Japan Enacts a Law to Protect the Ainu People Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

After a long history of legislation ostensibly enacted to meet Ainu demands for human rights, political participation, and self-reliance as a recognized people, Japan passed a new law that appeared to shift the emphasis to the promotion of the Ainu culture and dissemination of knowledge about Ainu traditions.

Summary of Event

The Ainu people were the original inhabitants of Japan’s northern island of Hokkaidō. They had a distinct hunting, fishing, and gathering culture, and the Ainu lifestyle was closely tied to the natural and spiritual environment. This situation changed in the fifteenth century, when Japanese from the large island of Honshū crossed over into Ainu territory and began trading with the local people. The Japanese exploited the Ainu economically and ignored their social customs. The Ainu often resisted these inroads into their culture and well-being, but their efforts were not successful. Nevertheless, many Ainu remained determined to maintain connections to their people’s heritage. Ainu rights (Japan) Japan;Ainu rights Cultural Promotion Act (Japan, 1997) Act for the Promotion of Ainu Culture and the Dissemination of Knowledge Regarding Ainu Traditions (Japan, 1997) [kw]Japan Enacts a Law to Protect the Ainu People (July 1, 1997) [kw]Law to Protect the Ainu People, Japan Enacts a (July 1, 1997) [kw]Ainu People, Japan Enacts a Law to Protect the (July 1, 1997) Ainu rights (Japan) Japan;Ainu rights Cultural Promotion Act (Japan, 1997) Act for the Promotion of Ainu Culture and the Dissemination of Knowledge Regarding Ainu Traditions (Japan, 1997) [g]East Asia;July 1, 1997: Japan Enacts a Law to Protect the Ainu People[09740] [g]Japan;July 1, 1997: Japan Enacts a Law to Protect the Ainu People[09740] [c]Indigenous peoples’ rights;July 1, 1997: Japan Enacts a Law to Protect the Ainu People[09740] [c]Laws, acts, and legal history;July 1, 1997: Japan Enacts a Law to Protect the Ainu People[09740] Nomura, Giichi Murayama, Tomiichi Kayano, Shigeru Igarashi, Kozo

Gradually, the Japanese government took over administration of the Ainu, banned the traditional Ainu lifestyle, and required the Ainu to use the Japanese language and to adopt Japanese culture. In 1899, the Japanese government passed the Hokkaidō Kyūdojin Protection Act (kyūdojin translates as “former aborigines”). Although the government publicized the act as protective, it proved to be an indirect way for Japan to legalize its policies of colonization and assimilation. No further action was taken to change the status of the Ainu for almost another half century.

In 1946, a number of concerned Ainu formed the Ainu Association of Hokkaidō Ainu Association of Hokkaidō for the purpose of finding ways to eliminate discrimination against the Ainu people, to improve their employment prospects and education, and to initiate needed welfare services. It became evident, however, that the association’s efforts were not sufficient to bring about changes in the long-standing pattern of discrimination. Real progress would be made only if the group could break down the basic structure of Japan’s one-hundred-year-old assimilation policies.

By 1984, the Ainu Association of Hokkaidō, then under the leadership of Giichi Nomura, had grown considerably. During that year, the group drafted a proposal for a new law that would require the government to take responsibility for having forced assimilation policy on the Ainu and to grant the Ainu rights as an indigenous people. The governor and the prefectural parliament of Hokkaidō voted in favor of enacting the law in 1988, but when it was sent to the central government, an interministerial committee was formed to consider new legislation in 1989, and the matter was never taken up.

It appeared in 1993 that change might be coming. First, the United Nations designated 1993 the International Year for the World’s Indigenous People. International Year for the World’s Indigenous People, U.N. (1993) Then, for the first time in forty years, the Liberal Democratic Party lost its power in the Japanese government, replaced by the Japan Socialist Party, led by Tomiichi Murayama. The following year, in 1994, Shigeru Kayano became the first Ainu to be elected to the national Diet (Japan’s parliament). Kayano was an activist in the Ainu ethnic movement; he had been one of the parties to a lawsuit in the Sapporo District Court that sought to reverse a decision of the Hokkaidō Land Expropriation Commission to allow the government’s taking of land that Kayano owned for a dam project on the Saru River.

Japan’s chief cabinet secretary at the time, Kozo Igarashi, a politician from the Hokkaidō city of Asahikawa, was a friend of Kayano, and Igarashi lost no time in establishing the Ruling Parties Project Team for Consideration of the New Ainu Law, although there was considerable opposition to this move by a number of bureaucrats. The team then set up the Council of Experts on Implementation of Countermeasures for the Ainu People, Council of Experts on Implementation of Countermeasures for the Ainu People an ad hoc consultative group, in 1995. The Council of Experts met eleven times and held hearings with prominent experts on the Ainu issue; members also visited Hokkaidō for further fact gathering before submitting the council’s report on April 1, 1996. This report became the basis for the Act for the Promotion of Ainu Culture and the Dissemination of Knowledge Regarding Ainu Traditions, also known as the Cultural Promotion Act.

By the end of January, 1997, a draft of the Cultural Promotion Act was ready for presentation and explanation by the officials of the Hokkaidō Development Agency. A special meeting of the directors of the Council of Experts was held for this purpose, and the council gave its qualified approval. The cabinet accepted the draft in March, followed by the unanimous approval of the Cabinet Committee of the House of Councillors in April and of the Cabinet Committee of the House of Representatives in May. The act became effective on July 1, 1997.

The act stated that Japan will respect the Ainu’s pride in being Ainu and support the Ainu people by disseminating knowledge about Ainu traditions and culture. The act defined “Ainu culture” as the Ainu language, music, dance, crafts, and other “cultural derivatives” that the Ainu have perpetuated or will in the future. It mandated that national and regional government bodies respect the will and ethnic pride of the Ainu in promoting their culture, but it gave the prime minister the power to establish fundamental policy, the tenets of which were general ones about prescribing ways to promote Ainu culture. The law also addressed the restoration of communal properties to their owners and designated the process for doing so.

The act allowed the secretary of the Hokkaidō Development Bureau and the Japanese minister of education to appoint one Japanese juridical person to promote awareness of Ainu traditions and to monitor those who participate in such promotion. The law further provided for reports, inspections, and monitoring by the appointed juridical person as well as for revocation of the appointment and the levying of fines against that person for failure to make required reports or making false reports. Supplemental provisions of the Cultural Promotion Act repealed the 1899 Hokkaidō Kyūdojin Protection Act and the 1934 Act for the Protection of Land Disposition of the Indigenous People of Asahikawa (the location of a major concentration of Ainu in Hokkaidō).


The 1997 Cultural Promotion Act had both positive and negative impacts. When the law was enacted, it was hailed as a genuine effort to redress past injustices. It appeared to grant the Ainu recognition as an indigenous people of Japan and to promise respect for their distinct culture. In addition to repealing “protection” laws passed in 1899 and 1934, the Cultural Promotion Act partially amended the 1947 District Government Act, the 1949 Ministry of Education Enabling Act, and the 1950 Hokkaidō Development Act—all necessary to clear the way for the provisions of the new act. Rulings were made that recognized the Ainu people as an indigenous people, as that term is defined by the United Nations.

As time passed, however, it became clear that the Japanese government in fact recognized the Ainu only as an ethnic minority, not as an indigenous people with inherent rights. The Ainu people continued to struggle for substantive rights and for true recognition as an indigenous people. Ainu rights (Japan) Japan;Ainu rights Cultural Promotion Act (Japan, 1997) Act for the Promotion of Ainu Culture and the Dissemination of Knowledge Regarding Ainu Traditions (Japan, 1997)

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kayano, Shigeru. Our Land Was a Forest: An Ainu Memoir. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1994. Memoir outlines the author’s substantial role as a leader in the Ainu’s struggle for appropriate recognition.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Nettle, Daniel, and Suzanne Romaine. Vanishing Voices: The Extinction of the World’s Languages. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000. Discussion of dead and dying languages around the world includes a recounting of the premodern history of the Ainu and their struggle to retain language, culture, and ethnic identity.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Siddle, Richard. “An Epoch-Making Event? The 1997 Ainu Cultural Promotion Act and Its Impact.” Japan Forum 14, no. 3 (2002): 405-423. Outlines the history leading up to the act and discusses the act’s impacts on all areas of Ainu life. Concludes that although passage of the act appeared to signal a new attitude toward the Ainu, the act may in fact have had negative effects on Ainu identity.

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Categories: History