After suffering decades of discrimination, Japan’s Ainu minority community will officially be recognized - for the first time - as an Indigenous people, under the country’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party-Komeito coalition.
"It is important to protect the honor and dignity of the Ainu people and to hand those down to the next generation to realize a vibrant society with diverse values," top-level government spokesman, Yoshihide Suga, announced to reporters Friday.
“It feels like we woke up now from a truly deep sleep,” Tadashi Kato, chairman of the Ainu Association of Hokkaido, related to state broadcaster NHK. “It is significant in that it will lead to building a society where we cohabit together. We think this is the first step.”
The Ainu people have long been repressed by a forced-assimilation policy which has resulted in significant income and education gaps. In the late 19th century, Ainu communities were banned from freely practicing customs or using their language.
"Today we made a cabinet decision on a bill to proceed with policies to preserve the Ainu people's pride," Suga reassured, during the address.
The bill follows the 2008 parliamentary solution that initially recognized the Ainu as “an indigenous people with a distinct language, religion and culture” and will push for the government to make "forward-looking policies", such as boosting social service and local economies.
"It is the first step for ensuring equality under the law," Mikiko Maruko, a representative of a group of Ainu people in eastern Japan near Tokyo, said.
"There are lots of things to be done, for example, creating a scholarship for families who struggle to send their children to high schools."
According to a 2017 survey, the Ainu population is estimated to be 12,300 - a decrease from 25,000 in the 2000s. However, forced integration could significantly increase the current figure.
The Ainu are thought to be linked to three cultures: the ancient Jomon culture, the Satsumon which followed, and the Okhotsk culture from Russia’s far east.
Ainu people share genetic similarities to the Indigenous tribes on India’s Andaman Islands, peoples of Tibet and northern Myanmar, as well as the Ryukyuan of Okinawa. Currently, a small population of Ainu live on the Russian island of Sakhalin as well as disputed Kuril Islands.
Ainu tradition promotes an animist faith, with men wearing full beards and women applying facial tattoos before marriage. The new bill will permit the Ainu community - who mainly hunt, fish and farm - to access and cut down trees, from nationally owned forests, for rituals.
The Ainu, historically, fought unsuccessful wars against Japanese domination, and were eventually classified as “former aboriginal people,” given citizenship and forced to adopt Japanese names by an 1899 law after the annexation of Hokkaido.