A Japanese court on Thursday rejected a demand by a group of Ainu indigenous people in northern Japan to be recognized as exempt from a ban on commercial salmon fishing in a river, arguing they had inherited this right from their ancestors.

The Sapporo District Court handed down the ruling that the river is public property, and that the court does not admit the rights for any particular group of people to fish there exclusively.

The Raporo Ainu Nation, which includes descendants of Ainu communities who began residing around the river in Urahoro, Hokkaido, centuries ago, is likely to appeal the ruling.

File photo taken in Urahoro, a town in Hokkaido, on Sept. 11, 2022, shows members of an Ainu indigenous people's organization holding a ritual to celebrate the arrival of the year's salmon season. (Kyodo)

The lawsuit marked the first instance where the Ainu people sought recognition of their indigenous rights from both the central and Hokkaido governments.

Salmon fishing in rivers is illegal under the law on the protection of fishery resources and Hokkaido's regulations on inland fishing. Ainu living inland can only fish salmon to practice cultural traditions and not for economic reasons.

During the trial, the plaintiffs stated that they had inherited the rights to fish salmon from their ancestors, who had inhabited the area since the Edo Era beginning in the 17th century. Their livelihoods depended on salmon fishing until it was banned under an assimilation policy pursued by the government during the Meiji Era, from 1868 to 1912.

Presiding Judge Takuro Nakano acknowledged that Ainu people have been continuously fishing salmon in the area since the 17th century at the latest and are entitled to continue their own culture.

But he also said the plaintiffs' argument has "a strong aspect of property rights" and goes beyond the scope of preserving and passing on their tradition.

Their claim is unacceptable even in light of historical circumstances, as well as treaties and international declarations on the rights of indigenous peoples, he said.

The state and the prefectural government have said the plaintiffs' arguments have no legal grounds and claimed that the regulations prohibiting salmon fishing in rivers are to protect natural resources. They pointed out that the Ainu people can get permission to fish for traditional rituals.

In 2019, Japan enforced a law that, for the first time, recognized the Ainu as an indigenous people in northern Japan and called for the protection and promotion of their culture.

However, some Ainu people have criticized it because the legislation did not mention their indigenous rights or the recovery of fishing rights.