TOKYO — Japan's Ainu people were recognized as the country's original inhabitants Thursday when parliament voted to replace a century-old law that had forced them to assimilate.
The unanimous passage of the law by the lower house followed a precedent-setting court ruling in March favoring Ainu land rights and comments by Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto recognizing the Ainu as Japan's indigenous people.
"For the first time, the Ainu people are recognized as our country's indigenous race under Japan's legal system," Gov. Tatsuya Hori of Japan's northern main island of Hokkaido said Thursday.
The United Nations recognized the Ainu as a native people in 1992, but they still face discrimination in jobs and marriage in Japan.
Japan long has portrayed itself as a racially homogeneous country. Legends of its origin say the Japanese descended unchanged from ancients ruled by gods, with no mention of the Ainu, who are culturally distinct from the dominant population.
Archeologists generally agree that the Japanese are a combination of peoples heavily influenced by migrations from China and Korea.
The Ainu originally populated much of Japan as well as Russia's Sakhalin peninsula and the Kuril Islands. Since the 18th century, the Ainu in Japan have been largely confined to Hokkaido.
Many intermarried with Japanese settlers and let their traditions die under pressure to assimilate.
There are 24,000 Ainu living in Hokkaido, according to a 1993 survey. But the Ainu Assn. of Hokkaido says the number could be several times larger, since most do not identify themselves as Ainu to avoid discrimination. Japan's total population is about 125 million.
"The new law is a seedling that will begin to grow rapidly," said Shigeru Kayano, Japan's first Ainu lawmaker.
Thursday's passage in the 500-member House of Representatives followed a similar action by the 252-member upper house on April 9.
The new law takes effect in three months.