rivers, and trademarks to preserve Ainu traditions and culture. (Id. arts 16, 17 & 18.)