The year 2011 was a very challenging one for Japan as it struggled to cope with the economic, social and political aftershocks of the most devastating earthquake and tsunami in 140 years, which struck the country in March. The disaster left 20,000 dead and many more homeless, and triggered the meltdown of three reactors at the Fukushima nuclear plant.

Although Japan promotes itself as a homogeneous society, the country has significant numbers of minority and indigenous groups, including Burakumin, and indigenous Ainu and Okinawans. Korean and Chinese minorities have had a long-standing presence, along with newer arrivals from South America and Asia, who continue to appear vulnerable to exploitation, prejudice and discrimination.

The estimated 200,000 Burakumin belong to a social minority of the same ethnicity as other Japanese but are nevertheless victims of deep-seated caste-based discrimination. Modern reforms, including regarding access to housing and employment, have improved social conditions to some extent, but the root causes of their marginalization – social discrimination and prejudice – have not been adequately addressed by the government.

Ainu were officially recognized by the government as indigenous settlers of northern Japan in 2008 but, to the disappointment of many activists, this recognition has failed to address problems of social and economic marginalization. Amid growing frustrations over the lack of tangible progress securing their rights, at the end of October, Ainu representatives formed their own political party. There are an estimated 30,000-50,000 Ainu in Japan. Research carried out in 2006 indicated that the number of Ainu living on welfare was over three times the national average, and that the proportion of Ainu receiving higher education was one-third the national average.

Over the centuries, Ainu have been stripped of their land, resources and traditional livelihoods. More recently, Ainu people have been caught up in a struggle to control their ancestral waterways. A government plan to build a second dam on the Saru River in the Hidaka Region of Hokkaido has raised concerns about the rights of the Ainu people. The first Nibutani dam on the Saru River, the most important river for local Ainu, was completed in the 1990s. In a landmark decision in 1997, a district court judge ruled that the government had illegally expropriated land owned by Ainu farmers to construct the dam and recognized Ainu's cultural rights. The ruling did not reverse the all-but-completed dam, but the case set a precedent and, as a result, work on the second Biratori dam further upstream was delayed until 2010. And now, as it is going ahead, the Ainu community has become engaged in the construction process of the dam, aiming to ensure preservation of local Ainu culture.

But in other cases, the government has failed to uphold Ainu rights. In a collective statement made at the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues in May, the NGO Asia Indigenous People's Pact along with other civil society organizations accused the Japanese government of failing to fully implement indigenous rights. According to the statement, the Mombetsu city government in Hokkaido prefecture authorized plans to build an industrial waste dumping site near the Mobetsu River in February 2010, a sacred salmon spawning site for Ainu, without obtaining their free, prior and informed consent. The statement also condemned the heavy presence of US military bases in Okinawa territory as a form of discrimination against the Okinawan people. A new base is under construction at Henoko/ Oura Bay, plus six helipads elsewhere, despite long-standing opposition from local indigenous communities. In response to their protests, the authorities have filed a lawsuit forbidding local indigenous members to stage sit-ins at the heliport construction site.

In 2011, the Japanese government yet again failed to respond to requests by the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) and the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) to provide economic and social data reflecting the situation of minorities, and data to expose the extent of violence against minority women. CEDAW has also requested data on the education, employment, social welfare and health status of minority women.

This is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.