“Ainu Factor” in Japan’s Expansionist Strategy

P 17.03.2020 U Valery Kulikov

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Nowadays, Japan is viewed as a country with a seemingly good economy. And the Japanese yen has long had a reputation of being a trusted currency that people convert their savings into in difficult times in order to avoid losing their money. But, at the same time, the nation is facing many problems with its economy, the environment and within society, such as population aging to an unprecedented degree as young people reject traditional values, which all pose a serious threat to the prosperity of the nation.

Various approaches are being used to resolve these ongoing issues. In Japan, they involve the development of a sense of national identity with the aid of ideology. Recently, Tokyo’s priority has been to stoke nationalist sentiments in Japan on the basis of its territorial disputes (not only with Russia but the PRC, South Korea and even Antarctica) and to promote national unity by taking advantage of the “Ainu factor”.

The Ainu or the Aynu are an indigenous people of Japan. Currently, most of the Ainu (approximately 25,000 people) in Japan live on the island of Hokkaido. Earlier, they also inhabited Russia’s territories, i.e. the lower reaches of the Amur river, the southern parts of the Kamchatka Peninsula, Sakhalin and the Kuril Islands. Recent scientific studies suggest that the predecessors of the Ainu (the so-called Jōmon people) were possibly some of the first people to inhabit the Japanese archipelago, where they lived as far back as 7,000 years ago or more. Ancestors of modern Japanese people were Mongoloid tribes who supposedly arrived in Japan’s current territories after the Ainu people had already explored and inhabited most of them. Two large regional powers at the time, i.e. the Russian Empire and Japan, then began to compete for the Far Eastern lands where the Ainu lived. It is thus not surprising that the “Ainu factor” has been playing an important role in the history of Japan–Russia relations.

In addition, according to numerous archived records, Russians and the Japanese treated the Ainu people in, essentially, diametrically opposed ways. Unfortunately, the fate of the Ainu was, in many ways, tragic, because of policies pursued by Mongoloid tribes during the ancient Yamato period aimed at exploring and acquiring new lands. Later on, the Ainu battled against the increasingly powerful onslaught by samurai clans from northern Japan. This led to a gradual decline of the Ainu civilization (as a separate ethnic group) that continued after the Meiji Restoration in 1868, which marked the beginning of the modern Japanese state.

Hostility against the Ainu people in Japanese territories, such as physical violence against their communities; disruption of their customary social and economic structures and cultural traditions; eradication of their natural environment; discrimination; forced relocation and assimilation, is well documented by historians, archeologists, ethnographers, anthropologists and linguists. All of this contributed not only to an almost complete disappearance of Ainu’s unique deeply ingrained way of life in Japan but also its total annihilation by the first half of the XX century.

Even in previous centuries, the Ainu had periodically been the topic of discussions between diplomats from the Russian Empire and the land of the rising sun. The Japanese side had felt compelled to admit that many of the territories it laid claim to were inhabited by the Ainu people who wished to become subjects of the Russian Empire and such wishes were granted. The Foreign Policy Archives of the Russian Federation (AVP RF), overseen by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Russia, contain a document concerning negotiations between Count Nikolay Pavlovich Ignatyev, the head of the Russian Empire Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ Asian department, and Japanese envoy Takenouti, who when so requested by the Count was unable to write the name of the Sakhalin island using Kanji characters because it was Ainu in origin and had to be written using special characters.

After Japan’s defeat in World War II, South Sakhalin and the Kuril Islands, where some of the Ainu people lived, became a part of the Soviet Union in accordance with international agreements. The Japanese repatriated some of the Ainu, many by force, from the aforementioned territories. They were brought to some of the most uninhabited regions of the island of Hokkaido. During the first few years after their relocation from Sakhalin, almost a half of the Ainu people died because of harsh living conditions and illnesses. The Japanese government was even compelled to admit to “the historical fact that many Ainu were discriminated against and forced into poverty with the advancement of modernization, despite being legally equal to (Japanese) people”. But this did not in any way change the situation or increase Japanese people’s awareness of this issue because, by then all the Ainu people had completely assimilated into the local culture (i.e. had become “Japanized”) and were no different from any other Japanese people.

Nowadays, as tensions caused by Japan’s recent territorial claims to Russia’s lands are rising, in order to heighten them further within the Japanese society, the ruling elite began to re-focus on the “Ainu factor” in its policies and nationalist rhetoric.  With such aims in mind, the government increased measures to support the Ainu people, and a bill that “officially recognized the Ainu of Hokkaido as an ‘indigenous’ people of Japan” to be treated with dignity and respect, was passed on 19 April 2019. Afterwards, the government launched an information campaign throughout Japan in order to supposedly implement socio-economic measures meant to strengthen the Ainu’s “local economies and bring visibility to their culture”, in accordance with the Act Promoting Measures to Achieve a Society in which the Pride of Ainu People is Respected that came into effect in May 2019.

The Symbolic Spaces for Ethnic Harmony, the largest national center for promoting Ainu history and culture, is set to open in April, in Shiraoi, a town in Hokkaido. The opposition has portrayed these efforts as an attempt by the Shinzō Abe administration to exploit Ainu culture and history for its own gain. In January, Japanese media outlets published articles in English expressing skepticism about the government’s ability to attract interest to the center in Japan and within the global community. Based on the conducted survey, only 6% of the respondents outside the prefecture had heard about the launch of the initiative. The authors thus concluded that the government estimates that approximately 1 million people per year would visit the center were clearly too high.

Most of the Ainu people living in Japan have expressed their opposition to such steps taken by the government. They view them as an insult to their history since these measures are aimed at concealing information about the oppression faced by the Ainu people, and contribute to the loss of their national identity. Various national parks and ethnic settlements had been set up in Hokkaido before, but from the viewpoint of Ainu activists, such initiatives have little to do with their actual past and are aimed at rewriting history only.

Valery Kulikov, political analyst, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.


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