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Restore rights of Ainu indigenous people, urges Japanese pastor

Ainu couple in traditional garb.  Photo from University of Minnesota Duluth www.d.umn.edu

The Japanese government and Christians should support the rights of the Ainu indigenous people in Japan’s northern island of Hokkaido, the Rev. Tadao Miura, the director of the Ainu People Information Centre of the United Church of Christ in Japan, has said.

"God created each one of us as unique beings. So, we should care for each other," Miura said in a lecture on 11 February at the denomination’s Ninomiya Church in Kanagawa Prefecture, southwest of Tokyo. He said there was a need for the Ainu people to be able to leave behind the " colonialism" to which they were subjected when Russia and Japan were competing for the area where they now live.

Most of the Ainu people live in Hokkaido Prefecture, and statistics show that, as of 2006, there were 23 782 Ainu people there. But some people believe there are more Ainu, whose name means "humans", than those recorded. The present number of Ainu Christians is unknown.

In 1899, a law was passed at the Japanese Imperial Diet (legislature) to assimilate the Ainu people. Since then, Japan has been accused of colonising and developing their land. The territory is known in their language as Ainu Moshiri (meaning "the great land of humans"), but was renamed in Japanese as the Hokkaido Prefecture.

Miura said that under Japanese rule, the Ainu people had been deprived of their rights, discriminated against, and forced into poverty, despite the enactment of new legislation in 1997, the Law for the Promotion of the Ainu Culture, which was amended in 1999.

A Jesuit missionary, the Rev. Girolamo de Angelis, who lived from 1568 to 1623, is believed to be the first person to have brought, in 1618, the Gospel to the Ainu people. He was followed by Russian Orthodox, Anglican and Protestant missionaries in the 18th and 19th centuries.

In his lecture, Miura singled out among them John Batchelor, who lived from 1854 to 1944, and was a British Anglican student missionary from the Church Missionary Society. Batchelor dedicated himself to the lives of the Ainu people through evangelism, education, studies and service, Miura noted.

"But from the early 1900s, Batchelor became involved in Japan’s Emperor system," Miura said. The British missionary introduced seven Ainu people to the organizers of the 5th National Industrial Exposition in Osaka in 1903, and nine Ainu people to the organizers of the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition, the cleric noted. The Ainu people were then put on display in exhibitions of colonised indigenous peoples, contrasting them as "primitive" peoples to the "advanced" peoples who had colonised them, Miura lamented.

"The fact that Batchelor supported and cooperated with the colonial policies to promote discrimination and oppression, regardless of his intentions, cannot be erased," said Miura. "Batchelor’s work consequently helped the colonial policy that the government was promoting." Still, Miura added, "But he worked for the Ainu more than anyone else, when Japanese Christians discriminated them and did not even regard them as objects for their evangelism."

Ecumenical News International

Photo : Ainu couple in traditional garb. Photo from University of Minnesota Duluth www.d.umn.edu