Former Natives Protection Law

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  • Enacted: 1899
  • Repealed: 1997
  • Japanese: 旧土人保護法 (kyuudojin hogo hou)

The "Former Natives Protection Law" was a piece of legislation put into place by the Meiji government in 1899 and aimed at the assimilation of the Ainu prople (i.e. transforming them into Japanese citizens) and at ensuring their welfare. It is today widely seen by scholars as a product of colonialist ideologies, and an example of oppressive and destructive policies towards indigenous peoples very much in line with how Western/modern colonizing powers treated indigenous peoples elsewhere in the world. The law was finally repealed in 1997, and replaced with new structures for encouraging or enabling the revival and protection of Ainu culture.

The Law was inspired by concerns about the Ainu losing their living space due to the expansion of Japanese entrepreneurs and the like into their territory; as with indigenous peoples around the world at that time, there was an ideological belief that they were doomed to extinction. A document associated with the proposal of the law reads, in part: "that our fellow imperial subjects should fall into such distress is not in accord with the benign sentiments of the imperial will, and therefore this law has been proposed."[1]

Though the law included many provisions for providing welfare services to the Ainu people, it was based on colonialist notions of "welfare." Summarized by the American Capt. Richard H. Pratt in 1892 in the phrase "Kill the Indian in him, and save the man" (speaking of Native Americans), this logic of "welfare" towards indigenous peoples emphasized cultural assimilation, education, and "modernization," with no concern given to protecting Ainu folkways, language, or traditional culture otherwise. Combined with other development/colonization policies, the Former Natives Protection Law created devastating economic difficulties for the Ainu, endangering their livelihoods. It is also heavily criticized today as a fundamental piece of colonialist/imperialist/racist policies in Hokkaidô, which by identifying Ainu as "former aborigines" implied that Ainu identity was a thing of the past, and denied them aboriginal status. As late as 1986, Prime Minister Nakasone Yasuhiro was famously quoted as saying that Japan had no native ethnic minorities, and that all Japanese people were indigenous to Japan.

Under the provisions of the Former Natives Protection Law, the Meiji state eliminated traditional systems of Ainu land rights or land claims, seizing all of their land and redistributing it. As in Hawaii and in countless other places around the world, the modern/Western notion was that if one owned one's own land, one would be more inspired to work hard to develop that land, and better situated to receive the direct benefits of the land, rather than its produce being given into some communal tribal ownership, or given away to the chief. However, the conversion of communal land into individually owned parcels also meant the land was now alienable - it could be bought and sold, and so before long, much land fell out of Ainu hands.[2] Ainu were given up to five chô of land per household to farm, along with tools, seed, and other materials or equipment, and were mandated to farm that land. Land left uncultivated for fifteen years was confiscated. Special hardy strains of rice were introduced to be cultivated in Hokkaidô, and a rice-based Japanese mode of agriculture culture and society was strongly encouraged; this, despite the fact that Ainu never traditionally grew rice, and were more accustomed to (and skilled at) hunting, fishing, skinning, and growing certain kinds of vegetables and other crops (other than rice).

Ainu monetary savings were also seized by the government, and put into a fund to be redistributed or otherwise used to benefit the "former natives." The national education system was implemented in Hokkaidô as throughout Japan, teaching Ainu children, along with Japanese children, to be good, patriotic, Japanese citizens.

Much of the provisions of the law were no longer actively in place in the post-war period; the national education system of course still exists, along with systems of government welfare, though most likely mandates on Ainu growing certain crops on certain lands, and the system of an "Ainu welfare fund" funded from the monies taken from the Ainu circa 1899-1900, were gone. Still, the law remained on the books until 1997, when, in response to international pressure, the Japanese government repealed it, formally acknowledging the Ainu as an "indigenous people" in 2008, entitled to the same rights all indigenous peoples are said to be entitled to under United Nations resolutions and agreements.


  • Tessa Morris-Suzuki. "Creating the Frontier: Border, Identity, and History in Japan's Far North." East Asian History 7 (June 1994). pp1-24.
  1. Tessa Morris-Suzuki, "The Frontiers of Japanese Identity," in Stein Tønnesson and Hans Antlöv (eds.), Asian Forms of the Nation, Psychology Press (1996), 59.
  2. Andrew Gray, "The Indigenous Movement in Asia," in R.H. Barnes, A. Gray, and B. Kingsbury (eds.), Indigenous Peoples of Asia, Association for Asian Studies (1995), 52.