Discrimination and inertia slow use of Ainu grants, two years after launch

Hirofumi Kato, head of the Center for Ainu & Indigenous Studies at Hokkaido University

More than two years have passed since the first law recognizing the Ainu ethnic minority as an Indigenous people took effect in May 2019, with that legislation designed to protect and promote their culture through subsidies.

A total of ¥5 billion has been budgeted under the new law for grants to promote Ainu policies for fiscal 2019 to 2021, with 31 cities and towns, 30 of which are in Hokkaido, having received the subsidies.

But in reality, it is only the cities, towns and villages that were already actively working to preserve Ainu culture that have been making use of the financial assistance, widening the gap among local governments.

And with the Ainu people still facing discrimination, some members of the ethnic group are reluctant to use the grant money, saying that they do not want to attract attention.

“We are able to conduct projects that we’ve been wanting to do for a long time — the grant has finally made it possible,” said Hidehiko Kimura, who chairs the Biratori branch of the Ainu Association in Hokkaido.

Prior to the law, they had to give up on many projects due to budget constraints. But thanks to the subsidy, they began cultivating plants traditionally used by the Ainu people to weave clothes and carpets — typha latifolia and ulmus laciniata — from fiscal 2019. They are also restoring forests for Blakiston’s fish owls, which are believed to be the guardian deity of Ainu villages.

The law stipulates that the Ainu people are an Indigenous people and calls for the realization of a society in which they can live with pride.

The grant was established to promote the revival and continuation of Ainu culture, as well as regional development in cooperation with the Ainu people. If municipalities draft multiyear plans and receive government approval, 80% of a project’s costs will be covered by the grants.

In fiscal 2019, the government provided ¥730 million, followed by ¥1.68 billion in fiscal 2020. For the year that started in April, ¥2.68 billion has been allocated, of which ¥1.98 billion was distributed that month. The second round of grants for the remaining ¥700 million will be decided in mid-July if there are more applications.

The basic principle of the new law is to “respect the voluntary will of the Ainu people.” To realize this, however, it is crucial that local governments formulate plans by closely working with the Ainu people, and one group is based in Biratori town.

For more than 10 years, Biratori has held committee meetings where the town, the town council and the Ainu association exchange opinions, making the necessary planning for grant applications go smoothly.

“We have a lot of experience and trust with the association, so we are making good progress,” said Kazutoshi Matsushima, manager of the town’s Ainu policy promotion division.

For the current fiscal year, the town has received ¥439 million, the highest amount in Japan, and plans to start construction of an Ainu cultural exchange center in the Nibutani area, which will be used to train new leaders in promoting Ainu culture.

This fiscal year, the city of Kushiro, which has an Ainu village on the shores of Lake Akan, is receiving ¥294 million, and Shiraoi town, which has a national Ainu cultural revival center called Upopoi, is getting ¥170 million.

However, these efforts are limited to municipalities that had been actively involved in Ainu policies prior to the law.

“We have never been involved in Ainu-related projects, so we honestly don’t know where to start,” a local government official in central Hokkaido said.

In the case of Honbetsu town, a local Ainu association is getting the cold shoulder from the town in relation to its request to build a traditional chise house to be used for ceremonies.

The town explained that it will take time to draw up a plan due to the coronavirus pandemic, saying that “we cannot proceed without hearing the opinions of local residents.” Private organizations are not allowed to apply for a grant on their own.

“It is unfortunate that it is up to the local municipality whether a grant can be utilized,” said Tetsuya Ogawa, 49, chairman of the Honbetsu Ainu association.

The Ainu, meanwhile, fear that using the subsidy will invite criticism and hate speech against them.

Even though the law prohibits discrimination and human rights violations against the Ainu people, a Nippon Television program aired content that was discriminatory against them in March, while graffiti with the same expression was found on a street lamp in Tokyo’s Kunitachi city in April.

Some people have repeatedly engaged in hate speech online against the Ainu people, claiming that the subsidy is unfair.

“Many Ainu people are worried that if they act publicly, discrimination will resurface. This is one of the reasons why they are reluctant to use the subsidy,” said Seiji Kubo, 79, president of the Abashiri branch of the Ainu Association of Hokkaido. “I want the government to show concrete measures for eliminating discrimination.”

Hirofumi Kato, who heads the Center for Ainu & Indigenous Studies at Hokkaido University, pointed out that the municipalities using grants are those who have a division dedicated to the Ainu people and have experience implementing Ainu policies in the past.

Just as municipalities have specialists in civil engineering and other fields, developing staffers familiar with Ainu policy on a long-term basis is important, he said, adding that local governments overseas have departments in charge of Indigenous issues with staff members from that ethnic group.

“Ainu policy is not just about providing fragmented information on tourism and culture. The presence of Ainu people in various positions in the community, not just in the local Ainu association, helps formulate and implement policies that enhance the dignity of the Ainu people,” he said.