Masaki Sashima gazed through the fog one recent afternoon onto the gray waters of the Tokachi River in Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost island. From here, his Indigenous people, the Ainu, once used spears and nets to catch the salmon they regarded as gifts from the gods.
Under Japanese law, river fishing for this salmon, an essential part of Ainu cuisine, trade and spiritual culture, has been off limits for more than a century. Mr. Sashima, 72, said it was time for his people to regain what they see as a natural right, and restore one of the last vestiges of a decimated Ainu identity.
“In the past in our culture, the salmon were for everybody to enjoy within the community,” he said. “The salmon is here for us, and we want to ensure our right to be able to take this fish.”
Mr. Sashima is leading a group that is suing the central and prefectural governments to reclaim salmon fishing rights, four years after Japan’s Parliament passed a law recognizing the Ainu as the nation’s Indigenous people.
For centuries, Japanese assimilation policies have stripped the Ainu of their land, forced them to give up hunting and fishing for farming or other menial jobs, and pushed them into Japanese-language schools where it was impossible to preserve their own language.
When the government banned all river fishing during the Meiji era, which ran from 1868 to 1912, the main justification was to protect stocks of salmon as they spawn on their way to the Pacific Ocean.
The move coincided with a government policy to push the Ainu away from fishing as their livelihood to give an advantage to Japanese fishermen who would take salmon from the sea, said Shinichi Yamada, a professor of human sciences at Sapporo Gakuin University who has written about Ainu history and fishing rights.
“Japan is a country that says it follows the rule of law, but in terms of Indigenous rights, they are very behind,” said Shiro Kayano, director of a private museum in eastern Hokkaido and the son of the only Ainu to serve in the Japanese Parliament. “Ainu people who choose to do so should have the option to go back” to the traditional Ainu lifestyle, Mr. Kayano said.
The ranks of the Ainu have shrunk so low that in the last official survey, taken in 2017, only 13,118 people identified as Ainu in Hokkaido, which has a total population of about 5.2 million. UNESCO has designated the Ainu language as “critically endangered.”
This year, the Japanese government plans to spend about $40 million to support Ainu cultural activities, tourism and industry, under the 2019 law that recognized the Ainu as an Indigenous people. The new law enshrined a previous resolution from a decade earlier.
In 2020, the government opened an Ainu museum in Shiraoi, south of Sapporo, the prefectural capital, to celebrate Ainu traditions such as dance, woodcarving, archery and embroidery. A historical timeline in the main exhibit hall acknowledges that Japanese invaders “oppressed” the Ainu, bringing diseases that wiped out parts of the population, forcing Japanese customs on them and granting them agricultural land that was “often uncultivable.”
Critics say neither the new law nor the museum, the Upopoy National Ainu Museum and Park, goes far enough to empower the Ainu after centuries of being ignored by Japanese politicians who insisted that Japan was an ethnically homogeneous nation.
While the government emphasizes Ainu crafts, music and dance, “I think we should have political rights,” said Kanako Uzawa, an Ainu rights expert and the niece of a prominent Ainu leader.
With an education system that barely acknowledges the existence of Hokkaido’s Indigenous people in textbooks or curriculum, some Ainu say they want more than an isolated museum.
Miyuki Muraki, 63, deputy executive director of the Ainu museum, said that as a child, her family never talked about their Ainu identity at home, and that classmates compared her and other Ainu children to dogs.
“In the whole society, all we learn about is Japanese culture,” she said. “They say that is because there are not enough of us. But that is partly because we have not been able to live our life freely.”
To Mr. Sashima, that can happen only if the Ainu can catch salmon from the river whenever they choose.
The prefectural governor grants annual exemptions to the Ainu to take a limited number of salmon from the river for ceremonial purposes. Mr. Sashima said that even if his group, the Raporo Ainu Nation, wins its lawsuit, it would never take much more than the 100 or 200 salmon it is already regularly permitted each year.
“It is about our rights, not the number of fish,” said Mr. Sashima, who co-owns a local company that makes fishing nets and holds a commercial fishing license for the sea.
The case could come before a court for a hearing as early as this fall. In court filings, the Japanese government says that the ban on river fishing covers all Hokkaido residents and that the Ainu are not entitled to special rights beyond the annual ceremonial exemption.
Michiaki Endo, a spokesman in the Ainu policy division of the Hokkaido prefectural government, declined to comment, citing the pending lawsuit. Representatives of both the Council for Ainu Policy Promotion within the central Cabinet Secretariat and the national fisheries agency also declined to comment.
Even within Hokkaido’s Ainu community, opinions are divided over how best to preserve their culture.
Kazuaki Kaizawa, secretary general of the Ainu Association of Hokkaido, an advocacy group, said it would prefer to lobby government officials about fishing rights, along with access to land and forests.
Workers of Ainu heritage at the Upopoy museum said that rather than court battles, they were exploring their cultural roots.
The lawsuit “is very important, but, at the same time, we are a modern Japanese people,” said Tatsuaki Muta, 34, a museum employee who demonstrated a traditional wooden canoe on a recent afternoon. “So should we not follow the laws?”
Several of the 12 members of the Raporo Ainu Nation — almost all of whom work for Mr. Sashima — have discovered their roots in the course of pursuing the lawsuit.
As a child, Koki Nagane, 38, thought the Ainu had already died out. He never thought he himself could be Ainu.
On a recent afternoon, Mr. Nagane sat at a table in the local community center with several other members of the group, assiduously working a needle of yellow thread into a band of indigo cloth. The teacher, Kazuko Hirokawa, 64, teased him about his skill with traditional embroidery despite his thick fingers, hardened from long days of braiding ropes and stretching large nets.
For Mr. Sashima, pursuing the lawsuit and preserving Ainu traditions are about leaving a legacy. Like many other Ainu, as a child he had inklings — but never knew for sure — that he was a member of the Indigenous group.
But in his 40s, he got into a bar brawl when another man taunted him for his Ainu heritage. It was then that he decided to devote his life to cultural and political activism.
“Even when we would do embroideries or wood carvings and absolutely nobody was interested, I worked hard on my own,” he said as tears rolled down his cheeks. “Ethnic discrimination doesn’t disappear no matter where you go. You can’t hide from it anywhere.”