Futons are burning: Is Japan ready to amend its colonial past?

Coming to terms with a complex history

Alison Wong

Society and culture, International relations | Asia, East Asia

26 April 2019

Alison Wong looks at the possibility of Japan reconciling its colonial legacy through the new Ainu recognition bill. 

On February 15, the Japanese Cabinet approved a bill recognising the Ainu as Indigenous peoples of Japan, the first time in legal documentation. This bill includes clauses that oblige the government to adopt policies to support and protect the cultural identity of the Ainu.

Moreover, there are now relaxed restrictions on Ainu traditions, and 1 billion yen is to be injected into tourism around their culture and traditions. Does this show a change in Japan’s attitudes towards its colonial past?

Throughout Japanese history, the Ainu people have endured various forms of discrimination from the predominant Yamato people. Under the Meiji restoration, the Ainu people were banned from practicing their customs and using their language. Though no longer banned, segregation, and later forced assimilation has caused serious threat to Ainu culture.

Japan also has an international history of subjugation through its colonial power in East Asia. From Taiwan to Vietnam, Korea to Papua New Guinea, the violence of locals under Japanese occupation has left varying levels of adversity against Japan. If Japan truly desires to reconcile the past, international issues will also be at the forefront of discussion.

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The current state of affairs between Japan and South Korea is dictated by this history, and can be seen as some of the worst in post-war history. The issue of comfort women has been a constant thorn in the post-war relationship between the two. Discourse between the two has stagnated on demanding and refusing apologies.

While the Japanese government has taken steps amending its past, the sincerity of its apologies often come under scrutiny. The Japanese government’s absence of reverence is crystallised in their lack of recognition and reparations in regards to the wartime comfort women. There is a possibility that the Ainu Recognition Bill will suffer the same fate. While some measures have been taken, this is seen as a product of international pressure, not because of any ‘genuine’ apology.

It is understandable then, that there are many reservations concerning the sincerity of the bill’s motivations for ameliorating relations. The bill does not give rights to land or territorial resources, and Mochihiro Ichikawa states that the bill is simply the “consummation of the assimilation policy”.

The New Ainu Policy, in its negligence to ensure Ainu self-determination and autonomy, is a continued failure of the Japanese to protect and ensure the rights of their Indigenous citizens.

In light of the 2020 Summer Olympics being hosted in Tokyo, this effort to create an image of improved relations can be viewed as a ploy of improving their international impression. Yuji Shimizu, adds that “positioning Ainu culture at the centre of proposals and measures to promote tourism is nothing other than a scheme to sacrifice or exploit Ainu as a resource for tourism.”

Instead of the government properly reckoning and apologising with its historical and contemporary injustices then, its approach to its Indigenous inhabitants is rather to disregard their rights, desires, and concerns and instead promote projects such as those in Northern Japan, which deceptively operate under such names as “the symbolic space for ethnic harmony”.

Though this bill could be a step in the right direction for Japan-Ainu relations, Japan still has a very long way if it is to paint itself as a nation which has fully reconciled with its past. Hopefully it can build upon this, but with the current state of east Asian international relations and lack of substantial domestic reform, this seems unlikely.

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