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08:10 20 September 2014

OPINION: Remarks about Ainu put spotlight on gov't, hate speech issue

By Hideaki Uemura
TOKYO, Sept. 20, Kyodo

Remarks posted online recently by Sapporo assemblyman Yasuyuki Kaneko on Twitter that "There really is no such ethnic group as the Ainu people anymore now" and that "I don't know how to explain to taxpayers this absurdity that they (the Ainu) are constantly exercising their vested rights" have sparked controversy.

Mr. Kaneko is not showing any remorse. Fortunately, however, the reaction from the media and the general public has been very sensible, criticizing his actions as "shameful" and "naive and malicious acts that fan discrimination." Let me marshal the points in question to take a further look at how we should interpret this issue.

The first point is regarding the responsibility of Mr. Kaneko and the Liberal Democratic Party-led caucus he belonged to.

The United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination convened in Geneva, Switzerland, on Aug. 20-21, just a few days after the Kaneko remarks were made. Extensive discrimination issues in Japan were reviewed, among which one of the main agenda items was hate speech.

Hate speech refers to discriminatory expressions that incite hatred against certain groups of people in vulnerable positions in society, but the Japanese government explained that it would be difficult to regulate due to the freedom of expression. Many members on the panel noted that hate speech is not freedom of expression but clear "violence" that encourages discrimination and should be subject to legal restrictions.

The Ainu people have been subjected to discrimination under the oppression of the Japanese government amid its colonization of Hokkaido. Under the government policy of assimilation, implemented since the establishment of the Governor-General's Office for Hokkaido Development, they have long been deprived of and denied their own culture, language, traditional religion and values.

Mr. Kaneko's words, abusing the general definition of "ethnic group" as used by ethnologists, are "violence" that negates the "ethnic consciousness" that has been inherited by generations of Ainu people, as well as their efforts to revive their culture and traditions. Thus, his remarks correspond to "hate speech."

The Liberal Democratic Party has set up a task force to consider measures to address the issue of hate speech. Its quality would undoubtedly be called into question depending on how the party handles such a problem involving one of its members.

Incidentally, the Ainu people currently do not retain any rights whatsoever guaranteed under the law and Mr. Kaneko's claim that they "are constantly exercising their vested rights" is totally unfounded.

Another point deals with the responsibility of the Japanese government's Ainu policy itself.

Following the abolition of the Hokkaido Ex-Aborigines Protection Act and the enactment of the Ainu Culture Promotion Act in 1997, both houses of the Japanese parliament adopted in 2008 a resolution calling for the recognition of the Ainu people as an indigenous people.

The resolution acknowledged to a certain extent the history of the Ainu people as having been discriminated against and forced into poverty. It also stipulated that comprehensive policies be established in line with the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples adopted the preceding year. The Council for Ainu Policy Promotion was then set up under the Cabinet Secretariat in 2009 and continues until today.

However, policies implemented since the Council's establishment have tended to focus on the handing down of Ainu traditional culture and promotion of awareness among the general public.

The underlying premises -- verification by the government of the historical relationship between its colonization policies in the name of "Hokkaido development" and the Ainu people, as well as the issue of restoring their rights based on the findings of the verification -- have systematically been shelved.

Furthermore, the need for comprehensive measures for the Ainu people has been manipulatively replaced by the promotion of cultural policies at the government's desire. The Kaneko remarks can be seen as an "outcome" of such policies that place too much emphasis on the cultural aspect.

In order to once again establish the necessity of measures for the sake of the Ainu people, the government's verification of history in a responsible manner can be said to be essential in the prevention of such "hate speech" as seen in the remarks made this time.

Mr. Kaneko says it is necessary to provide an explanation to taxpayers. This kind of misunderstanding, which misses the point and defeats the whole purpose, springs from the use of tax money in implementing the policies. We should consider independent financial resources for ethnic policies, such as an Ainu Independence Fund as suggested by the Ainu people themselves in 1984.

(Hideaki Uemura, an expert in international human rights law and rights of indigenous peoples, is professor at Keisen University)




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