A Fight for Salmon Fishing Rights Connects Indigenous Peoples Across the Pacific Ocean | The Ainu People Are Fighting to Reclaim Their Salmon Fishing Rights

A Fight for Salmon Fishing Rights Connects Indigenous Peoples Across the Pacific Ocean

For Japan’s Indigenous Ainu people, salmon is king. With inspiration from Indigenous groups in Washington state, the Ainu are reclaiming their historical fishing rights.

Members of the Raporo Ainu Nation observe asir cep nomi, an Ainu ceremony that marks the fish’s annual migration back to the island’s major rivers and tributaries. (Photo credit: Centre for Environmental and Minority Policy Studies)

Members of the Raporo Ainu Nation observe asir cep nomi, an Ainu ceremony that marks the fish’s annual migration back to the island’s major rivers and tributaries. (Photo credit: Centre for Environmental and Minority Policy Studies)

In May 2017, Masaki Sashima, head of the Raporo Ainu Nation, led a small delegation of fellow tribal members from Urahoro, a coastal city in Hokkaido, Japan, to visit their Indigenous counterparts in Washington’s Olympic Peninsula. Despite the separation in language, culture, and a vast ocean, he recalls the striking bond between them. “These,” he says, “were fellow Salmon People.”

For the Ainu, a people Indigenous to Japan’s northernmost island and its surrounding region, salmon is king—as fundamental to life as the air, mountains, and sea. In fact, shipe, one of several Native names for the fish, is synonymous with food itself. “It returns to us year after year,” says Sashima, “as though it were a promise.”

“Salmon is central not just to our cuisine, but to our identity.”

It was an eye-opening experience, he says, to see the Makah and Lower Elwha Klallam Tribes freely exercising their right to catch salmon. Sashima insists that the ability to do so is inherent to all Native Salmon Peoples—yet it is wholly disregarded by the Japanese government. The restriction threatens an already compromised and marginalized existence, he adds, and fails to uphold Indigenous rights recognized by the United Nations.

Drawing on inspiration from Pacific Northwest tribes in the United States, the Raporo have set out to reclaim historical fishing rights they believe Japan extinguished 140 years ago. But despite commonalities in Native histories, the group faces the upstream challenges of a differing legal framework, cultural fabric, and colonial past. Nevertheless, advocates see the American precedent—one cemented by government treaties and state recognition of sovereignty—as foundational to their pursuit.

The quest, however, extends far beyond the basic right to fish, Sashima notes. The trip also revealed how all 20 member tribes of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission (NWIFC) manage their own natural resources—and, in turn, their self-determination and governance.

“This,” Sashima realized, “is what we should be aiming for.”

An Inspiring Precedent

Located a stone’s throw from Shinjuku Station, Harukor, Tokyo’s only Ainu restaurant, prominently features a range of traditional Native ingredients, most sourced directly from Hokkaido. Japanese spirits are infused with haspkap berries and shikerebe bark, while mountain wasabi, red shiso, and kitopiro, a wild green onion, are served alongside wild salmon, Ezo venison, and on the rare occasion, bear—all grilled, seared, or simmered in the impossibly tiny, open kitchen of the 18-seat izakaya.

The menu reflects the distinct culture of a hunting, fishing, and gathering people, says owner Teruyo Usa—one deeply rooted in the landscape and resources of Hokkaido, Sakhalin, the Kurils, and their surrounding seas. Her tribal group, the Rutomte, hails from Kushiro, on Hokkaido’s southeast coast, though her mother moved her and her siblings to Tokyo when she was 10 in search of better opportunities and the ability to lead a more open life.

The interior of Harukor, Tokyo's only Ainu restaurant. (Photo credit: Naoki Nitta)The interior of Harukor, Tokyo's only Ainu restaurant. (Photo credit: Naoki Nitta)

Harukor, Tokyo’s only Ainu restaurant, features traditional Native ingredients mostly sourced directly from Hokkaido. Owner Teruyo Usa (pictured left) says salmon is central to Ainu identity. (Photo credit: Naoki Nitta)

Japan’s northern region was once the distinct domain of the Ainu, who migrated to the islands long before recorded history and settled into numerous kotan, or permanent villages comprised of a few dozen families. Most were located near salmon spawning grounds, giving the fish prominence in shaping Ainu culture and spirituality.

“Salmon is central not just to our cuisine,” says Usa, “but to our identity.”

Japan’s colonization of Hokkaido in the 18th century brought a seismic shift to the Ainu way of life. In addition to aggressive assimilation policies—among them the suppression of language and the outlawing of many customs, including tattooing and ear-piercing—the influx of mainland settlers had profound impacts on Native sustenance and livelihood.

By 1883, as zealous commercial overfishing depleted salmon runs, the Japanese government banned Ainu from catching their own supply. Deprived of their main food source, the Ainu witnessed the collapse of entire kotan, leaving many communities to further erode through urban migration and resettlement in subsequent decades.

Amid rampant discrimination and limited economic opportunities, many Ainu assimilated and dispersed into Japanese society, gravitating largely to Sapporo, Hokkaido’s largest city. In 1979, an official survey counted approximately 24,160 Ainu within the prefecture’s overall population of more than 5 million. Their numbers have since plummeted to nearly 13,120, according to a 2017 poll.

While that figure doesn’t include the estimated 5,000 Ainu who, like Usa, live in other parts of Japan, it reflects only those who self-identify. And because the Japanese census doesn’t track race or ethnic origin, there’s general consensus that the population is far greater.

“Where possible, the vast majority prefer to hide their origins,” Sashima says, despite an explicit national ban on discrimination put into law four years ago.

The Raporo, who trace their kotan to the Tōkachi River basin, currently count nine members in their ranks, a decline from 40 nearly three decades ago. Sashima guesses that there could be as many as 200 Ainu individuals hidden throughout Urahoro, an area once dotted with multiple tribal settlements. Still, he adds, it’s hard to know for sure—a municipal survey conducted in the mid-1980s resulted in many of the 4,500 residents shooing away poll takers.

In a major testament to resilience, Ainu customs, language, and cultural practices have managed to survive the long history of marginalization. And as activists, including Sashima and Harukor’s Usa, push to reinforce their presence in contemporary Japanese society, they say they’re heartened by the increased public support and visibility.

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For its part, the Hokkaido government, which regulates the prefecture’s fishing grounds, grants tribal groups an exceptional act: Every fall, each is given the right to catch up to 200 salmon in observance of asir cep nomi, an Ainu ceremony that marks the fish’s annual migration back to the island’s major rivers and tributaries.

Members of the Raporo Ainu Nation and the Monbetsu Ainu Association observe asir cep nomi, an Ainu ceremony that marks the fish’s annual migration back to the island’s major rivers and tributaries. (Photo credit: Centre for Environmental and Minority Policy Studies)

Members of the Raporo Ainu Nation and the Monbetsu Ainu Association observe asir cep nomi, an Ainu ceremony that marks the fish’s annual migration back to the island’s major rivers and tributaries. (Photo credit: Centre for Environmental and Minority Policy Studies)

Sashima acknowledges that the concession permits the continuation of a vital practice. Yet it confines the perception of Indigenous culture to food and rituals, he adds. “When it comes to our right to pursue a livelihood through traditional means, the country remains in complete denial.”

In a bold declaration of identity, the Raporo Ainu Nation adopted its name three years ago, relinquishing its former reference as the Urahoro Ainu Association and embracing the Native reference of its geographic roots. The rebranding was a strategic legal step; later that year, the Raporo filed a lawsuit against the prefecture, asserting their right to fish salmon in their kotan along the Tōkachi River.

It was an argument inspired largely by historic precedent, one set nearly five decades ago in the U.S.

With self-governance comes economic development, resource management, and cultural preservation, all of which have worked to bolster health outcomes, income, and, ultimately, political impact.

Despite losing vast amounts of territory to westward expansion, Pacific Northwest Nations historically secured fishing and hunting rights through various treaties. However, in subsequent years, state policies that favored commercial fisheries, along with diminishing fish populations resulting from habitat destruction, overfishing, and development of hydroelectric dams, increasingly infringed on their ability to exercise them.

In 1974, Judge George Boldt upheld those treaty rights in federal court, overturning Washington regulations that prioritized the state’s fishing industry. The Boldt decision, as the groundbreaking ruling came to be known, ruled that Native tribes were entitled to 50 percent of the annual fish harvest, as well as the right to manage their own fisheries.

“It was a bonanza of an opinion,” says Charles Wilkinson, professor of law emeritus at the University of Colorado and an expert on Native American law. Upheld by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals and unchallenged by the Supreme Court, the decision reinforced the concept of tribal sovereignty and cemented the notion of Native governance over natural resources.

Because treaty rights are held by sovereign entities and not by individuals, acknowledging tribal sovereignty—as defined in the Constitution—was central to the ruling, Wilkinson explains. “Otherwise, it’d be hard to argue that 2 percent of the population is entitled to half the fish,” he adds. “But this was clearly the law.”

And while Congress has plenary power to revoke those rights, that would be highly unlikely, says Wilkinson. “The tribes are too strong now, and are very good at defending [them].” With self-governance comes economic development, resource management, and cultural preservation, he adds, all of which have worked to bolster health outcomes, income, and, ultimately, political impact.

Reestablishing Sovereignty

In 2007, the United Nations General Assembly adopted its Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), a comprehensive framework for the protection and promotion of Native rights, including self-determination, cultural preservation, and equality. Twelve years later, Japan passed the Ainu Policy Promotion Act, which, in recognizing the Ainu as Indigenous to the country, aims to protect and revitalize their culture and heritage.

The law spawned the Upopoy National Ainu Museum and Park in Shiraoi, a splashy $182 million cultural facility and performance center built in 2020—though not much else, says Masaki Ichikawa, a Hokkaido-based Native rights lawyer. Although the 2019 policy promotes the rights of individuals to preserve and practice their culture, he adds that its scope for advancing Indigenous rights is limited.

Granting rights to minority groups goes against the country’s constitutional principle of equality, Ichikawa says, and its promotion of a singular society. (Former Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone once declared Japanese society to be ethnically homogeneous, to the ire of Ainu groups.) By denying the existence of tribal entities, the government conveniently disregards collective liberties such as the right to self-governance, he says. “In essence, Japan’s legal framework is designed to support Ainu rights [solely] as a tourism resource.”

Ichikawa emphasizes that in the U.S., Indigenous rights are granted not to Native American people, but to tribes, which the government recognizes as domestic, sovereign Nations. As distinct and independent sociopolitical entities, they’re analogous to the tribal units that once existed in every Ainu kotan, he says. Headed by a chief, each settlement administered its own customary laws, prescribed its own fishing and hunting grounds, and negotiated the management of resources with neighboring groups.

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The Ainu effectively lost their sovereignty as colonization eroded these institutions—yet they never ceded any rights, says Ichikawa, or otherwise conceded them through treaties. As such, he argues, groups such as the Raporo should be entitled to reclaim those rights as present-day, sovereign entities.

While the Japanese public seems generally unaware, or indifferent, to their plight, Sashima, the head of the Raporo, notes heavy opposition from one particular group: the Ainu Association of Hokkaido (AAH). Formerly a government agency, the nonprofit rights and cultural advocacy organization is the country’s largest Ainu collective. Sashima was, in fact, once its executive secretary, but says that he was pushed out due to differing perspectives—including one by its previous executive director, who told the U.N. that, “We do not seek to create new states with which to confront those already in existence.”

Although the AAH worked to promote official recognition of Ainu as an Indigenous people, “it insists that we no longer exist as tribes,” Sashima says, and it offers no support in pursuing fishing rights. Yet “we are very much an aboriginal group, still present in our [ancestral lands],” he says, “advocating for inherent rights that we held as original inhabitants of Hokkaido.” (The AAH did not respond to Civil Eats’ request for comment.)

“For tribal [societies], the significance of Native foods goes way beyond access to meat or fish.”

Ultimately, food sovereignty and self-determination are inextricable, says Joe Watkins, former director of the Native American Studies Program at the University of Oklahoma, and currently a visiting professor at Hokkaido University’s Global Station for Indigenous Studies and Cultural Diversity. Along with cultural autonomy, food sovereignty promotes “a resilient, interconnected web” of economic empowerment opportunities and robust tribal governance, he says. And it encourages a collective voice in shaping policies that reflect tribal values and priorities.

The right to catch fish also confers sovereign entities with the onus of managing their own wildlife resources, says Matt Beirne, the Lower Elwha Klallam tribe’s natural resources director. In addition to providing the tribe with an important staple, fishing employs nearly a quarter of its workforce. “It is critically important that each tribal government have the ability to manage its own fisheries programs to ensure [their] long-term sustainability,” he states in an email.

“For tribal [societies], the significance of Native foods goes way beyond access to meat or fish,” adds Watkins. “It’s tied to our identity as Indigenous people.” And for the many Ainu who continue to live in the shadows, bolstering and legitimizing that heritage could potentially help to draw more of them out of the woodwork.

Sashima is clear, however, that the Raporo’s singular focus and circumstances don’t represent the needs or goals of an entire people. There are those whose families have been displaced from rural regions to urban areas in and around Sapporo, for instance, or others whose ancestors were forcibly relocated from Sakhalin to Hokkaido. “As residents of a river basin, the rights that we’re pursuing [in our lawsuit] may be different from theirs,” he says.

Nevertheless, he’s hopeful that a favorable legal decision will turn the tide in favor of Ainu welfare throughout Hokkaido and beyond—as evidenced by the American precedent.

“There’s no doubt,” Sashima adds, “that the Boldt Decision has vastly improved the lives of [the Pacific Northwest’s] Salmon People.”

Naoki Nitta is a freelance writer based in Northern California, focused on food and sustainability issues. His work has appeared in Modern Farmer, Grist, Smithsonian Magazine, San Francisco Chronicle, and other publications. Read more >

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