Buraku in English media

Do watchdogs exist if you can't hear their barks?

By William Wetherall


The Atlantic Monthly

Unpublished letter about "Buraku" and IQ

Far Eastern Economic Review

Unpublished letter about remarks concerning Newsweek
and other misinformation regarding buraku discrimination

The Japan Times

Four letters about "burakumin" and "outcaste"

1. Critique of "Sayama case" news report
"'Burakumin' caste does not exist"
The Japan Times, 6 February 2002 (Readers in Council)

2. Letter criticizing critique
"Law or no, the 'burakumin' live"
The Japan Times, 24 February 2002 (Readers in Council)

3. Another letter criticizing critique
"Genealogy trumps ability"
The Japan Times, 24 February 2002 (Readers in Council)

4. Rebuttal to two letters criticizing critique
"Vestiges of caste discrimination"
The Japan Times, 10 March 2002 (Readers in Council)

The New York Times

Critique of Zipangu's favorable comments about NYT's
misleading report on "Japan's Invisible Minority"

The Atlantic Monthly

Unpublished letter about "Buraku" and IQ

The following letter was emailed to The Atlantic Monthly on 6 June 2001. The letter was a belated response to Steve Olson's "The Genetic Archaeology of Race" in the April 2001, 287(4), pages 69-80.

Ordinarily I would have been quicker on the draw, but I didn't get a chance to see the issue until early June, when I found it in a stack of snailmail that had accumulated while I was. The Atlantic had previously published two letters of mine, including one in the September 1989 issue rebutting Herrnstein's remarks on IQ tests in Japan. I figured I'd have another go -- but all I received this time was a standard postcard acknowledgment that my letter had been received.

In a section called "From Skin Color to Intelligence" Olson makes this remark (pages 78-79).

Of course, at some point genetic differences must override the effects of experience. Human beings and chimpanzees differ in intelligence. If Neanderthals had survived, their behavior would probably be genetically different from ours. But the genetic differences among modern human beings are so small that group differences in behavior fall entirely within a range attributable to culture.

Having so adamantly stated that "groups" of humans cannot possibly differ in "behavior" (including "intelligence") because of genetic differences, Olson attempts to "prove" his assertion that only "culture" is involved by drawing an "example" from Japan (page 79).

Take IQ tests as an example. In Japan the Buraku are a caste of people discriminated against in education, housing, and employment. Their children typically score ten to fifteen points below other Japanese children on IQ tests -- about the average black-white difference in the United States. Yet when the Buraku emigrate to the United States, the IQ gap between them and other Japanese vanishes.

That's all Olson wrote about about "Buraku" and IQ. The "black-white difference in the United States" remark set up the next paragraph, in which he assured the reader that the "black-white gap on average IQ scores" will be statistically correlated with skin color, but that "the genetic variants affecting skin color have nothing to do with the functioning of the Brain" but rather "exert their effects entirely through the influence of culture -- by sorting people according to the color their skin" (page 79).

My letter to The Atlantic read as follows.

6 June 2001

Steve Olson's analysis of the science and politics of anthropological genetics (The Atlantic, April 2001) is, on the whole, a well-reasoned argument for continuing research in this highly controversial field. However, one of the examples he marshals in defense of his claim that group IQ differences are entirely attributable to culture requires clarification and begs attribution.

First, Olson's description of a "caste" in Japan called "Buraku" is very misleading. Until the late 19th century, several castes were defined by law in Japan. Today, the general population is legally divided into two major castes: citizens and non-citizens; and citizens are further divided into two smaller castes: the Imperial Family and other Japanese nationals.

Although laws defining outcastes were abrogated in 1871, some former outcaste communities and neighborhoods are still called "buraku" ("hamlet"), and people who continue to identify themselves as descendants of outcastes are sometimes called "burakumin" ("hamlet people"). However, neither "buraku" nor "burakumin" are official terms, and depending on the user and venue they could be considered discriminatory. Ironically, the term "burakumin" is mainly used (and often misused) by academics and journalists writing in English.

Second, and more crucially, where did Olson get his information? Who has done a carefully controlled study of the group IQ of self-identified descendants of former outcastes in Japan, and a corresponding study of such people in the United States?

We are talking about less than one percent of the entire population of Japan, to begin with. And only a fraction of this population would have emigrated. Moreover, such Japanese are indistinguishable from the general population, and the vast majority are strongly inclined to conceal their family backgrounds, if even they know or care about them. Former-outcaste identity becomes even more elusive when such people leave former-outcaste areas, and all the more so when they go overseas.

So where does a researcher obtain matched-cohort data of the quantity and quality required to substantiate the sort of claim that Olson makes -- that the 10-15 point IQ gap allegedly seen in IQ scores in Japan vanishes upon emigration to the United States? I'm not saying it doesn't or shouldn't. I'm merely questioning the "science" in Olson's argument for more science.

William Wetherall

The Japan Times

Critique of "Sayama case" news report

The Japan Times
Wednesday, February 6, 2002
Readers in Council

'Burakumin' caste does not exist

The Jan. 25 article "Appeal over 'Sayama case' dismissed" describes "burakumin" as "a caste traditionally discriminated against in Japan." Something like "descendants of outcastes who once existed in parts of Japan" would have been less misleading to readers not familiar with the history of discrimination in Japan. Leaving aside the legal status of people such as those serving time in prison, diplomats and military personnel (and a few other groups whose rights of citizenship are limited or who enjoy extraterritorial privileges), there are only three "castes" in Japan today: members of the Imperial family, ordinary Japanese citizens and non-Japanese.

The laws that once defined outcastes, such as "eta" and "hinin," were abolished in 1871. What remain today, in parts of Japan, are neighborhoods that are declared "unliberated" or discriminated "buraku" (communities) by residents who are probably affiliated with "buraku liberation" organizations and, for various extralegal reasons (including experiences of social discrimination, but also political ideology), continue to identify themselves as descendants of historical outcastes.

Not only is there no burakumin caste in Japan today but there is no "tradition" of discrimination against those who are known by this label in English. No laws or customs nurture or condone discrimination against people from former outcaste communities. This is not to deny the pain of being treated in a discriminatory manner, or to excuse the moral wrongness of discriminatory behavior. Rather, it is to argue that nothing is gained by descriptions suggesting that burakumin are a caste, or that the discrimination faced by some individuals, families or neighborhoods is "traditional."

William Wetherall

Letter criticizing critique

The Japan Times
Sunday, February 24, 2002
Readers in Council

Law or no, the 'burakumin' live

I feel compelled to reply to William Wetherall's Feb. 6 letter, "'Burakumin' caste does not exist." Legally, of course, it does not exist, but since when have laws been able to curb discrimination? In my area, Nara Prefecture, a stone's throw from the ancient capitol of Asuka, the burakumin, as a "caste," are alive and well. Buraku areas are well-recognized by everyone in the prefecture. The public bath I frequent is in a buraku area, and I am told that most "regular" citizens of my town never go there, although it's very clean and pleasant and the ("irregular?") people who do go are very friendly.

There is a town about half an hour drive from me that is known to be entirely buraku. As a Rinzai Zen monk, I was asked a couple of years ago by the mayor of that town to give a talk at the town hall on "discrimination." Having been born and raised in Texas, where discrimination against blacks and Hispanics is still rampant (though not "legal"), the talk was easy to give. There were a large number of people present (all of whom, including the mayor, would have been called "burakumin" by everybody in Nara), and we had a rousing good time.

My Afro-American friend from the U.S. state of Georgia, who now lives near Tokyo, said he loves living in Japan "because nobody calls me nigger." I fear that discrimination (racial, sexual or whatever) will never disappear from the Earth.

[Author's name deleted]

Another letter criticizing critique

The Japan Times
Sunday, February 24, 2002
Readers in Council

Genealogy trumps ability

William Wetherall's point in his Feb. 6 letter about "burakumin" not being a legally defined caste is a bizarre way to view the problem in Japan. I worked for a subsidiary of a major corporation with its head office in Tokyo. We needed a secretary, advertised in the paper and interviewed 11 candidates. We made our choice after considerable thought because a secretary's role in the workplace is central and a poor choice can adversely affect the entire working environment. We chose a qualified young woman and were confident of our choice. But then the parent company stepped in. Its own investigation had found that the woman we planned to hire was a burakumin. So we were not allowed to hire her. This decision came from a company that gives lip service to "internationalization."

Ultimately, we were forced to take a secretary not of our choice, who turned out to be totally dysfunctional in the workplace. Her version of speaking English meant disagreeing on everything -- on one occasion, even my choice for a snack. She was a known misfit at the parent company, which just dumped her on us, the foreign workers. She made copies all day of magazines. She could not even take messages over the phone. Her rudeness caused huge problems with customers with whom we had built up contacts. But she wasn't a burakumin, and that's all that mattered to the parent company.

The good news? This company is widely known to be tottering on the brink of bankruptcy. It deserves to be.


Rebuttal to two letters criticizing critique

The Japan Times
Sunday, March 10, 2002
Readers in Council

Vestiges of caste discrimination

Two letters Feb. 24 described one reader's personal experiences with "buraku" residents and another's report of job bias against a woman who was considered a "burakumin." Neither writer, though, proved the existence of a caste.

I, too, have met people from buraku, spoken before buraku liberation groups and written for buraku research publications. And no one calls burakumin a caste. The various buraku liberation groups, whatever their politics, are in full agreement that the caste status is defunct. What they recognize to exist, and what they are fighting to eliminate, is the persistence in the minds of a few individuals of discriminatory attitudes toward people from former outcaste communities.

Of course, no law is capable of curbing discrimination. But the formal elimination of discrimination begins with the abrogation of discriminatory laws and the promulgation of laws that encourage people not to discriminate. The point of my Feb. 6 letter was that it is factually incorrect to describe the descendants of yesteryear's outcastes as if they, too, constitute a caste. No one alive in Japan today was born an outcaste.

Ironically, alleging that a burakumin caste exists is itself discriminatory. It is tantamount to claiming that a class of slaves exists a century after the abolition of slavery, or to calling the descendants of former members of the Imperial family (which is a caste) "members" of the family.

William Wetherall

Far Eastern Economic Review

I stopped writing for the Far Eastern Economic Review in the fall of 1990, not long after the magazine was bought by Dow Jones and underwent major changes in editorial policies. I no longer personally knew the people who had been editing the Arts and Society section (Ian Buruma and Margaret Scott), except that the new editors were not familiar with or particularly interested in Japan -- which is not a good environment for a Japan-based writer.

My subscription to FEER continued for a while, but the quality of the Americanized magazine quickly deteriorated. However, Robert Guest, a free-lance journalist, told me he was writing a piece on buraku discrimination for FEER, so I had to check it it out.

Robert's article -- "A tale of two sisters: Japanese untouchables emerging from centuries of scorn" -- suffered from not having editors capable of spotting even the most obvious mistakes. Since I had provided Robert with some of his information, I was rather surprised by the way he pressed it into the service of a story that got so much wrong despite the unusually high quality of his writing and his obvious enthusiasm and sympathy.

Knowing the odds of getting a letter of any length or tone published, I chose to be gentle and selective. In the end, I restricted my comments to the most salient shortcomings, in particular a mistaken report about an equally misleading article called "The 'Burakumin' Stigma: A painful look at Japan's persecuted outcasts", by Angus Deming with Hideko Takayama, in the Asia edition of Newsweek, 22 June 1992, page 55.

7 July 1992

Robert Guest's story (9 July 1992) about two sisters from a family whose ancestors (until 1871) were outcastes was extremely interesting. But dubbing so-called burakumin "Japan's untouchable caste" is like calling descendants of slaves in the United States "America's slaves". These and other misleading details flaw and otherwise credible story of intrapersonal and intrafamilial conflict that makes minorities human.

Guest wrote that "The US edition of Newsweek carried a review of the film [ The River with no Bridge, about burakumin ]. The Japanese-language edition omitted the piece." What Guest read was an article written only for the Asia edition of Newsweek, to introduce the subject of burakumin to Asia-based readers. According to the Asia edition editorial office, the article did not appear in any American edition.

Kitayama Miki, the movie review editor at the TBS Britannica group that publishes the Japanese-language edition of Newsweek, told my research assistant that the Japanese-language edition did not run the review "because readers here already know about the buraku discrimination problem, and the article had no freshness." I would add another reason: many details in the Newsweek article were flawed; a literal translation would deserve strong protest from burakumin organizations.

At least part of Kitayama's reason is very acceptable. The Newsweek review also featured an interview with Sumii Sue, the author of the multi-volume novel that the film a remake, was based on. For many years, Sumii has been a well-known figure in Japan. In recent weeks, all major national dailies and many magazines have been carrying articles about her, her novels, and the film. This fact, and the many file folders full of clippings about burakumin from the local press, and several video tapes of prime time programs (not just "small hour of the morning" debates), in my possession, suggests that Guest is not quite accurate in his claim that "the plight of the burakumin . . . is rarely discussed in the media."

Guest's contentions about censorship are true enough. But they would have been better supported had ne reported the burakumin paragraph missing from the Japanese translation of Michael Crichton's best-selling novel, Rising Sun. Crichton's sociology lecture, like similar passages that were cut from the Japanese translation of James Clavell's Shogun several years ago, are as flawed as the Newsweek article. To cut such passages from translated fiction is clearly an act of self-censorship, while the omission of the Newsweek article is not.

William Wetherall

The New York Times

In 1998, a group of Japanese journalists and artists calling themselves Zipangu published a bilingual book called Warawareru Nihonjin [Laughed-at Japanese] in Japanese and Japan Made in U.S.A in English. The aim of the book was to "correct" the image of Japan created by articles in The New York Times which members of the group found to be wrong or misleading.

Zipangu directed most of its criticism at articles written by Nicholas Kristof in the mid 1990s, when he was NYT's Tokyo bureau chief. Zipangu stated that NYT's "coverage of Japanese minorities, which the Japanese media tends to stay away from reporting, is a valuable source for the Japanese to study their own society." Ironically, under the heading "The lower class" (in English) and "Dowa mondai" [Dowa problem] in Japanese, it mentions a 1995 feature article by Kristof that seriously misrepresents "the Burakumin" as "outcasts".

See the Dowa issues section of the review article entitled "Zipangu's blind agenda" under the "Misunderstanding" section on the "Nationalism" menu.