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Japan court denies fishing rights to Ainu people

Japan court denies fishing rights to Ainu people

TOKYO, Japan - A court in Japan dismissed a bid by Ainu Indigenous people to reclaim rights over river fishing for salmon, an official said Thursday.

It was the first court decision on Indigenous rights related to Ainu people, who traditionally lived in what is now northern Japan as well as in territory now part of Russia.

Ainu history includes decades of discrimination and forced assimilation, and Japan did not legally recognize them as Indigenous people until 2019.

Japan's fishery resources protection law in principle bars people from catching salmon in rivers regardless of their ethnicity.

But the plaintiffs said years of established tradition in parts of a river on Japan's northern island of Hokkaido -- a key source of livelihood for their ancestors before a 19th-century government crackdown -- should make them exempt.

A Sapporo district court spokesman told AFP that their claim had been dismissed.

As it stands, Ainu people can only fish for salmon if they gain approval from Hokkaido's governor for the purpose of passing down their cultural heritage, the plaintiffs said.

In a lawsuit filed in 2020, they also argued that global trends are increasingly in favor of recognizing Indigenous rights and identities following a 2007 UN declaration.

The presiding judge said that river fishing, even in a limited way, was not their "inherent" right, public broadcaster NHK reported.

Hiromasa Sashima, a member of plaintiff group Raporo Ainu Nation, had earlier said the ruling was about "fighting to win back rights taken away from our Ainu ancestors".

"It was an unmistakable fact that Ainu ancestors were making a living by fishing", Sashima told reporters following the ruling.

For centuries, Ainu traded with Japanese people from the mainland, but Japan's imperial government in 1869 annexed Ainu lands and banned "barbarian" practices like facial tattoos for the community's women.

Ainu were forced to abandon traditional hunting practices, speak Japanese and take Japanese names.

The four-year legal battle has seen authorities dismiss as "legally groundless" the plaintiffs' calls for the reinstatement of fishing rights.

Authorities have also defended the existing fishing regulations as necessary safeguards against the depletion of important resources like salmon. — Agence France-Presse