by Kyoko Hasegawa
BIRATORI, Japan, Aug 15, 2012 (AFP) - Shiro Kayano was once just like the millions of salarymen who populate Japan's neon-lit cities. He wore a suit and tie, bought the latest technology and earned a pay cheque in Tokyo's advertising sector.
But a chance visit to a Canadian indigenous household two decades ago set the now 54-year-old on a different path: seeking political power for the Ainu people, a tiny ethnic minority in the nation of 127 million.
Kayano's ambitious bid to win 10 out of 242 seats in the upper house for the newly created Ainu Party in next year's national elections -- as well as vast land claims for his people -- is the latest move aimed at boosting recognition for what was once a hunter-gatherer society in Japan's northernmost Hokkaido.
Fairer-skinned and more hirsute than most Japanese, the Ainu traditionally observed an animist faith with a belief that God exists in every creation -- trees, hills, lakes, rivers and animals, particularly bears.
Ainu men kept full beards while women adorned themselves with facial tattoos which they acquired before they reached the age of marriage. Ainu clothes were robes spun from tree bark and decorated with geometric designs.
But like many indigenous groups around the world, most of Japan's 24,000 Ainu have lost touch with their traditional lifestyle after decades of forced assimilation policies that officially banned their language and culture, leaving them a disadvantaged minority in modern Japan.
Earlier figures have pegged the number of Ainu at about 70,000 but the real figure is unknown since many have integrated with mainstream society and some have hidden their cultural roots.
"We think what is necessary for modern Ainus is our participation in politics," said Kayano, who now curates a museum of Ainu heritage in Hokkaido.
"Given the current political turmoil, I expect maybe we'll have a chance."
Signs of change
The ruling Democratic Party of Japan has fallen under heavy criticism over tax hikes and the restart of two nuclear reactors after last year's Fukushima atomic crisis, opening a door for political newcomers, Kayano said.
"If I'm elected, I'd like to work on introducing Ainu language classes in elementary and middle schools -- I believe we will be able to recover our language."
But Kayano, whose father was the only Ainu lawmaker in Japan's history, has his sights on more than just reviving his ethnic group's traditions and all-but-extinct language.
He wants the Ainu to be granted their traditional homeland of Hokkaido island -- now a popular spot for skiing and wilderness-seeking tourists -- and even some two-thirds of Japan's territory, mostly national parks.
Historically, the Ainu dominated Hokkaido until the 19th century when Japanese were encouraged to settle there, pushing the Ainu off their land and further to the periphery.
Kayano acknowledged that his vast land claims idea was unlikely to succeed, and it was not even part of his new party's manifesto.
"I know it's a long shot, but nothing will begin without starting to say a word," Kayano said.
And there have been signs of change after decades of marginalisation.
In 2008, Japan for the first time recognised the Ainu as an indigenous people in a landmark parliamentary resolution, which pledged to support a community which has lower-than-average income and education levels.
Tokyo has been studying policies that would revive the Ainu language and create venues where traditions such as spiritual ceremonies could be held.
However, finding people who can speak Ainu fluently is no simple task.
"I woke up to my identity"
In the small agricultural community of Biratori in Hokkaido, 81-year-old language teacher Sachiko Kibata is one of few who could pass along Ainu to the younger generation.
Kibata herself only learned the language about 20 years ago from Kayano's father.
"But I do have childhood memories of my grandmother speaking the Ainu language so that also helped me learn," she said.
For Kayano, his push started about 25 years ago after he visited a Canadian community populated by indigenous people, whose traditional lifestyles have also been diluted by historical assimilation policies.
"I realised the outrageousness of one ethnicity being deprived of its own language and culture by force," he said.
"I woke up to my identity as an Ainu."
The newly minted political party was inspired by a trip to a global indigenous people's conference in Peru last year neighbouring Bolivia, where Evo Morales is the South American nation's first indigenous president.
Despite his resolve, Kayano knows that he faces an uphill battle, even among some of his own people.
"There are some Ainu who say 'there is no discrimination against us anymore' while others say, 'why don't we instead make the effort to become winners in Japanese society?'" he told AFP.
"Those people think that making a claim for Ainu rights is harmful for them. And I can't force them to share my ideas."