Raporo Ainu Nation's lawsuit over indigenous fishing rights
2nd Oral Argument December 17, 2020 Thursday 3:00PM
Statement of Opinion of Mr. Masaki Sashima (Honorary Chairman, Raporo Ainu Nation)
I am acting as the honorary representative of the Raporo Ainu Nation. The Raporo Ainu Nation was formerly known as the Urahoro Ainu Association, for which I served as Chairman for many years. In July of this year (2020), the Urahoro Ainu Association changed its name to the Raporo Ainu Nation, and I became its Honorary Chairman. Raporo derived from Ōraporo, the original name of Urahoro in the Ainu language. The reason we changed the name is because our ancestors created a community, or kotan, which possessed the right to catch salmon from the Tokachi River, and we their descendants decided to become an organization with the goal of seeking recognition of this right to catch salmon. We changed the name due to our resolve to become an organization with the right catch salmon and the right to self-determination, as the former kotan
It was when I graduated from high school that I first understood with certainty that I was Ainu. When I sent for the koseki required for entrance into a university, I saw that that my grandparents' names were Ekoshippu and Monnosupa. I asked my mother who these people were, but she would not tell me anything. My parents tried to hide that they were Ainu. But they could not hide it. Although my father had obtained the right to catch salmon using a fixed shore net, he was harassed by the other Wajin fishermen, who took many of the fishing spots. I was also being bullied, and thought there was something strange about this. Even before high school, I had suspected that I might be Ainu. When I was in middle school, anything considered Ainu was violently bullied. As a child, I thought this was outrageous, but I couldn't do anything about it. When I entered into my forties, however, I decided to stop hiding my Ainu-ness and to declare, once and for all, that I am Ainu. In so doing, I found that those who had been harassing me up until then had begun to no longer harass me. My mother is Tokachibuto Ainu and my father is Shiranuka Ainu. And now my heart swells with pride to know that I am genuinely Ainu.
Over the past five years, we have secured the return of 102 of our ancestors' remains, which were exhumed from the cemeteries of various kotan along the lower reaches of the Tokachi river, such as Aiushi and Tokachibuto, and carried away by researchers to Hokkaido University, Sapporo Medical University, and Tokyo University, along with additional artifacts from Tokachibuto that were excavated during the Edo period and were being held by the Historical Museum of Urahoro. It was when I participated in an icharpa memorial service in front of the Hokkaido University that I began to think that our ancestors' remains should be returned to us. Through my role in the Tokachi branch of the Ainu Association of Hokkaido, I made the statement that all Ainu remains should be returned to their places of origin, but I was laughed at by the executives of these organizations, who said such a thing would be impossible. However, believing that the return of our ancestors' remains was our right as Ainu, I filed a lawsuit and succeeded in recovering the remains. We became convinced that, without raising our voices, nothing could move forward.
Three years ago, I visited a Native American tribe in the US state of Washington to study salmon fishing rights. In the 1960s, there had been a struggle between the state and tribe over salmon fishing that came to be known as the Fish War. The tribe was victorious in asserting their rights in US Federal District Court in 1974, and later in the US Supreme Court. I learned that our predecessors were working tirelessly to protect their rights in the US, as well. Today, Native Americans are working with both state and federal governments to maintain riparian ecosystems and preserve salmon stocks. I too believe that we must conserve the Tokachi River's ecosystem and protect its rich natural environment, beginning with salmon stocks.
I am following in my father's footsteps as the leader of the fixed-net fishers' cooperative. Although fixed-net fishing is more often done at sea, as Ainu, we nevertheless insist on fishing for salmon in the river. When we secured the return of our ancestors' remains, we also received the return of grave goods, including a handmade netting needle, an implement used for repairing nets. Based on the size of the netting needle, we think it was likely used as a tool for repairing gill nets used to catch salmon in the river. We learned that our ancestors were practicing gill net fishing in the river. I believe our ancestors lived plentiful lives, supporting their families by catching, processing, and trading salmon.
Today, the river where our ancestors fished is known as the Urahorotokachi River. Although the Tokachi River of today flows to Toyokoro town in Ōtsu due to watershed development projects, the Urahorotokachi River was originally the main stream of the Tokachi River. Although it used to be more than 200 meters wide, the Urahorotokachi has become a narrow river of only 50 meters wide since its division from the upper reaches of the Tokachi River. The Tokachi River is now used as a water transport route and, at most, discharges only nine cubic meters of water per second. As a result, salmon of the Urahorotokachi watershed rarely use the Tokachi River to migrate upstream. Even still, for us, the salmon are a precious inheritance from our ancestors. Someday, I hope to make the Urahorotokachi River into a place where more salmon will return.
We want to catch salmon, not only as a lifestyle, but as an economic activity. In so doing, we wish for the Ainu to be able to live independently. We want to take back the river, take back the salmon, and take back our lives.
December 17, 2020
 Ainu language word meaning "village community".
 Japanese word meaning "official family register".
 Japanese word meaning "ethnic Japanese person".
Translated from Hokudai Kaiji Bunsho Kenkyuukai Newsletter No.25
Translated by Michael J. Ioannides February 1, 2022