06/20/2008, 00.00
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"Purification of memory" in Tokyo, Diet acknowledges that Ainu are indigenous

by Pino Cazzaniga
The first inhabitants of the archipelago, the Ainu were driven off their land, stripped of legal recognition, and forced to abandon their language and even their names.

Tokyo (AsiaNews) - The Diet (parliament) of Japan has decided on a sort of noble purification of memory by recognising that the Ainu are an indigenous people.  The resolution, unanimously adopted in recent days by the lower house and by the senate, establishes that "the government will recognise the Ainu as an indigenous people with the right to their language, religion, and culture", and also recognises the sufferings undergone by the Ainu through discrimination and poverty.  "This is an historic event for us, because it finally puts an end to the injustices of the past", comments Takahashi Kato, president of the association of the Ainu in Hokkaido.

After the passage of the resolution, the secretary general of the cabinet, Nobutaka Machimura, immediately communicated that "the government will solemnly recognise the historical fact that many Ainu were marginalised and forced into poverty with the advance of modernisation, despite the fact that they have the same legal rights as all other Japanese".

The resolution is important for three reasons: first, because it was approved by both the lower house and the senate, and therefore by the entire political spectrum, in which the opposition has a majority in the senate; second, because from now on the Ainu will have, at least indirectly, the support of the United Nations.  In fact, Japan is one of the 144 countries that voted in favour of the declaration on ethnic minorities, adopted by the UN general assembly last September.  Only four countries voted against it: the United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.  Finally, the decision of the Diet seems to us a qualitative advancement in the process of the democratisation of the Japanese people.  The ancient and recent history of the Ainu in Japan confirms this positive assessment.

Until 300 B.C., the Ainu ("human beings" in their language), a Caucasian people, were spread all over Japan.  After this, the ancestors of the modern Japanese arrived, who beginning from the island of Kyushu formed a powerful and united ethnic group, with the appearance of the imperial government in the plain of Yamato (the region around Osaka and Kyoto) at around 300 A.D. Unable to coexist with the Ainu, whom they called Emishi or Ezo, "barbarians", the newcomers fought pitched battles that over centuries forced the Ainu to emigrate to the north.  In the first half of the 19th century, the northernmost of the four main islands of Japan, Hokkaido, which at that time was called Ezo, was still inhabited by the Ainu.

With the process of modernisation, known in Japan as the Meiji Restoration (1868), a policy of the forced assimilation of the Ainu was begun: their language was outlawed, they were forced to adopt Japanese names, and their land was distributed to Japanese immigrants.  The fear that Russia might take possession of the island seems to have been one of the reasons for the rapid and forced assimilation.  In 1871, with the law of family registration, the Ainu legally ceased to exist, because they were considered part of the Japanese population.  In reality, they were marginalised both economically and culturally.  Many emigrated abroad.

This situation lasted until 1997, when a tribunal recognised that the Ainu are an indigenous minority.  Recognition from the judiciary was followed last June 6 by that of the legislature, and was then accepted by the executive branch.

Commentary in the media, especially in the most prestigious newspapers, has been positive and even enthusiastic. Asahi publishes on the front page every day a column entitled (in the English edition) "Vox populi, vox Dei", a sort of secular meditation.  In commenting on the parliament's decision in favour of the Ainu, the author takes his cue from the Ainu Shinyoshu, a collection of Ainu songs translated 85 years ago by Yukie Chiri (from 1903-1922), and writes, "A society gains profoundly when it encounters different cultures and customs.  On the contrary, any society that believes in the fiction of a 'single ethnic entity' produces a misleading arrogance".  Japanese history in the first half of the 20th century is tragic proof of this.  With the annexation of Korea (1910), the imperialist government applied to Korea the same method of assimilation used for the ethnic Ainu minority, and from 1931 to 1945 tried to apply it also to China and to other Asian countries.

The current initiative of the Diet is therefore a kind of noble purification of memory.  We take note of it with admiration.  At the beginning of next month, at Lake Toya in the centre of the island of Hokkaido, a setting of singular natural beauty, the heads of state of the G8 will meet.  At the same time, hundreds of Ainu living abroad will return to their ancient land, as if to remind the world that a nation will decline if it slays the souls of its peoples.

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