By Henry Rogers
In Japan, Hokkaido has a reputation for being the place where everything is better: the beer, the skiing, the milk, the vegetables, even the hot springs. But the large northern island of the Japanese archipelago is also home to Japan’s indigenous minority, the Ainu, who have faced a long history of oppression by the Japanese government. Most recently, the Raporo Ainu Nation has been embroiled in an intense legal battle with the federal and local governments over fishing rights.
The Foreign Correspondents Club of Japan hosted a press conference on May 29th with indigenous representatives from Japan, Finland, and Canada. The leaders had just come from an international symposium hosted by the Raporo Ainu Nation.
The event, titled “The Indigenous Right to Catch Salmon in Rivers – A Gathering of Indigenous Peoples living with the Sea, Forests, and Rivers” was held in Urahoro, Hokkaido from May 26-28 and hosted representatives from around the world. All groups represented at the symposium have been battling their own fishing rights conflicts with their respective governments. The goal of this symposium was for indigenous groups to come together, share ideas, and learn from each others’ experiences working on this issue.
The Ainu are located in the north of Japan and some eastern Russian provinces. The Ainu are not Japanese and have different customs and traditions. The ancestors of the modern-day Ainu have lived in the region long before ethnic Russians and Yamato Japanese.
The Ainu have been living off the land since far before the Meiji restoration period in Japan. Deer and salmon have historically been their primary protein sources, but during the Meiji restoration, this changed. The Japanese government passed legislation banning the Ainu from hunting and fishing for their traditional foods. The government declared them poachers if they continued as they had before.
The Ainu have experienced severe discrimination at the hands of the Japanese government for hundreds of years. Democratization in the wake of World War II made it possible for the Ainu to successfully petition for increased rights and some policy changes. However, the government has yet to concede on the issue of salmon fishing.
Salmon is integral to the culture and traditions of the Ainu people and has been for centuries. And as stated by the leader of the Raporo Ainu tribe, “You cannot separate life from culture.” Right now, that separation is being forced on the Ainu people, for they are allowed to fish but are limited to only 200, and the fish is to be used for strictly ceremonial purposes. On top of the limitation for fishing, the Ainu now have to compete with commercial fishing corporations.
The Ainu have entered into a legal battle with both the local and federal governments in the hope to gain legal rights to fish salmon for traditional, cultural, and commercial purposes.
The press conference held on Monday features speakers Masaki Sashima, the president of the Raporo Ainu Nation; Aslak Holmberg, the president of the Saami Council in northern Europe (primarily Finland); and Russ Jones, the hereditary chief of the Haida Nation in Canada.
The two visiting leaders each brought their own expertise and knowledge to the table. Aslak Holmberg is a fisherman and fishing teacher who has been active in fighting for his nation’s fishing rights as well as other issues his community faces. Russ Jones is a commissioner on the Pacific Salmon Commission. He has extensive experience dealing with the Canadian government on behalf of the Haida Nation on indigenous rights, including fishing.
The conference’s main theme was unifying the different groups behind the Raporo Ainu Nation in their legal battle. The two visiting leaders made interesting comparisons highlighting that while their people have had similar struggles, the Ainu salmon case is unique. The leaders pointed out that in many cases of indigenous rights, the government removes access to a resource for everyone. But in the Ainu case, the government has restricted the nation’s access while granting access to corporations for commercial fishing.
Governments will often justify their oppression of tribes on the grounds of climate control or the preservation of nature. When asked what the justification for the Japanese government was, Masaki explained that there was no justification, just disrespect. He explained that the restriction does not have logic behind it, for there are areas of Japan and Hokkaido where people don’t have these restrictions.
Towards the end of the conference, Russ Jones acknowledged the sustainability concerns that have been used to defend the fishing restriction. He told the press they realize that fisheries are gradually moving due to climate change and that adapting to the changing environment is a pressing matter. However, he emphasized that salmon are in Hokkaido now, and the lawsuit should not be belittled or written off because of climate change.
The Japanese government’s mistreatment of the Ainu has put the future of the Ainu nation at risk. It is estimated that there are around 20 to 25 thousand Ainu left, and the population is declining.
The Ainu do not know when they will get a ruling in their legal case, but should receive developments within the next few months.