The Ainu nation

By William Wetherall

A version of this article appeared in
The Japan Times Weekly, 2 January 1993, 1,3-5 (Cover story)


Monotonal myths
Heterogeneous realities
Nakasone's intelligence
New Ainu law demanded
Yamato expansionism
The Okhotsk frontier
Caught in the middle
Uilta and Nivkh
Token recognition
Museum politics
Missed opportunities
Visionary leadership


The Prime Minister of Japan steps behind a podium on the stage at the National Theater. The cameras are rolling as he clears his throat and begins his National Founding Day speech on 11 February 1993.

"Today we celebrate the origins of our country in an antiquity so remote that history records them only in legends. During the past century, Japan, whose government I represent, has been considered a monoethnic state by most of its officials, including at times myself. This year, though, presents us with a timely opportunity to acknowledge, and even extol, our country's racial and ethnic diversity."

"The United Nations, parent and guardian of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which Japan has ratified as a party state, has designated this the International Year of the World's Indigenous People. And so it is fitting that I, on behalf of the state, officially recognize Japan's Ainu citizens as bona fide native peoples."

Monotonal myths

Thus ought to begin a speech that will probably never be made -- at least not by Miyazawa Kiichi. Just a few weeks before he became Prime Minister in 1991, Miyazawa told TV commentator Dave Spector, in a weekly magazine interview, that Japan was a team-work, harmony-of-all society which seldom depends on the genius of one person. He claimed this was so because Japan was "a practically monoethnic people (hobo tan'itsu minzoku)" (Shukan bunshun, 10 October 1991). "At least he said hobo," Spector told me, alluding to the time when another prime minister, Nakasone Yasuhiro, had not made even this "practically" concession.

At the press conference following the installation of Miyazawa's first cabinet in November 1991, a journalist raised doubts about whether Watanabe Michio was an appropriate choice for Foreign Minister. Watanabe, who had earned a reputation for offending black Americans and other minorities with offhand comments intended as humor, acknowledged that he had received criticism, then said: "Japanese are a monoethnic people, so [we've] got to be more careful [when speaking so as not to offend others]."

Both Miyazawa and Watanabe were parroting the myth of homogeneity espoused by many highly visible Japanese public figures, like Nakasone, who in September 1986 claimed that the United States was a less "intelligent society" (interijento-na sosaetii) than Japan because "in America there are many blacks, Puerto Ricans, and Mexicans." When U.S. minorities and others demanded an apology, Nakasone said that it was easier for Japan to educate and inform its people because it was a "monoethnic state" (tan'itsu minzoku kokka).

Heterogeneous realities

Nakasone's characterization of Japan as "monoethnic" insulted all of the country's minorities, but none more than Japanese of Ainu ancestry. The strongest reaction came from Hokkaido Utari Kyokai (HUK), also known as the Ainu Association of Hokkaido, a social foundation with about 16,000 members, or two-thirds of the roughly 25,000 Ainu counted in a 1986 Hokkaido survey. The largest organization representing Ainu interests, HUK immediately criticized Nakasone's remark as one that "ignored the existence of ethnic minorities in the country."

Nomura Giichi, HUK's charismatic director, broadsided Nakasone in a widely read editorial (Asahi Shinbun, 16 October 1986): "Does [he] really think that Japan is a monoethnic state? In Hokkaido there are the Ainu people (Ainu minzoku), and in Okinawa there are residents (jumin) who have their own history and culture. [There are also] the peoples (minzoku) of North Korea, South Korea, China, and Taiwan who, while maintaining their own life customs and so forth, have naturalized in Japan or are engaged in making a living as permanent residents; is [Nakasone] saying that these peoples (korera no shominzoku) are the same people (minzoku) as the so-called Yamato people (iwayuru Yamato minzoku)?"

Nomura called on Nakasone "to recognize the existence of ethnic minorities in Japan, and to sweep away the heretofore erroneous concept of 'monoethnic state' [that is used] toward these ethnic minorities." Some Ainu wrote letters to Nakasone. In one, an Ainu mother told the prime minister about the discrimination that she and her children continued to face. She wanted "Wajin (Shisamu) [Yamato people (Shamo)] who have Japanese nationality [just as we do]" to understand the plight of Ainu citizens.

"Japan is definitely not monoethnic," she said, and then implored Nakasone to revise his perception. "[We] need," she concluded, "a society in which the multiple peoples (fukusu minzoku) residing in this country [are able to] speak their respective mother tongues, while living together [using] the Yamato tongue (wago) as a common language."

Nakasone's intelligence

In October 1986, in defense of his "monoethnic state" remark, Nakasone stated that in Japan "there are no ethnic minorities (shosu minzoku) who, as people with Japanese nationality [citizenship], are receiving discrimination."

To this remark he added: "From reading books by Umehara Takeshi, [I know that] Ainu and the people who came across from the continent considerably fused together. In my case, too, my eyebrows are thick, and my beard is heavy. I think there's a considerable amount of Ainu blood in me."

While Nakasone may have been naive about the political hazards of ill-timed speculation over the roots of his facial hair, his knowledge of Ainu in Japan past and present far exceeded his awareness that Ainu or similar peoples had once inhabited his own ancestral turf in Gunma prefecture, northwest of Tokyo. In fact, Nakasone had more than just read a book by Umehara, a self-styled philosopher who trespasses on anthropology, and is notorious for his romantic views of early Japan.

In late 1985, Nakasone and Umehara had a lengthy discussion about the role of Japan in the flow of world civilization. In the course of their talk, Umehara outlined the strongest theory on the peopling of the Japanese islands, endorsed by anthropologists like Hanihara Kazuro, with whom Umehara had published a book called Ainu wa gen-Nihonjin ka (Are Ainu the original Japanese?).

According to Hanihara and others, Japanese of Ainu and Okinawan descent represent vestiges of the Old Mongoloid peoples that inhabited the Japanese archipelago before the arrival from the continent of New Mongoloid peoples. The Yamato people appear to have come from an amalgamation of these genetically different groups. The mixing was never complete, however, and despite accelerating rates of migration within Japan, there are still regional genetic and cultural differences.

In conversation with Umehara, Nakasone displayed his knowledge of the fact that his own home province was once known by a name that means "the land of people with body hair". He also praised the Ainu bear festival as an example of the kind of appreciation of nature's benevolence that Umehara thinks should be revived in a neo-animistic renaissance, to save Japan and the rest of the world from destruction by "western" civilization. Through Nakasone's patronage, Umehara was able to build the Ministry of Education's International Research center for Japanese Studies in Kyoto. The discussion was published, at government expense no less, in the February 1986 issue of Bungei shunju, one of Japan's most popular monthly magazines. Yet later that year, Nakasone was telling the world that the Ainu people were not a true minority.

New Ainu law demanded

Nakasone's "no minorities" flap so incensed some Ainu that they literally marched on Tokyo, decked out in their ethnic regalia, to show the prime minister that his putatively homogeneous country was home to at least one indigenous minority with its own culture, religion, and language. At one rally, an appeal was even read aloud in Ainu.

This second round of Ainu protest focused on HUK's 1984 proposal for a new Ainu law that would recognize their indigenous rights. The present law, called the Hokkaido Former Aboriginal Protection Law (Hokkaido kyu dojin hogo ho), was promulgated in 1899, and has been revised five times, most recently in 1968. Several bills to abrogate this law, without replacing it by a new law, have been opposed by HUK. The present law fails to empower the Ainu people with rights of national self-determination, and thus aids extralegal policies that seek to "terminate" Ainu as an ethnic minority by "helping" them assimilate.

After Nakasone's flaps, some Ainu representatives and supporters objected to the disparaging wording of the title of the present law. But HUK is opposed to simply renaming the law, and demands instead that the state adopt its proposal for a new law, which among other things would end discrimination, support Ainu culture and language education, restore fishing rights, and promote economic self-sufficiency.

Ainu also want to be included in Japan's negotiations with Russia over the disputed Southern Kurils, which Ainu regard as part of their ancestral lands. But the Ministry of Foreign Affairs refuses to recognize Ainu as an indigenous people with proprietary rights.

Yamato expansion

Freeze the world in the late 15th century, about the time that Columbus was preparing to sail for Chipango. The map of the political territory called "Japan" did not yet include Ainu lands like present-day Hokkaido, or the Kuril Islands (the southern group of which Japan wants "back" from Russia), or the former Japanese colony and erstwhile 48th prefecture of Sakhalin (Karafuto). Nor did "Japan" extend to the Ogasawara (Bonin) islands between present-day Tokyo and Guam, or to the islands of the Ryukyu Kingdom (now Okinawa) between Kyushu and Taiwan.

In these earlier times, reminiscent of today, the "national government" consisted of an unstable alliance of powerholders who, in their jostling for control, either ignored or used an isolated imperial court. Local strife escalated into provincial wars. Yet the menagerie of largely Japanese pirates who had been menacing the coasts of Korea and China for over a century were brought under sufficient control to enable more trade between Japan, China, Korea, and the Ryukyu Kingdom.

Some Ainu communities on Hokkaido were defending their homelands from Yamato incursions from the south, while others were migrating northward. The 16th century saw Yamato hegemony fully jump the Tsugaru straits to the island that became Hokkaido in 1869.

It had taken more than a millennium for Yamato migrants from the south to intermingle with and displace, or invade and conquer, the Ainu-related people who had been living in much of northern Honshu. And it would take another three centuries for the Yamato people to extend their domain to Hokkaido and the Kurils, and to leap the Soya straits to Sakhalin.

The Ryukyu (Liu-ch'iu) Kingdom, a tributary state of China during this time, also came under increasing Yamato suzerainty until the 1870s, when it was annexed and prefecturized. Today, the "development" of both Hokkaido and Okinawa, at opposite ends of Japan, continue to be "guided" by a national government agency that amounts to a legacy of Yamato colonialism.

The Okhotsk frontier

Several territorial disputes with roots in the age of imperialism continue to fester along Japan's international borders. The largest of these disputes is with Russia, over the Southern Kurils, or so-called Northern Territories, which were once Ainu lands.

Ainu people were also inhabiting the major islands of the Northern Kurils, where they came into contact with Kamchadals and Aleuts. Other Ainu were living on the southern half of Sakhalin, which they shared with the reindeer-breeding Uilta (Orokko) and the originally riverine and coastal Nivkh (Gilyak).

By mid-19th century, Russia was claiming the Northern Kurils and all of Sakhalin, while Japan claimed the Southern Kurils and the south half of Sakhalin. In a 1875 treaty with Russia, Japan ceded its claim to southern Sakhalin for the Northern Kurils.

Indigenous inhabitants were given three years to choose a national affiliation. All Aleuts relocated to the Kamchatka peninsula or the Komandorskii Islands. A few Ainu went to Kamchatka, but the majority remained in the Northern Kurils and thus became Japanese.

In 1905, a treaty concluding the Russo-Japanese War awarded Japan South Sahkalin. It also gave Japan fishing rights off Kamchatka, which led to an expansion of Japanese canneries on the Siberian mainland. Japanese forces occupied North Sakhalin in 1920, but were withdrawn in 1925 in return for major oil and coal concessions. The Japanese navy patrolled the Sea of Okhotsk, ostensibly to protect Japan's expanding regional interests.

Caught in the middle

By the 19th century, Ainu and other indigenous peoples were no longer able to defend their lands from Cossack and Yamato invaders. After their lands were colonized by Russia and Japan, they were nationalized. Those who refused to assimilate were regarded as disloyal, while those who assimilated were still disparaged.

In 1884, having failed to persuade the partly Russified Northern Kuril Ainu to move to the Southern Kurils, Japan forcefully relocated them to a new village on the island of Shikotan. Numbering barely 100 to begin with, their population rapidly fell as Yamato immigrants came to greatly outnumber them.

Some Northern Kuril Ainu resisted Yamatoization by clinging to their Russian ways. During WWII, practically all Ainu on the Kurils, including the fewer than 50 Northern Kuril Ainu who still lived on Shikotan, were evacuated to Hokkaido.

Southern Kuril Ainu numbered about 2,000 around 1800. By 1900 their population had been reduced to a few hundred by disease and intermarriage, and by emigration and relocation to Hokkaido. In 1946, Soviet surveyors reportedly found only two people who they thought were Ainu. Few former Kuril Ainu -- Northern or Southern -- survive in Hokkaido. Two evacuated Shikotan Ainu visited family graves on the island in 1964.

The Sakhalin Ainu population, nearly 2,400 before the end of the 19th century, was down to fewer than 1,300 by 1940. Practically all of these Ainu were "repatriated" with other Japanese at the end of the war. Only a few Ainu remain on Sakhalin. Sakhalin Ainu who migrated to Hokkaido, and their Hokkaido-born offspring, number about 1,000. But only 13 such Ainu were able to visit family graves on Sakhalin in 1992.

Uilta and Nivkh

Sakhalin is home to about 3,000 Uilta and Nivkh, and some Nanay, ethnic minorities who are also indigenous on the Siberian mainland. When South Sakhalin was a Japanese colony, Uilta and Nivkh, like Ainu, were "protected" by the government of Japan in ways that limited their freedom and encouraged assimilation. Also like Ainu, they were forced, or pressured, to adopt Yamato names and speak Yamato. Uilta and Nivkh men and boys were drafted into the Japanese army to patrol along the border between North and South Sakhalin and to spy on Russia. Some were killed when Soviet forces invaded Japan's half of Sakhalin at the end of WWII. Others were abandoned by the Japanese army and taken prisoner by the Soviets, who did not treat them well.

A few Uilta and Nivkh POWs elected to settle in Hokkaido when released from Siberian camps. Others returned to Sakhalin, where they shared the fate of nationalized former colonial subjects like Koreans, who fought or labored on Japan's side during WWII, but afterward lost their Japanese nationality and could not receive war pensions.

Token recognition

For over a century before Nakasone's no-minorities flap in 1986, historians and anthropologists in Japan had considered the Ainu people an indigenous ethnic minority. And in the years leading up to Japan's ratification of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights in 1979, most academic and journalistic opinion regarded Ainu as a group that surely ought to qualify as an ethnic minority.

So the claim in the Ministry of Foreign Affair's 1980 (first) report to the United Nation's Human rights Committee, that "minorities of the kind mentioned in the Covenant do not exist in Japan", could only have been inspired by the "monoethnic state" ideology that still pervades the government, and not on informed historical and anthropological opinion.

Popular reaction to Nakasone's flap, in addition to strong protests from Ainu organizations, forced the government to admit the existence of "the people of Ainu (sic)" in its 1987 (second) report. But the terseness and defensive tone of the admission, which totaled fewer than 100 words and made no mention of discrimination, betrayed the government's familiar reluctance to face the truth.

The government's passivity drew considerable fire from many quarters, but especially from Hokkaido Utari Kyokai, which continued to take its case directly to the United Nations. By way of preparing for the 1993 International Year of the World's Indigenous People, HUK participated in several international meets on human rights for indigenous peoples.

It took every bit of such global publicity (which works wonders on Japan's thin-skinned Ministry of Foreign Affairs), plus editorial kicks from the domestic press, and not a little urging from citizens groups and academic societies, to persuade the government to devote nearly 300 words in its 1991 (third) report to the Ainu minority. This report reiterated the second report, then summarized measures that "the Government of Hokkaido" and "the Government of Japan" have been taking to improve the living conditions of Ainu people.

The third report, paraphrasing the 1986 Hokkaido prefectural survey of Ainu living conditions, concluded that "the living standard of the Ainu people improved steadily, but the gap between the living standard of general public of Hokkaido and that of the Ainu has not narrowed as expected. Therefore, the Government is endeavoring to improve further the living standard of the Ainu people and to eliminate the difference between the general public and the Ainu . . . ." (Italics in March 1992 corrected version).

Museum politics

The government's multiple personalities are evident in the variety of ways that its different ministries and agencies treat Ainu. Yet all are affected by schools of history and anthropology that reflect statist if not Yamatoist attitudes of denial and exclusion.

Though the Ministry of Foreign Affairs finally came around to recognizing Ainu as an ethnic minority, its bureaucrats are hesitant to regard them as an indigenous people. "There is no international agreement on the definition," one official said, as though it were untenable that the government should do the right thing on its own.

Over the years, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has published some pamphlets in English and Russian on the Northern Territories issue. Such propaganda manages to reveal over three centuries of "Japanese" knowledge about Sakhalin and the Kuril Islands without mentioning the Ainu people, or otherwise alluding to the fact that Sakhalin and the Kuril Islands had been inhabited by Ainu and other indigenous peoples long before they were "discovered" and then "developed" by Russia and Japan.

The Ministry of Education's National Museum of Ethnology in Osaka displays Ainu artifacts in its "Culture of the Ainu" exhibit. Asked why the Ainu exhibit is outside the "Culture of Japan" exhibit, the museum's resident expert on Northeast Asian indigenous peoples, Otsuka Kazuyoshi, told me that "It is to show ethnic (minzokuteki-na) differences."

In a talk at a 1989 Tokyo meet to consider HUK's new Ainu law proposal, Otsuka fumbled with his labels for citizenship and ethnicity. At times he used "Nihonjin" (Japanese) to mean "Japanese national (citizen)", but elsewhere he used it to designate himself and other ethnic majorities in contrast with Ainu. Asked from the floor whether he thought that Japan needed an explicit term for the ethnic majority (as in China, where majorities are called Han), he seemed uncertain that "Yamato" should be used for this purpose -- even though both Okinawans and Ainu refer to ethnic majorities and their language by words that mean Yamato.

The Ministry of Education's National Museum of Japanese History in Chiba has no Ainu exhibits whatever. Some are planned, and may be ready in a few years. As to why there were none from the start, an official said: "It is not clear that Ainu were in Japan in early times. Besides, the museum does not attempt to present a comprehensive history of Japan, but takes up only certain topics."

Missed opportunities

Ainu activists know that they have nothing to lose, and everything to gain, by telling the world their side of the story -- the historical and social truths that the government wants kept out of its propaganda.

In less than a decade, HUK and a small number of Ainu individuals have mounted a global campaign that has already pressured the government to recant some of its most cherished contentions. It is only a matter of time before the government agrees that Ainu are an indigenous people.

Such recognition would not itself mean victory for Ainu, however, unless it legally empowered them, as a nation within a state, to join the government in all domestic and foreign negotiations involving the disposition of lands and resources that belonged to their ancestors.

Loss of absolute power through the democratization of local, especially minority populations is, of course, precisely what Japan's nearly autonomous bureaucrats fear most. But the alternative may be worse: a reputation as a state so hypnotized by its own myths, and so banal about its evils, that it cannot do what is morally right.

It all comes down to the quality of political leadership in Japan. Nakasone had the will to be great, and a touch of charisma. If he had done as HUK director Nomura Giichi had suggested, and spoken the simple truth about Japan's ethnic minorities, he might have secured himself a permanent place in history's hall of great world leaders. Instead he chose to remain an unreformed Yamatoist, whose view of humanity was flawed by his misplaced faith in monoethnic ideology.

Visionary leadership

What Miyazawa said to Dave Spector about Japan not needing "the genius of one person" was tantamount to rationalizing his own inability to lead the country, rather than merely follow the whims of its political and bureaucratic mobs. But he is good at smiling.

In July 1992, after giving a speech before the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., Miyazawa was given two books, one of them entitled The North American Indians. He held them over his head and smiled. Picture Miyazawa, or a successor, waving two or three books, of dozens in-print, about Ainu, before the cameras of the world, and smiling.

Maybe before the end of this century, a Japanese prime minister will declare Japan a multiethnic state. Imagine him (or her) announcing in the clear diction that some of Japan's leaders are capable of uttering: "From this day forward, the Government of Japan recognizes its Ainu citizens as one of Japan's indigenous peoples. As such, Ainu are to be accorded all the rights due such peoples, as stipulated in the new Law Concerning the Ainu People, which was passed in the Diet today, and goes into effect immediately."

Twenty-five thousand Ainu in Hokkaido, and thousands elsewhere in Japan -- if not the millions of other Japanese who, like Nakasone, boast family roots in northeastern Japan -- would celebrate such a restoration of nationhood. And editorials throughout the world would sigh in relief that Japan, at last, has joined the growing club of influential states that care about all of the people they presume to govern.

Such a positive embrace of an ethnic minority people would be, for Japan, a first step only, but one in the right direction. Next would come Okinawans. Then Koreans and Chinese, and a growing list of others. And who knows but that someday a more enlightened state will be moved to certify the decreasing numbers of Yamato people as a minority.