In what could be a landmark case for the Ainu of Japan, on 28 March 1997 a local court in Sapporo, Hokkaido, recognised the Ainu people as an indigenous and minority people.
Japan has been one among a number of Asian Governments that have denied that emerging international legal principles which recognise the rights of indigenous peoples apply to Asia.
The Ainu are the indigenous people of the islands of Honshu and Hokkaido, who have been gradually conquered by and assmilated into the expanding Japanese nation over several hundred years. Final annexation of the Ainu of Hokkaido by Japan did not take place until 1868 at which time the Japanese government unilaterally extended Japanese administration over the Ainu areas of Hokkaido and initiated a vigorous policy of assimilating the Ainu into Japanese society. However, despite these official intentions, the Ainu, who are considered to be of inferior status by mainstream Japanese, have been discriminated against and in recent years they have begun to assert control of their own affairs and demand respect for their rights and their identity as an indigenous people. The Ainu have also been protesting against the flooding of their ancestral lands by the Nibudani dam.
It remains to be seen whether the court ruling will lead to change in Japanese Government policy at the international level but the court's recognition that the Ainu people embody important cultural values which the Government should not deny will make it harder for the Government to ignore their rights.
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