Their story is a depressingly familiar one. An ainu people live as hunter-gatherers practicing animist beliefs, before settlers sweep across their land, bringing disease and discrimination and almost wiping out their culture.
On Friday, the Ainu people in Japan took a step out of the shadows with a new bill approved by the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and Komeito party coalition. Once it is passed by parliament, it will finally recognize them as indigenous and ban discrimination against them.
“It feels like we woke up now from a truly deep sleep,” Tadashi Kato, chairman of the Ainu Association of Hokkaido, told state broadcaster NHK. “It is significant in that it will lead to building a society where we cohabit together. We think this is the first step.”
Before their assimilation into the wider Japanese population, Ainu men were known for their bushy beards, fair skins and deep-set, wide eyes under beetle brows. Ainu women would tattoo themselves around their mouths and sometimes on their forearms.
Ainu legend claims that they “lived in this place a hundred thousand years before the Children of the Sun came.” That may be an exaggeration, but what is clear is that waves of Japanese settlement pushed them to the margins of northern Hokkaido.
From the 13th century on, the Ainu fought a series of unsuccessful wars and rebellions against Japanese domination, while epidemics of smallpox and other diseases also decimated the population.
Under Japan’s Meiji Restoration in 1868 and its plans to modernize the country, Hokkaido was formally annexed, and an 1899 law classified the Ainu as “former aboriginal people.” They were given Japanese citizenship but forced to adopt Japanese names. Their land was taken away, their language outlawed and cultural practices such as animal sacrifices and tattooing banned.