In 1899 the Japanese government passed an act labeling the Ainu as “former aborigines”, with the idea they would assimilate—this resulted in the Japanese government taking the land where the Ainu people lived and placing it from then on under Japanese control. Also at this time, the Ainu were granted automatic Japanese citizenship, effectively denying them the status of an indigenous group.
The Ainu were becoming increasingly marginalized on their own land—over a period of only 36 years, the Ainu went from being a relatively isolated group of people to having their land, language, religion and customs assimilated into those of the Japanese. In addition to this, the land the Ainu lived on was distributed to the Wajin who had decided to move to Hokkaido, who had been encouraged by the Japanese government of the Meiji era to take advantage of the island’s abundance of natural resources, and to create and maintain farms in the model of western industrial agriculture. While at the time the process was openly referred to as colonization (“takushoku” 拓殖), the notion was later reframed by Japanese elites to the currently common usage “kaitaku” (開拓), which instead conveys a sense of opening up or reclamation of the Ainu lands. As well as this, factories such as flour mills and beer breweries and mining practices resulted in the creation of infrastructure such as roads and railway lines, during a development period that lasted until 1904. During this time the Ainu were forced to learn Japanese, required to adopt Japanese names and ordered to cease religious practices such as animal sacrifice and the custom of tattooing.
The 1899 act mentioned above was replaced in 1997—until then the government had stated there were no ethnic minority groups. It was not until June 6, 2008 that Japan formally recognised the Ainu as an indigenous group (see Official Recognition, below).
Intermarriages between Japanese and Ainu were actively promoted by the Ainu to lessen the chances of discrimination against their offspring.