INSIGHT: Assemblyman's Ainu remarks ignore long history of discrimination

ainu discrimination


SAPPORO--A Sapporo assemblyman infuriated indigenous people in Hokkaido, contradicted the central and local governments’ position and offended his colleagues so much that they demanded his resignation.

But Yasuyuki Kaneko, who implied that Ainu people are cheating the welfare system, has refused to apologize or retract his comments.

Experts say the assemblyman’s remarks show a complete ignorance of not only cultural ethnicity issues but also the prolonged discrimination against Ainu people that led to the need for such assistance programs.

The uproar started on Aug. 11, when Kaneko, 43, posted on his Twitter account: “There are no such people as the Ainu anymore, are there? (But) they constantly demand rights they don’t deserve. How can this be reasonable?”

In response to his tweet, organizations representing Ainu people lodged a protest and jointly sent a questionnaire and demands for an apology to Kaneko.

“Ainu people have faced discrimination from childhood, but we have not surrendered to it and defended the cultural traditions of our ancestors,” the questionnaire said. “Do you still think that we have become extinct?”

Kaneko, a native of Chiba Prefecture, moved to Hokkaido about 15 years ago and was elected to the assembly in 2011 with the endorsement of the opposition Your Party. He joined a caucus of ruling Liberal Democratic Party members in May.

In September, the assembly adopted a resolution demanding that Kaneko resign.

He left the assembly members’ group, but he has refused to give up his assembly seat.

In a recent interview with The Asahi Shimbun, Kaneko again defended his remarks, arguing that the way in which Ainu heritage is determined lacks objectivity.

“An ethnic group means a group of people who have an indigenous language, religion and living practices and tend not to assimilate into other groups,” Kaneko said. “There isn’t a way to objectively prove that you are an Ainu.”

Masayuki Yamauchi, a historian and professor emeritus of the University of Tokyo, said Kaneko’s argument is archaic and based on an obsolete definition of an ethnic group.

Even if people lose their distinctive language and territory, they can still be seen as

an ethnic group if they maintain a sense of self-identification that they are culturally different from others, Yamauchi said.

The Ainu people are indigenous to Hokkaido, Sakhalin and the Kuril Islands and have maintained their original language and culture today.

After Japan started developing Hokkaido in the late 19th century, the discrimination and harsh treatment meted out to the Ainu took a toll on their living conditions and culture.

In its report released in 2009, the central government’s expert panel concluded that Ainu people have been deprived of their hunting grounds, fishing banks and habitation areas during the process of Hokkaido’s development. They continue to face discrimination and have been driven to live in poverty.

They have also lost many of their cultural traits, which were deemed as “evil customs,” and have been forced to assimilate into Japanese mainstream culture and society, the panel said.

In 2008, both houses of the Diet adopted the Resolution to Recognize the Ainu as an Indigenous People, officially acknowledging the Ainu as the original inhabitants of Japan.

According to a survey by the Hokkaido government, 16,786 Ainu people were living in Japan’s northern main island as of October 2013.

The government defines Ainu as “people who have blood ties with the Ainu ancestors in their communities and those who belong to the same household with the Ainu people through marriage and adoption.”

The Hokkaido government and municipalities have established programs to support the Ainu, such as low-interest mortgage loans and scholarships.

But the effects of the long history of discrimination remain. The poverty rate among Ainu is disproportionally high, as seen in their rate of receiving public livelihood assistance. The ratio of Ainu children who advance to high schools and universities is also lower than the national average.

Assemblyman Kaneko apparently opposes public support programs for Ainu people. He has said that cases exist in which Ainu people unjustly receive welfare assistance and fail to pay back public loans.

Yamauchi of the University of Tokyo said it is an “abrupt leap” to connect problems related to some welfare recipients with the issue of Ainu ethnicity.


Category: Ainu

Similar articles: