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Japanese altering laws to reflect status as a multiracial nation

Tatsue Sato grew up in a society that saw her people as a dying and alien race, an embarrassing anomaly within Japan's much-touted social homogeneity.

To many Japanese, her Ainu people remain a mystery - and a target of discrimination. But Sato, who owns an Ainu restaurant in Tokyo, says things are finally beginning to change."It's no longer a question of being accepted or not. It's more like we've become one, like a married couple," she said.

The status of the tens of thousands of Ainu in Japan has been in the national spotlight over the past year because of a debate in Parliament that led to a new law officially recognizing them as a minority.

That may not sound like much, but it marks a major change in direction for Japan - though maybe not quite major enough for many Ainu.

Past government policy in Japan stressed assimilation or refused to acknowledge that Ainu even existed. The new law, however, calls for respecting Ainu "ethnic pride" and promoting Ainu culture.

"I think the new law has demolished the argument that Japan is mono-racial," said Kazuyuki Tanimoto, director of the Hokkaido Ainu Culture Research Center, which is financed by the Hokkaido government.

Hokkaido, Japan's northernmost main island, is where most Ainu live.

Official statistics put the Ainu population nationwide at 25,000, although the actual number could be twice that because the fear of discrimination has led many Ainu to hide their origins.

Despite the new law, the Ainu have a long way to go.

Discrimination still exists in marriage and jobs, and the Ainu continue to lag in education and standard of living.

A survey of Ainu life by the Hokkaido government found the percentage of Ainu on the island receiving welfare benefits was twice as high as for non-Ainu. Thirty-three percent of Ainu described their lives as "very hard," compared with only about 10 percent of non-Ainu on Hokkaido.

Behind the lingering stigma against the Ainu is the old ideology strongly reinforced during Japan's militarist rise earlier this century that Japan is a single-race nation centered on the emperor, said Osamu Hasegawa, an Ainu activist.

"Japan as a country hasn't changed," he said.

The mono-racial idea has never really been true. Along with the Ainu, Japan's 125 million people include several other minorities.

The 1.2 million Okinawans who inhabit the Ryukyu Islands on Japan's southern fringe are one of the largest minority groups. Others include ethnic Chinese and the descendants of Koreans.