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Nibutani Dam on Ainu homeland, Japan

Ainu communities were recognized as "indigenous groups" by the Sapporo District Court during their mobilization against a water diversion project; read here about an historical case in the country


In 1973, the Hokkaido Regional Development Bureau of the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism commenced a dam project on the Saru River. The initial purpose was to supply industrial water to the Eastern Tomakomai Industrial Area, about 30 km west of the proposed dam site. Later, the Bureau added hydroelectricity, flood control and other purposes to this scheme. This proposal directly threatened the traditional livelihood of the Ainu people, indigenous people in this area. The Ainu livelihood depended on harvesting salmon, an endemic species called "shishamo" and other fish that are available in this river. The dam site would destroy some parts of their traditional grave sites along with historical and sacred sites. It would also inundate areas some Ainu farmers received under the Former Aboriginal Protection Act of 1899 for agricultural purposes. Two Ainu landowners refused to sell the land to the Bureau, and in 1987, the Bureau used the Land Expropriation Act to forcibly take their lands. In response, the Ainu landowners brought suit against this Bureau's action, asking the court to issue injunction against the on-going dam construction. In 1997, the Sapporo District Court of Hokkaido rendered its decision, acknowledging the illegality of applying the Land Expropriation Act without considering the cultural and religious significance of the Ainu people. The court also acknowledged for the first time in Japanese jurisprudence history that the Ainu people were Japan's indigenous people (previously known as "minority" people). The decision, however, did not issue an injunction. As the dam had been already completed in 1997, the court argued that it would not be necessary to decommission it or discontinue operation.

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Basic Data
Name of conflict:Nibutani Dam on Ainu homeland, Japan
State or province:Hokkaido, Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism
Location of conflict:Biratori town, Nibutani village
Accuracy of locationMEDIUM (Regional level)
Source of Conflict
Type of conflict. 1st level:Water Management
Type of conflict. 2nd level:Dams and water distribution conflicts
Water access rights and entitlements
Specific commodities:Electricity
Project Details and Actors
Project details

The Nibutani Dam Construction Project was part of the Bureau of Hokkaido Regional Development's "Saru River General Development Projct." The construction was commissioned to Nishimatsu Construction Co., Ltd. and Iwakura Construction Co., Ltd. The length of the dam is 550 meters and the height 32 meters. It has a capacity of hold 27,100,000 cubic meters of water. The maximum generation of electricity is 3,000 KW. The construction began in 1973 and was completed in 1997. This multiple purpose dam work now mainly for supplying agricultural water to the rice fields below the dam. The electricity generation is only large enough to supply the local needs.

Level of Investment:about USD 1,313,000,000
Type of populationRural
Affected Population:not known
Start of the conflict:03/02/1989
End of the conflict:27/03/1997
Company names or state enterprises:Nishimatsu Construction Co., Ltd. from Japan - Constructed Nibutani Dam
Iwakura Construction, Co., Ltd. from Japan - Constructed Nibutani Dam
Relevant government actors:Bureau of Hokkaido (Regional) Development, Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism; Hokkaido Expropriation Committee; Japan Minister of Justice
Environmental justice organizations (and other supporters) and their websites, if available:Hokkaido Ainu Association; journalist Katsuichi Honda; Tanaka & Watanabe Law Office; Saru River Protection Group
Conflict & Mobilization
IntensityMEDIUM (street protests, visible mobilization)
Reaction stageIn REACTION to the implementation (during construction or operation)
Groups mobilizing:Farmers
Indigenous groups or traditional communities
Local government/political parties
Social movements
Ethnically/racially discriminated groups
Ainu communities
Fisher people
Forms of mobilization:Community-based participative research (popular epidemiology studies, etc..)
Development of a network/collective action
Development of alternative proposals
Lawsuits, court cases, judicial activism
Media based activism/alternative media
Refusal of compensation
Environmental ImpactsVisible: Loss of landscape/aesthetic degradation, Soil erosion, Deforestation and loss of vegetation cover, Reduced ecological / hydrological connectivity
Potential: Biodiversity loss (wildlife, agro-diversity), Floods (river, coastal, mudflow), Large-scale disturbance of hydro and geological systems
Other Environmental impactsImpact on spawning areas for an endemic fish species, "shishamo," at the mouth of the Saru River. The dam stopped the migration of salmon. The fish way was added but it is very narrow, long and winding route.
Socio-economical ImpactsVisible: Loss of traditional knowledge/practices/cultures, Land dispossession, Loss of landscape/sense of place, Other socio-economic impacts
Other socio-economic impactsNegative impact on traditional activities, including salmon harvesting and religious ceremony associated with it. The dam administration arranges the opening of spill gates at the time of "first salmon festival" so that traditional people can conduct their ceremony.
Project StatusIn operation
Conflict outcome / response:Court decision (victory for environmental justice)
Court decision (failure for environmental justice)
Development of alternatives:The court injunction was sought by Ainu plaintiffs when the dam was no longer needed for industrial water supplies.
Do you consider this an environmental justice success? Was environmental justice served?:Not Sure
Briefly explain:This dispute over Nibutani Dam certainly contributed to the better awareness of Ainu rights in Japanese court and politics. The spin-off of the Dam project established a large Ainu cultural museum and some recreational areas. However, Nibutani remains a quiet town without much economic development other than tourism. Many Ainu residents and environmentalists do not see any benefits from keeping the dam.
Sources & Materials
Related laws and legislations - Juridical texts related to the conflict

Land Expropriation Act
[click to view]

Aboriginal Protection Act of 1899

References to published books, academic articles, movies or published documentaries

Kayano, S. (1994). Our Land was a Forest: An Ainu Memoir. Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press.
[click to view]

Sonohara, T. (1997). Toward a Genuine Redress for an Unjust Past: The Nibutani Dam Case, E Law 4(2).
[click to view]

Simon Cotterill, Ainu Success: the Political and Cultural Achievements of Japan’s Indigenous Minority
[click to view]

The translation of the Nibutani Dam decision, "Kayano, et al. v. Hokkaido Expropriation Committee is available on the internet.
[click to view]

Tsunemoto, T. (2003), Constitutional and Legal Status of the Ainu in Japan: A National Report.
[click to view]

Links to general newspaper articles, blogs or other websites

Law for the Promotion of the Ainu Culture and for the Dissemination and Advocacy for the Traditions of the Ainu and the Ainu Culture
[click to view]

Georgina Stevens, Cultural Survival, 2004 "More Than Paper: Protecting Ainu Culture and Influencing Japanese Dam Development"
[click to view]

Meta information
Contributor:Kenichi Matsui, Associate Professor, University of Tsukuba
Last update01/05/2019
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