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The Ainu of Japan

If you’ve ever had the chance to review the minutes of an international convention involving anything to do with "indigenous rights," you’ll find that Japan consistently and strenuously rejects not only the principle that indigenous rights exist, but also the notion that there are such a thing as "indigenous peoples" in the first place.

Well, when the lady doth protest so much, that can only mean one thing, and, sure enough, a little research revealed that Japan has its own indigenous people: the Ainu. And, like indigenous people the world over, they have been subject to a long, relentless, government-sponsored effort to culturally eliminate and assimilate them.

The Ainu are the original inhabitants of the northern part of Japan. (They are often mistakenly identified as a Caucasian people, however, recent genetic testing has ruled out this oft-repeated theory.)

After losing a series of battles in the 15th to 18th centuries, they came under Japanese control. Efforts to assimilate the Ainu included the familiar policies that have been implemented in so many other countries: they were driven from their land and arrested as trespassers or poachers; laws were enacted to prohibit Ainu from practicing their religion and traditional customs; families were broken up for forced or bonded labour; their language was criminalized.

Today, the Ainu are fighting to protect their rights, and – without any help from the government of course – are working to revive their language and traditional customs. Unfortunately, only a few elders still speak the traditional language, and because of discrimination, many Ainu prefer not to identify themselves.

If you want to learn more about the Ainu, one of the best known books on their culture – even in Japan – is written by none other than David Suzuki, The Japan We Never Knew: A Voyage of Discovery.