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Home » Archives » October 2007 » Ainu leader Tadashi Kato on the UN's 2007 Resolution on Indigenous Rights

Ainu leader Tadashi Kato on the UN's 2007 Resolution on Indigenous Rights

Monday, October 15, 2007 Posted: 11:16 AM JST

(by Jean Miyake Downey) - Most people don't realize that most (70%) of the world's 370 million indigenous people live in the Asia/Pacific region, because indigenous people from North and Latin America, Australia, and New Zealand have dominated global discourse on indigenous issues. Also, the policies of many Asia/Pacific nations have obscured the presence and suppressed the voices of their indigenous populations.

International legal researcher Barbara Siee's article "Indigenous peoples at the global level" and Gerard A. Persoon's "Indigenous peoples and rights to resources in Asia" in the IIAS (International Institute of Asian Studies) November 2004 newsletter provides an excellent overview of the international discourse of indigenous people. She notes that in past years, indigenous peoples have finally become valued members in international community, and visionary leaders in environmental, biodiversity, and human rights issues:

"Today indigenous representatives are active and respected participants in the international debate in contrast to some years ago when attention noticeably drifted off as another indigenous representative pointed an accusing finger at the developed world to point out the injustices they have suffered. Indigenous peoples have much to offer in terms of norms and values respecting nature and its use...

Since the 1980's, indigenous peoples have made advances in the human rights arena. The UN Draft Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples is probably the most progressive document on indigenous rights formulated so far. It was passed by the UN Working Group on Indigenous Populations and the UN Sub-Commission for the Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities during the UN Year for Indigenous Peoples (1993)..."


Siee mentions several Asian nations that hesitated to support developments that specify an important role for indigenous and local communities, citing the Malaysian government which hindered this process in Montreal regarding the AKWE:KON Guidelines on the determination of and policies towards indigenous sacred sites.

While indigenous people have gained a higher global profile than they experienced the the past, The International Decade of Indigenous People, an UN endeavor, is now in its second decade after the first decade, 1994-2004, ended to mixed reviews, according to the National Geographic:

"While indigenous issues are receiving more political attention worldwide, observers say that most indigenous people remain mired in poverty. Hunter-gatherer groups, in particular, are facing persecution and attacks on their way of life.

'A lot of people only pay lip service to the indigenous issues,' said Fiona Watson, a research and campaigns coordinator with Survival International, a London-based human rights group. 'Governments come up with policies, but often those policies are not enforced.'

There are some 300 million indigenous people in over 70 countries worldwide. They were the first known humans in their regions, from the Amazon jungle to the Arctic. For centuries most lived isolated lives.

Industrialization changed that, as millions of indigenous people were forced off their land to make way for everything from farmland to mines.

Experts say that a loss of land is still the greatest challenge to hunter-gatherers and other indigenous people."


Land rights and the reluctance to address past abuses, including ethnic cleansing and genocide, continue to block genuine reconciliation between surviving indigenous peoples and those who now populate their lands.

Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and the United States, all "settler nations" in which European immigrants violently seized indigenous territories, and instituted abusive policies against indigenous people that some say continue to lesser extent to this day, voted against the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People. Eleven other nations abstained: Azerbaijan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Burundi, Colombia, Georgia, Kenya, Nigeria, Russian Federation, Samoa, and the Ukraine. However, 143 countries voted overwhelming for the Declaration, adopted on September 13, 2007.

The Declaration addresses both individual and collective rights, cultural rights and identity, rights to education, health, employment, and language. It explicitly encourages cooperative relations between states and indigenous Peoples. It prohibits discrimination against indigenous peoples and promotes their full and effective participation in all matters that concern them.

Jennifer Brea at Global Voices has posted a fascinating collection of responses from around the world.

Japan supported the Declaration, however, at the same time, Minister of Foreign Affairs Nobutaka Machimura reiterated the Japanese government's stance that it does not recognize the Ainu as an indigenous people, a slippery take which allows Japan to align with the high ground of the Declaration, but also to skirt the issue of its own policies towards the Ainu people:

"Japan has not come to the conclusion that the Ainu people are an indigenous people. One reason is because there has yet to emerge a consensus from international discussions on how to define what exactly is an indigenous people. Furthermore, because there are many ministries and agencies involved and each of them has currently expressed their respective views we are not currently in a position to be able to state as a conclusion that the Ainu people are an indigenous people."

Tadashi Kato, head of the Ainu Association of Hokkaido, responded in an editorial at the Asahi Shimbun on October 3:

"Recognizing the rights of indigenous people who have been deprived of their land and resources and whose ethnic identity and cultures were denied in the process of forming modern states is now a trend in international society. In the case of Japan, it must address the problem of the Ainu people, forced to accept the government's policy of assimilation since the Meiji Era (1868-1912).

The Ainu Association of Hokkaido, the largest Ainu association, has fought for rights as an indigenous people at every opportunity. For example, at the inauguration ceremony to mark the International Year of the World's Indigenous People in 1993 designated by the United Nations, the then executive director of the association, Giichi Nomura, gave a speech about the rights of indigenous people.

But, to date, the Japanese government has refused to recognize the Ainu as an indigenous people on grounds that the United Nations' definition of indigenous peoples is vague.

In 1997, the government abolished the 'Hokkaido former aborigine protection law,' which was established in 1899 based on a philosophy of assimilation. It was replaced with a law designed to promote the Ainu culture. But the law failed to spell out concrete measures to rectify disparities between the Ainu and the rest of Japanese society.

Moreover, because of growing budget deficits, it has become increasingly difficult to secure budgets for Ainu-related projects and the situation is now in a critical state. Measures to promote education and employment are not making progress as expected, either. In short, all the government did was enact a law calling for the promotion of 'Ainu culture.'

Meanwhile, in the Nibudani Dam case, in which the Ainu people sued the government for expropriating and flooding their ancestral lands in 1997, the Sapporo District Court recognized the Ainu as an indigenous people, citing the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights to which Japan is also a party.

Various United Nations organizations also continue to press Japan to recognize the Ainu as an indigenous people.

The United Nations General Assembly also adopted the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples on Sept. 13 with an overwhelming majority.

The Japanese government should seize the opportunity to move ahead and recognize the Ainu as an indigenous people. Moreover, I urge the government to set up a council to deliberate various issues surrounding the Ainu. The Ainu problem is also part of the issue of building an environment and a basic framework of "human rights" in Japanese society.

Recent historical research has revealed that during the Meiji Era, the Japanese government positioned Hokkaido as a colony and treated the Ainu who lived there as an indigenous people...

Japan's policy of colonizing surrounding areas started with the colonization of lands inhabited by the Ainu for generations. Admitting this fact also leads to truly putting an end to Japan's past imperialism."


Keiji Hirano's October 13 Ainu hope UN move aids indigenous status quest in the Japan Times provides some more takes from Kato and background on how historical discrimination has impacted the lives of contemporary Ainu:

"... We are not seeking the return of our land or independence from Japan," the leader of the largest Ainu group said. "We hope the government will apologize for depriving us of our land, culture and language by recognizing us as indigenous people.

Under the government's assimilation policies and a lack of consideration for their ethnicity, the Ainu have led underprivileged lives..."


Hirano's article also mentions the issue of the Kuriles, along with Sakhalin and the Aleutians, a centuries-old homeland of indigenous peoples, including the Ainu, which is now in a land dispute between two nation states: Japan and Russia (the imperial Russian and Soviet seizure of Asian lands and oppression of indigenous peoples is one of the most horrifying chapters in global mistreatment of indigenous peoples, legitimated by Russia's version of the "civilizing mission" masking violence and abuse, that parallels the histories of North America, Australia, New Zealand, and northern Japan), and how Ainu leaders are attempting to establish their rightful place in these discussions.

Jean Miyake Downey is a contributing editor at the Kyoto Journal: Perspectives on Asia (www.kyotojournal.org), an award-winning English-language quarterly published in Kyoto, Japan. She covers multicultural and transnational issues. Drawing on her background as a sociologist and lawyer, she takes an interdisciplinary look at the nexuses between historical and contemporary hybridity and fusion; global cultural trauma and historical healing; the revival and survival of traditional and indigenous cultures; and global human rights movements.

Keywords: opinion_item

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