Current Areas Where Indigenous People in Japan Have Been Resettled Have Not Been Greatly Affected by Climate Change

The Ainu people are the only officially recognized indigenous people in Japan (Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 2014). When we say that the Ainu are an indigenous people of Japan, we mean that Japan, as a modern nation, has exerted domination over the Ainu people and that the Japanese government bears responsibility for that domination (Kitahara & Tanimoto, 2020). According to Ainu Policy Promotion Headquarters (N.D), the Ainu people are indigenous people who pre-date the northern periphery of the Japanese archipelago, particularly in Hokkaido and have their unique language, religion and culture. According to the survey conducted in 2013 by the Hokkaido Government, the Ainu population in Hokkaido was 16,786 in 66 municipalities. About 70.1 percent of these live in the sub-prefectures of Hidaka and Iburi as per the map below.

Source: Ainu Association of Hokkaido (2013)

In 1869, the Meiji government renamed “Yaunmosir” from “Ezochi” to “Hokkaido” and made it a territory of Japan. This renaming was a declaration that “Yaunmosir” was to become a de facto colony of Japan; in 1871, the Ainu people of Hokkaido were forcibly incorporated into the Japanese nation as “commoners,” but were marked as “old natives” in the family register and were discriminated in many ways compared to the Japanese (Kitahara & Tanimoto, 2020). The Meiji government adopted a policy of Japanization of the Ainu language and customs, disposed of Ainu settlements and hunting grounds, and regulated traditional salmon and deer hunting (Segawa, 2015). In addition, the Ainu were forced to live around fishing grounds and in marshy areas along rivers that were unsuitable for agriculture, and traditional Ainu society collapsed (Segawa, 2015). In 1997, the Japanese government repealed the Law for the Protection of the Former Indigenous Peoples of Hokkaido and enacted the Law for the promotion of the Ainu culture and the dissemination and enlightenment of knowledge about Ainu traditions (Japan Federation of Bar Associations, 2022). Then, in September 2007, the United Nations adopted the declaration on the rights of indigenous peoples, and the diet adopted a resolution calling for the Ainu people to be designated as indigenous people (Japan Federation of Bar Associations, 2022). Then, in April 2019, for the first time, the law clearly stated that the Ainu people are indigenous peoples, and specified the prohibition of discrimination against the Ainu people (Kitahara & Tanimoto, 2020).

In Ainu culture, all useful things for humans, such as beasts and tools, are souvenirs given by the gods, and in return, humans must give the gods souvenirs to increase their prestige. Nature and man have a reciprocal and close relationship (Segawa). It was believed that if one treated bears, deer, wild plants, and other animals poorly because of their abundance, or if one kept them all to oneself, the gods would punish one’s behavior. The Ainu people, who have lived with nature and learned from the wisdom and history of their ancestors, are building a circular society that enables sustainable development, based on the symbiosis between people and nature (Shiraoi Town, 2022). Although there is a movement to assert indigenous rights and resource rights of the Ainu people (Maurice-Suzuki, 2020), anything on climate change, such as the Ainu people’s assertion that they are strongly affected by sea level rise and global warming is hard to identify.

Areas with large Ainu populations today are even considered to be rather less affected by climate change than areas with large population concentrations in Japan. First, over 70% of the Ainu population in Hokkaido is concentrated in the Iburi and Hidaka regions. The temperature increase over the 100 years is mild: 0.8°C/100 years and 1.1°C/100 years, respectively, compared to 2.5°C/100 years in the Ishikari area, the most populated areas in Hokkaido, centered on Sapporo, and 2.5°C/100 years in Tokyo.

Ainu Population Change in ℃/100 year
Ishikari (Sapporo) 942 2.5
Iburi (Muroran) 5,383 0.8
Hidaka (Urakawa) 6,379 1.1
Tokyo 2700 2.5

Source: Adapted from Ainu Association of Hokkaido (2013) and JFS (2009)

Next, according to the sea level rise data published by the Japan Meteorological Agency (2023), there is no clear upward trend in sea level along the Japanese coast in the 100-year period as seen in the global average sea level. In addition, sea level rise in the four sea areas (I-IV), with the I area near Iburi and Hidaka, is about the same as the average of the four Japanese sea areas.

4 sea area average World average
1960~2022 1.2[1.0~1.4] 1.0[0.5~1.5] 1.2[0.9~1.6] 2.6[2.3~2.9] 1.5[1.2~1.8] N/A
1971~2006 1.3[0.8~1.8] * * 2.2[1.6~2.7] 0.9[0.3~1.5] 1.9[0.8~2.9]
2006~2018 * 4.9[1.4~8.4] * 4.0[1.6~6.3] 2.9[0.8~5.0] 3.7[3.2~4.2]

Source: Adapted from Japan Meteorological Agency (2023)

The following simulation done in shows the impact of a 7m rise in sea level from the current elevation. The Ishikari area, which is the most densely populated area in Hokkaido, will be greatly affected, but the impact on Iburi and Hidaka, where the Ainu population is concentrated, will be small. This is even clearer when compared to the impact on the Tokyo area below. In other words, the direct impact and risk of climate change on Ainu residential areas in Japan are relatively small compared to areas of high population concentration. Rather, in Japan, where large cities such as Tokyo and Sapporo are concentrated along the coast, the effects of climate change will have serious effects on the majority of the population as a whole.

As-Is (Hokkaido)                                         +7m (Hokkaido)

The problem is that the Ainu’s former residential areas, natural environment, and culture have already been destroyed by the strong assimilation policy, subsequent agriculturalization, deforestation, and excessive fishing and the Ainu have not had their rights restored. Even today, a group of Ainu called the Raporo Ainu Nation in Urahoro Town, Hokkaido, organized by descendants of members of a community that existed in the lower Tokachi River basin, is suing to confirm the traditional and customary salmon-catching rights of that community in the past (JFBA, 2022). However, there are not many such activities in recent years. The number of Ainu people that could be ascertained through surveys in Hokkaido decreased by more than 40% in the decade or so leading up to 2017, mainly because fewer people identified themselves as Ainu and cooperated with surveys, meaning that there remain many disadvantages to identifying oneself as Ainu (Nikkei, 2019). In addition, a 2008 survey showed that the average annual income of Ainu households is about 24% lower than the Hokkaido average, indicating social conditions that make it difficult for Ainu to be active in society and spread their culture and wisdom (Maurice-Suzuki, 2020). It is necessary not only to encourage Japanese people to learn about Ainu’s traditional culture but also to implement measures to restore the rights of the Ainu people and raise their social status. Without this reflection and modification of current responses, it should not be possible to apply Ainu culture, with its implications for the protection of the natural environment, to future issues such as climate change.

This Post was submitted by Climate Scorecard Japan Country Manager Kazuya Takeda


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