In the 19th Century, Japanese people called the northern island of Hokkaido “Ezochi”. It meant “Land of the Ainu”, a reference to the fair-skinned, long-haired people who had lived there for hundreds of years. The Ainu were hunters and fishermen with animist beliefs. But their communities and traditions were eroded by waves of Japanese settlement and subsequent assimilation policies.

Today only small numbers of Ainu remain, and they constitute one of Japan’s most marginalised groups. On Friday they will have something to celebrate. Japan’s parliament is to adopt a resolution that, for the first time, formally recognises the Ainu as “an indigenous people with a distinct language, religion and culture”.

In a nation that has always preferred to perceive itself as ethnically homogenous, it is a highly significant move. “This resolution has great meaning,” says Tadashi Kato, director of the Ainu Association of Hokkaido. “It has taken the Japanese government 140 years to recognise us as an indigenous people.”

There is no definitive theory as to where the Ainu came from. What is clear is that they have lived in Hokkaido and parts of the Russian Far East – the disputed Kurile Islands and southern Sakhalin Island – for hundreds of years.

Traditionally they lived off the land, worshipping natural landmarks and animals, especially bears. Japanese settlers started moving into Hokkaido in the 15th Century and gradually pushed the Ainu north. They brought infectious diseases and so Ainu populations fell. Then, when the Meiji government came to power in 1868, the pace of Japanese settlement increased.

Ainu land was redistributed to Japanese farmers. Ainu language was banned and children put into Japanese schools. Japanese names became compulsory. Finally, in 1899, the Japanese government passed an act which labelled the Ainu “former Aborigines”. The idea was that, henceforth, they would assimilate. This act stood for almost 100 years. Successive governments held that there was no “Ainu issue” and insisted that Japan did not have any ethnic minority groups.

Ainu culture was not seen as something to be celebrated or preserved, so many grew up ignorant or ashamed of their cultural heritage. Discrimination was and still is a problem – in schools, in the workplace and for marriage – with some Ainu choosing not to reveal their background. 

On Friday they will have something to celebrate. Click here to read more!