Japan's 'vanishing' Ainu will finally be recognized as indigenous people

Oki Kano is a musician and founder of Oki Dub Ainu, a band that mixes indigenous Ainu music with reggae and other genres.

Hong Kong (CNN)Growing up in Japan, musician Oki Kano never knew he was part of a "vanishing people."

His Japanese mother was divorced and never told Kano that his birth father was an indigenous Ainu man. Kano was 20 years old when he found out.
For decades, researchers and conservative Japanese politicians described the Ainu as "vanishing," says Jeffry Gayman, an Ainu peoples researcher at Hokkaido University.
    Gayman says there might actually be tens of thousands more people of Ainu descent who have gone uncounted -- due to discrimination, many Ainu chose to hide their background and assimilate years ago, leaving younger people in the dark about their heritage.
      A bill, which was passed on Friday, for the first time has officially recognized the Ainu of Hokkaido as an "indigenous" people of Japan. The bill also includes measures to make Japan a more inclusive society for the Ainu, strengthen their local economies and bring visibility to their culture.
      Japanese land minister Keiichi Ishii told reporters Friday that it was important for the Ainu to maintain their ethnic dignity and pass on their culture to create a vibrant and diverse society.
      Yet some warn a new museum showcasing their culture risks turning the Ainu into a cultural exhibit and note the bill is missing one important thing -- an apology.

        'Tree without roots'

        Kano grew up in Kanagawa prefecture near Tokyo, where he became fascinated with Jamaican reggae. Even without being aware of his ethnic identity, the political commentary underpinning the songs made an impression on him.
        "Bob Marley sang that people who forget about their ancestors are the same as a tree without roots," says Kano, 62. "I checked the lyrics as a teenager, though they became more meaningful to me as I matured."
        After discovering his ethnic origins, Kano was determined to learn more. He traveled to northern Hokkaido to meet his father and immediately felt an affinity with the Ainu community there -- the "Asahikawa," who are known for their anti-establishment stance.
        But his sense of belonging was short-lived -- some Ainu rejected Kano for having grown up outside of the community, saying he would never fully understand the suffering they had endured under Japanese rule.
        Ainu people  occupying parts of the Japanese island of Hokkaido, Russian Kuril Islands and Sakhalin, in about 1950.
        Yuji Shimizu, an Ainu elder, says he faced open discrimination while growing up in Hokkaido. He says other children called him a dog and bullied him for looking different.
        Hoping to avoid prejudice, his parents never taught him traditional Ainu customs or even the language, says the 78-year-old former teacher.
        "My mother told me to forget I was Ainu and become like the Japanese if I wanted to be successful," says Shimizu.

        Ainu Moshir (Land of the Ainu)

        The origins of the Ainu and their language remain unclear, though many theories exist.
        They were early residents of northern Japan, in what is now the Hokkaido prefecture, and the Kuril Islands and Sakhalin, off the east coast of Russia. They revered bears and wolves, and worshiped gods embodied in the natural elements like water, fire and wind.
        In the 15th century, the Japanese moved into territories held by various Ainu groups to trade. But conflicts soon erupted, with many battles fought between 1457 and 1789. After the 1789 Battle of Kunasiri-Menasi, the Japanese conquered the Ainu.
        Japan's modernization in the mid-1800s was accompanied a growing sense of nationalism and, in 1899, the government sought to assimilate the Ainu by introducing the Hokkaido Former Aborigines Protection Act.
        A family of Ainu gives a meal to a Western man in a sketch.