The Japanese government has endorsed a bill to officially recognize the Ainu ethnic minority as an indigenous people of Japan for the first time and calls for “the creation of a society in which they can take pride in their heritage.” However, the move may have come too late to save the Ainu language, now spoken by only a handful of people.
The bill includes a subsidy program for regional revitalization to help local authorities implement projects to promote Ainu culture. It also calls for deregulation to make it easier for the Ainu people to gather wood in state-owned forests and catch salmon in local rivers, as part of efforts to help them preserve their cultural traditions.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said it is necessary to ensure that the Ainu people can maintain their dignity if Japan wants to be a vibrant society where diverse values are respected. He said the government will intervene to help the Ainu tackle new challenges.
Tadashi Kato, of the Ainu Association of Hokkaido, praised the move as a first step toward the harmonious coexistence of his people and other Japanese, but he hastened to add that the bill does not include provisions to improve the Ainu's living standards.
The bill still needs to be passed by the Diet (Japan’s legislature) which will likely happen during the current session.
In 2008, the Diet passed a bipartisan, non-binding resolution calling upon the government to recognize the Ainu people as indigenous to Japan, and urging an end to discrimination against the group. The resolution recognized the Ainu people as "an indigenous people with a distinct language, religion and culture". The government immediately followed with a statement acknowledging its recognition, stating, "The government would like to solemnly accept the historical fact that many Ainu were discriminated against and forced into poverty with the advancement of modernization, despite being legally equal to (Japanese) people."
Ainu is a language isolate, unrelated to any other language, spoken only on the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido by less than a hundred people. It was once spoken in the Kurile Islands, the northern part of Honshu and the southern half of Sakhalin, which is now part of Russia. Shigeru Kayano, who died in 2006, did much of the ground work in the Ainu ethnic movement in Japan. Despite having no formal education, he was the first Ainu politician to sit in the Diet, serving five terms in the assembly before taking over a vacated seat in the upper house. In the Diet, he often posed questions in the Ainu language.