Japan officially recognizes Ainu as indigenous people for first time

It’s a start.

TOKYO (AP) – Japan’s parliament voted Friday to recognize the Ainu ethnic group as the country’s indigenous people for the first time and urged steps to reverse a century of discrimination and poverty.

The votes in both houses of the Diet, Japan’s parliament, overcame a long-standing refusal to acknowledge that any other race predated the appearance of the Japanese in the archipelago.

The resolution is not binding, but is expected to lead to more concrete measures. It follows a law passed in 1997 that promoted Ainu culture and language but stopped short of bestowing indigenous status.

Recognition, of course, is one thing. Effective reconciliation, reparation and promoting integration without demanding assimilation are another, as we in Australia well know.

Many long years ago, when I was living in regional NSW, we had a Japanese exchange student living in the town for a year. M*******ko, quickly nicknamed Mitzi, took to laid-back Aussie ways with great enthusiasm, including our love of a tan (it was the very early years of Slip, Slop, Slap and many people had yet to get the message). Mitzi told us how her mother, a former beauty queen, was very strict about Mitzi going into the sun, as pale skin was essential for the beauty standard.

Mitzi was a big-grinning, stockily athletic girl. I presume she took after her father, as there was no way she was the delicate flower who could ever win a Japanese beauty parade. What we didn’t realise was quite how rebellious a streak Mitzi had, because we didn’t understand Japanese culture hardly at all. Mitzi developed a deep tan during her time with us, and as poodle perms were popular at the time she decided to get one. This meant that when her dainty pale mother came to visit she was greeted at the airport by a swarthy girl with curly hair, and she was hugely shocked. Mitzi told us this story with great glee, including how her paternal grandfather had made a point of approving of the change. When she saw our blank looks, she said “I look like Ainu”. Then it was the job of the resident walking encyclopaedia (aka moi) to explain to my mates who the Ainu were, but it still took me a while to understand.

Mitzi’s mother was very, very proud of her family heritage and the position the family held in an important corporate hierarchy. She was especially proud of all things quintessentially Japanese, and basically snobbery was her hobby (according to Mitzi). Mitzi’s lack of conventional prettiness was a huge disappointment to her, and she was always nagging Mitzi about all the feminine grooming rituals to ensure that she was pale and thin and her hair was just so. Mitzi was a natural tomboy, and such rituals and the nagging about the rituals made her miserable.

Mitzi may not have realised that developing a tan would make her look more Ainu than Nipponese, but once she did realise she kept on tanning, and the perm had to be a deliberate attempt to shock her mother. By making herself look as Ainu as possible, Mitzi set herself apart from the Japanese flower maiden aesthetic in an unspoken yet flagrantly defiant statement.

By all accounts, that level of attention to grooming to ensure that a Nipponese could never be mistaken for Ainu is very common in Japan. The prejudice runs very deeply, as prejudice so often does. The road to social justice is steep and uneven.

Categories: history, indigenous, relationships

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3 replies

  1. (I’m American – of Asian descent – so perhaps everyone should take this with a grain of salt.) The funny thing is – a lot of stereotypically Ainu physical traits are now considered beautiful in Japan and in Asia. For example, tallness, more prominent nose bridges, large eyes, sometimes lighter colored eyes or hair, or curly hair. It’s also damn good proof that nonwhite cultures did not always find “whiter” looks attractive.
    Of course, like the vogue for tans in the West and the simultaneous existence of racism, I’m sure that this does not affect Ainu people who suffer from racism.

  2. Ah yes, but I’m willing to put money that if someone was found to have Ainu heritage that ‘good’ prospects (eg work and marriage) would dwindle.
    It’s still not uncommon for families aware of where they want their social status to be to find out if potential spouses of their children have Korean, Untouchable, foreign or other undesirable heritage and oppose marraiges.
    I love Japan and most of the people, but I just want to go bang my head against the nearest brick wall when something like this comes up.

  3. This post is fascinating.

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