SAPPORO, Japan — Japan's aboriginal Ainu people have discovered a new pride in their ethnic heritage, thanks in part to the government's suggestion that they no longer exist.
By some measures, the government might have a case. Just 40 or so elderly Ainu still speak the Ainu language. And even fewer remember--let alone practice--the culture's complex animist beliefs and traditions.
Under a century-old Japanese policy of assimilation, virtually all Ainu now live as Japanese--if less affluently than others--and speak Japanese. In the face of decades of discrimination, many Ainu parents have been reluctant even to let their children know of their Ainu blood.
In recent months, however, Ainu leaders have acknowledged the danger that within a few years they could vanish altogether as a separate minority.
"We, the Ainu, are rising up, though a little late," wrote Ainu association leader Giichi Nomura in a complaint presented in early August to a United Nations commission in Geneva. It was the first time the Ainu had gone to a U.N. body to seek recognition and support.
The Ainu, who have lived in Japan for 3,000 to 4,000 years, were driven north by the Japanese from the main island of Honshu to Hokkaido Island, the northernmost island of Japan, starting in the 1400s. In the Meiji Era, beginning in 1868, the government resolved to absorb them into mainstream Japanese society, with the stated purpose of improving their economic prospects.
The Ainu are probably of Caucasian stock, being fair-skinned and round-eyed. Because the men have long, wavy hair and often wear beards, the Ainu have been called hairy, especially in contrast with their Mongoloid neighbors.
Their spoken language, in several dialects, is not related to any known tongue. There is no written language, but stories and songs have been passed orally from generation to generation.
Pure Ainu Dwindle
The Ainu now estimate their dwindling numbers at 57,000 to 100,000. The government puts the figure at 24,000. In any case, intermarriage with Japanese has meant a steady decline in pure Ainu.
Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone provoked the recent upsurge in Ainu consciousness last September when he said Japanese were better educated than Americans because Japan is a mono-ethnic culture, without minorities.
U.S. civil rights leaders vigorously protested, and Nakasone apologized. But in Parliament, Nakasone later said the Ainu had been largely absorbed and that "with my heavy beard, I'm sure I've got a lot of Ainu blood myself."
Nakasone's comments, implicitly denying the Ainus' existence, further "awakened anger and more pride and more interest among Ainu people," Nomura said.
Nakasone merely restated government policy. In 1980, in a report to the United Nations, the Japanese government said minority groups as defined in the U.N. covenant on civil and political rights "do not exist in Japan."
But Nomura notes that an 1899 law on the Ainu remains on the books--the Act for the Protection of the Former Primitive Inhabitants in Hokkaido. The law, granting parcels of land to Ainu and seizure if unfarmed within 15 years, still controls some Ainu land deals.
The association has proposed a substitute law, scrapping such provisions and recognizing that the Ainu have a distinct culture worthy of pride, as well as guaranteeing fishing and forestry rights.
Nomura said that persisting social and economic discrimination have discouraged Ainu culture in a nation that prizes uniformity and shuns outsiders.
Ainu Ordered to Shave
Asked whether discrimination persists today, Nomura cited several recent examples, some resulting from the Ainus' traditional hairiness. In one case, an Ainu pharmaceutical laboratory worker was ordered to shave his arms so that hair wouldn't fall into medicine. Word came to the association, but the man refused to let the case be publicized and left the job.
"I think, in general, that reflects the attitude of the Japanese people toward the Ainu," Nomura said.
Hiroshi Ibata, secretary general of the organization, said that job discrimination is also common. And twice as many Ainu families as Japanese earn incomes below the minimum for filing income tax returns.
In a survey of Ainu by the Hokkaido government last year, 72% said they had experienced discrimination, and 61% said they still feel they are targets of discrimination, Ibata said.
Split Into 2 Groups
Mayumi Aoyama, a director of an Ainu museum in the southern Hokkaido village of Shiraoi, said the Ainu remain split into two groups.
"One says we should be proud of our traditional culture and learn more about it," Aoyama said. "The other group says that if we draw attention to our Ainu background that will increase discrimination, and we are Japanese now.
"Some parents are still ashamed of being Ainu, and they don't even tell their children that they are Ainu."
Last November, the Ainu asked the United Nations to seek a declaration from Japan that the Ainu do indeed exist and merit cultural protection.