Feb. 15 (UPI) -- The Japanese government endorsed a bill Friday to officially recognize for the first time the Ainu ethnic minority as an indigenous people of the country.
The bill supports the creation of a subsidy program for regional revitalization to help local officials implement programs to promote Ainu culture.
Japanese chief cabinet secretary Yoshihide Suga said the move was needed to make sure the Ainu people can maintain their dignity. He said the government will take steps to help the Ainu tackle potential challenges.
More than 13,000 people identify as Ainu on the northern island of Hokkaido, while smaller numbers live on the Russian island of Sakhalin and disputed Kuril Islands.
More Japanese with significant Ainu heritage may have hid over the years to avoid discrimination. The Ainu are believed to have connections with the ancient Jomon culture that dominated the islands of modern Japan from 1,400 to 300 B.C.
Japan may have been spurred to make the move due to increasing international pressure for Ainu recognition and acknowledgement of its historical treatment of the culture.
Tadashi Kato, head of the Ainu Association of Hokkaido, said he was pleased with the government's first step toward improving the relationship between Japanese and Ainu. He added that Japan must do more to improve the Ainu's standard of living.
A 2017 Hokkaido government study found that 33.3 percent of Ainu went to college, compared to the overall rate of 45.8 percent of those living in the same area. More than 23 percent said they'd experienced discrimination.