Revisiting the Northern Territories Problem at Abe-Putin Summit
With the Abe-Putin summit scheduled in December, Japan should focus on solving not only the dispute over the Northern Territories but also the indigenous rights problem regarding the Ainu people, the native inhabitants of these disputed islands.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin in December is a bold step to solve the decades-long dispute over the Northern Territories. The dispute over an island chain northeast of Hokkaido dates back to Soviet occupation of the islands at the end of WWII. Due to the dispute, the two countries have not signed a peace treaty to end the war.
As Japan refocuses on the disputed islands, it should also revisit their history, particularly the colonial past of their indigenous inhabitants, the Ainu. The Japanese government has not fully recognized Ainu indigenous rights while still using them for the territorial dispute negotiations. The country should solve not only the Northern Territories Problem but also the Ainu Problem.
The Ainu are the original inhabitants of Hokkaido (previously called Ezo), Sakhalin, Kuril mainland Japan, and the Northern Territories, where by the thirteenth century they had developed their own distinct culture, language, and livelihood.
Just like other indigenous peoples, such as the Native Americans and the Aborigines, the Ainu suffered from colonization and assimilation. Following Japan’s annexation of Hokkaido in 1872, the Ainu people had lost their lands, including the Northern Territories, to Japanese settlers and were forced to give up their language, customs, and livelihoods.
By the end of the nineteenth century, the Ainu accounted for only two percent of Hokkaido’s entire population. By the end of the twentieth century, they became known as a “dying race” (horobiyuku minzoku). After WWII, the Ainu Problem was perceived as one of economic deprivation on the margins of society. This in turn resulted in further assimilation of the indigenous group through the implementation of welfare policies.
The Ainu people responded by organizing activism designed to revive the native culture and revise discriminatory domestic laws. This activism later became connected to the global indigenous rights movements during the 1980s. In 1992, the UN invited the Ainu leader Giichi Nomura to deliver an inaugural address at the opening ceremony of the International Year of Indigenous Peoples in the General Assembly.
After decades of efforts, the Ainu succeeded in establishing the 1997 Ainu New Law designed to promote their culture. In the same year, the Sapporo District Court recognized their cultural rights as an “indigenous people.” A decade later, Japan voted in favor of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) in 2007 and recognized Ainu indigeneity in 2008. The government then created the Council for Ainu Policy Promotion and pledged to establish a “Symbolic Space for Ethnic Harmony” to preserve Ainu culture.
Outstanding Challenges for the Ainu
On the surface, it looks like the Japanese government has made efforts to protect the Ainu’s rights. These efforts are far from enough, however.
First and foremost, the Japanese government has yet to offer an official apology for its colonization of the Ainu. Many countries around the world have faced their colonial past and apologized for their historical wrong to indigenous peoples. For instance, the U.S. Congress in 1993 passed a joint resolution to “offer an apology to Native Hawaiians on behalf of the United States for the overthrow of the Kingdom of Hawaii.”
Secondly, the government has limited the Ainu’s rights to only cultural issues, failing to recognize their political and territorial rights. Other countries such as Taiwan and New Zealand designate special parliamentary seats to their indigenous peoples. Japan has yet to make such accommodation for the Ainu, whose voices will not be heard without an elected Ainu representative in the Japanese Diet.
Third, while other countries have returned the native lands to or at least offered due reparations to their indigenous peoples, Japan has never taken such action. In fact, when voting for the UNDRIP, the government insisted that indigenous land rights “were limited by due reason, in light of harmonization with the protection of the third party interests and other public interests.” Constitutional law scholar Teruki Tsunemoto, a member of the Council for Ainu Policy Promotion and director of the Center for Ainu and Indigenous Studies at Hokkaido University, argues the Japanese constitution does not recognize collective rights because it builds on the principle of individual rights. In his view, the Ainu people as a community do not have rights to their ancestral lands, an utter contradiction with the international laws and norms that say the opposite.
Absent much effort to fully protect Ainu rights, it looks as if the government is more interested in using them for the Northern Territories dispute. Former Japanese politician Muneo Suzuki, long involved in Japan-Russian relations, has argued that since the Ainu are Japanese citizens, their claim that Russia “return our ancestral lands” would be an effective bargaining chip in the territorial dispute negotiations. This is exactly the same argument Meiji Japan made in its negotiations with Russia on the 1875 Treaty of St. Petersburg. Now with the Abe-Putin summit scheduled in December, Suzuki came out in full support for the initiative. While denying the Ainu rights to their ancestral lands, the Japanese government still uses Ainu indigeneity as a reason for the return of the disputed islands.
It remains undecided whether Japan’s efforts will bring an end to the Northern Territories Problem. But one thing is clear. The country must also make efforts to solve the Ainu Problem. The issues at stake are not just Japan’s national security but also its colonial history.
Daisuke Minami is a PhD Candidate in the Department of Political Science at the George Washington University studying the security and identity issues in East Asia and was a past research assistant for the Rising Powers Initiative. He is a 2016 recipient of the Sigur Center Summer Grant for Asian Field Research and conducted fieldwork on the indigenous rights movements in Hokkaido and Okinawa.