April 21 (UPI) -- Japan passed legislation to officially recognize the Ainu of Hokkaido as an "indigenous" people for the first time.
The law, enacted on Friday, establishes an Ainu policy promotion headquarters that will require central and state governments to formulate basic guidelines to promote Ainu culture, industry and tourism, which will then be funded through state subsidies.
It also makes it easier for Ainu to obtain permission to conduct traditional salmon fishing in rivers and collect timber in national forests for cultural rituals.
The government also plans to open a national Ainu museum and park in Hokkaido next year.
A supplementary resolution requests the Japanese government respect the 2007 U.N. declaration on the rights of indigenous people, but some have criticized the law saying it does not provide rights to self-determination and education for Ainu people included in the declaration.
"I heard indigenous peoples overseas realized various policies after they were stipulated in constitutions and laws. We will continue our discussions toward the recovery of our rights," said Kazushi Abe, vice executive director of the Ainu Association of Hokkaido.
A 2017 survey by Hokkaido's government stated that 33.3 percent of Ainu attended college, compared with the overall rate of 45.8 percent of those living in the same area.
In 1899, the Japanese government introduced the Hokkaido Former Aborigines Protection Act, which eliminated traditional systems of Ainu and eventually forced them to give up their land and assimilate to the country's overall culture.
Over time this process caused the Ainu population to dwindle to 13,000 in 2017. Jeffry Gayman, an Ainu researcher at Hokkaido University, said there could be 10 times as many AInu in the country, but many have chosen to hide their identity or may have never known their origins due to centuries of prejudice.