Academic journal article Southeast Review of Asian Studies

Ainu Submergence and Emergence: Human Rights Discourse and the Expression of Ethnicity in Modern Japan

Academic journal article Southeast Review of Asian Studies

Ainu Submergence and Emergence: Human Rights Discourse and the Expression of Ethnicity in Modern Japan

Article excerpt

The Ainu of northern Japan, long written off as a "dying" or "assimilated" ethnic group by both Japanese and Western scholars, have recently attempted to regenerate an identity through ties to other "First Nations" and appeals to human rights discourse. Only recently has the Japanese state reluctantly abandoned its long-held denial of Ainu claims as an indigenous group within a multicultural state. However, it remains to be seen if Ainu ethnopolitics and aspirations will move beyond the present "museum culture" to something more substantial than Hokkaido tourist attractions. This paper briefly surveys the literature on Ainu history, considers the Nibutani Dam court case and the struggle for the Ainu Shimpo (Ainu New Law) of 1997, and presents recent events of Ainu ethnic revival as a case study of human rights in an "Asian" context.

In the summer time most people are busy working, so you must be ready, if you want to see them dance and sing, to give them sake.--Tourist Guide to the Ainu Life, Hokkaido Government, 1927

Japan is a racially homogeneous nation and there is no discrimination against ethnic minorities with Japanese citizenship.--Prime Minister Nakasone, 1986

[Japan is] one nation, one civilization, one language, one culture and one race.--Foreign Minister Aso Taro, 2005


Today there are many ethnic groups struggling for recognition, autonomy, or even independence. Since 1948 many of these aspirational groups have relied on the emerging normative values of human rights espoused by the United Nations and other international organizations. In response, some Asian intellectuals and governments have postulated an "Asian" version of human rights, challenging the universality of "western" values. Even in Japan, a nation with relatively strong democratic and liberal values, there is resistance to recognizing human rights claims of burakumin (village people, an official euphemism for former outcastes), Koreans, Okinawans, and Ainu. It is this last group I will consider in this paper, in particular how they appropriate human rights discourse.

Long considered a "dying" or "assimilated" group, in recent decades Ainu spokesmen have regenerated a sense of identity and forged international ties with other "First Nations" to assert their cultural rights. Far from disappearing, Ainu are claiming a new role in modern Japan. However, it remains to be seen if this movement will move beyond a "museum culture" to something more meaningful in the daily lives of Ainu people.

Since the 1970s, at least within the "liberal" nation-states, there has been a flourishing of cultural politics: "ethnopolitics" or "multiculturalism." Stronger identification with the ethnic group poses possible conflict within the nation-state. These identities can be considered part of a broader issue-oriented emergence of civil society, and they can create their own social hierarchy in that indigenous elites seek funds and recognition through their interactions as subalterns with cosmopolitan NGOs and international agencies:

   While indigenous struggles are primarily locally focused, they have
   been globalised in the channels of international political
   organizations that have amplified their voices.... This produces a
   formidable contradiction in opening up a field of social identity
   for global representatives of the local. (1)

As we will see, the contemporary Ainu movement draws upon recognition of indigenous claims by the United Nations and groups such as the First Nations.

Frontier Ethnicity

There is a vast theoretical and empirical literature on this topic, so I set forth here only some of the major theories explaining the nation-state and identity to establish a conceptual framework for studying Asian frontier ethnicity. Frontier ethnic groups, located by definition on the margins of the nation-state, are more difficult to sustain if their economic systems involve transhumance or communities widely scattered over space. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.