From Dying Race to Indigenous People: the struggle over Ainu representation in modern Japan – Richard Siddle

The Ainu are the indigenous people of northern Japan. This may appear a straightforward statement; after all, the subordination and dispossession of the Ainu under a colonial regime in Hokkaido has numerous parallels among other Fourth World populations like Native Americans, Australian Aborigines, Inuit, Maori, Sami and others. Sparked into political activism by the wave of worldwide decolonisation that followed the Second World War, many internally colonised ‘native’ or ‘tribal’ populations have redefined themselves as ‘indigenous peoples’. The Ainu share a common history with these groups. Dispossessed of their ancestral land and resources by the expansion of a vigorous colonial state, traditional lifeways collapsed as hunting and fishing territories were settled by waves of immigrants and transformed into agricultural land. Government policies of relocation and assimilation aimed at the eventual extinction of the Ainu as a people, aided by a system of ‘native education’ that actively discouraged Ainu language and customs. Parallel to this economic, political and social marginalisation was an ideological discourse proclaimed by officials, scholars and educators that represented the Ainu as a ‘dying race’ (horobiyuku minzoku), primitive savages with no place in the modern world.

Nevertheless, the Ainu have refused to passively acquiesce to this dominant stereotype. At the beginning of the twenty first century the cultural symbols of a revitalised and contemporary Ainu identity have become prominent as Ainu activists press their claims on the basis of their distinct indigenous ethnicity. This talk will provide an overview of modern Ainu history and introduce the Ainu struggle for rights and identity as an indigenous people that has been underway since the 1960s and peaked with the enactment of the controversial and divisive Ainu Cultural Promotion Act in 1997. Although finally recognised by the Japanese government as an indigenous people in 2008, Ainu, as both individuals and an ethnic group, still face challenges in today’s Japan, not least over the authenticity of a contemporary Ainu identity.

Date: Monday 20 March 2017, 6.45pm
Venue: The Swedenborg Society, 20-21 Bloomsbury Way, London WC1A 2TH

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