The burakumin debate

Gunfight at the FCCJ corral

By William Wetherall

A version of this article appeared in
The Japan Times Weekly, 32(10), 7 March 1992, pages 1,4-5,15

Caution -- The so-called burakumin referred to in this article do not exist.
See Buraku residents under Minorities.

George De Vos, an anthropologist on the "wrong" side of the "political correctness" epidemic at the University of California at Berkeley, wondered if this new strain of the ancient thought-control virus had spread to Japan.

Too late, I told him in his office last spring. But De Vos, a student of how minorities try to survive, knew first hand about the sort of ideological censorship that has been endemic in Japan for most of this century. What he wanted to know were the latest developments.

In some ways, freedom of opinion and expression in Japan have improved since 1977, when the Buraku Liberation League tried to halt sales of Japan's Invisible Race (Caste in Culture and Personality), which De Vos edited with Hiroshi Wagatsuma (University of California Press, 1966, 1972). In other ways, though, editorial knees remain very jerky. And being a free press is still a risky business. Reischauer and Clavell

The Japanese translation of Edwin Reischauer's The Japanese, published in 1979 by Bungei Shunju, one of Japan's most prestigious publishing houses, was censored without warning to the reader. The author's entire discussion of historical eta and present-day burakumin, two paragraphs running over half a page, were cut. Briefer mentions of these groups were either deleted, or reworded in "politically correct" proletarian terms, like "unliberated burakumin" for simply "burakumin". Yet translator Kunihiro Masao, now a parliamentarian, wrote in his epilogue that the Japanese version was "complete" and "accurate".

Wordwise, the Japanese translation of James Clavell's historical novel Shogun, published in 1980, was lighter than the original. Some of Clavell's intentionally or otherwise creative Japanese names, language, and geography were "corrected" or deleted. And some windy explanations of things Japanese were omitted.

Dozens of mentions of eta, most of them in unidiomatic curses, were left out. A flawed description of eta was recast in more accurate terms. But in 1981, a private citizen complained to TBS Britannica, and the publisher recalled the 8th-printing of the third volume. The volume was reissued with eleven lines missing but no acknowledgment of the cut.

The censored 9th-printing was dated April 1, the beginning of the fiscal year in Japan, when many businesses make a clean start. But the purification of Shogun was no April Fools' joke for publishing ethics, or for freedom of expression, right or wrong. If America had been Japan when Alex Haley wrote Roots, he could never have used the word "nigger". Jansen's "pariah eta"

Marius Jansen's scholarly Sakamoto Ryoma and the Meiji Restoration was first published by Princeton University Press in 1961. Jiji News Agency published a Japanese translation in 1965. In 1989, the Buraku Liberation League (BLL, also called "Kaido" from Buraku Kaiho Domei) demanded that Jiji recall and "correct" the translation, which in 24 years had gone through 19 printings and sold over 50,000 copies.

Why? Because one mention in the original book of "the pariah eta community" had been rendered tokushu burakumin (special burakumin) by two translators, both dead.

BLL insisted that Jiji cut the page with the condemned expression from all unsold copies, and paste in a page reprinted to read hisabetsu minshu (discriminated against people). It also demanded that Jiji "educate" its staff about discrimination against burakumin. This was the third time for BLL to "denounce" Jiji for discrimination.

BLL's predecessor, the National Levelers Association, declared an open season on tokushu buraku (special community) in 1951. In 1965, even the government's Dowa Policy Council, which oversees the dowa ("integration") of former outcaste communities, agreed that the words were discriminatory. Yet some people regard them as appropriate because BLL seeks special laws and policies for burakumin communities. And the founders of the Levelers Association used them toward themselves.

Jansen, in any case, used the term eta, which was historically correct for the period about which he was writing. Pariah was his nutshell way of giving some idea of what eta were without digressing from his main story. Translating eta as tokushu burakumin was wrong because such expressions were not invented until after eta and other outcastes were abolished by law in 1871.

Proud to be eta

The translators probably used tokushu burakumin because this had been the expression favored by the Levelers Association (Suiheisha) in its 1922 inaugural declaration beginning: "Special Burakumin throughout the country unite!" The National Levelers Association (Zenkoku Suiheisha) was renamed Buraku Liberation League in 1955, and BLL still features the original declaration in many of its publications.

The declaration also includes the line: "The time has come when we can be proud that we are eta." However, this line is entirely missing in BLL's official English version, which also omits all occurrences of the word "special".

So BLL pursues "political correctness" in the name of a double standard that denies part of its own past, and imposes the language of 20th-century victimhood ideologies on earlier periods when "minorities" as such were not yet defined. Such pursuits say something about BLL's tolerance for truth -- the illumination of which is not, of course, the purpose of "right-minded" political protest.

The first of three resolutions attached to the inaugural declaration reads: "[We] will conduct rigorous denunciations [tetteiteki kyudan] when [someone] displays an attitude of contempt toward us through words and deeds [that involve the use of expressions] like eta and special burakumin." So it seems that such expressions are discriminatory only when BLL says they are.

"Denunciation" is BLL's way of sentencing publishers and others that it has ruled guilty of discrimination. The object is to correct, not penalize, attitudes and behaviors through criticism, retraction, apology, and education. But BLL's tactics, from written demands to desk arrests, have earned the reputation of being heavy-handed.

Enter van Wolferen

When the Japanese edition of Karel van Wolferen's The Enigma of Japanese Power came out in 1990, BLL strongly objected to the way the Dutch journalist had called their spade a spade. Hayakawa Shobo, the publishers, panicked when they received a 12-page, closely printed protest from BLL, with the organization's three-centimeter vermilion seal on the front, and phone threats to disrupt business as usual.

Hayakawa Shobo balked. It canceled planned promotional ads and restricted distribution and sales. The publisher was not chartered to champion freedom of the press. Best known as a translation house for foreign popular fiction, it had struck a jackpot with Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time, and it expected good returns on van Wolferen's controversial analysis of "the Japan problem".

Van Wolferen, abroad at the time, strongly protested Hayakawa's vacillation. His immediate response was to call up his many journalist friends, who reported his story outside Japan in greater detail, and with greater freedom, than it was being told in Japan. By the time van Wolferen returned to Japan, he had made up his mind about strategy. He had no intention of submitting to BLL and becoming an accomplice of "the system" that he thinks makes Japan a problem for itself and the world. He knew his facts were right, and he believed that his opinions should not be subject to anyone's censure.

As a practical problem, Van Wolferen had to convince Hayakawa to support him, and both had to placate BLL. The way out for the writer and publisher became clear when they realized they held all the cards.

One card was the Komichi Shobo case. The year before, the small publisher had brought out a collection of letters to Motoshima Hitoshi, the Nagasaki mayor who a rightist tried to assassinate for saying that Emperor Hirohito was partly to blame for the Pacific War. One of the letters upset BLL, but the publisher rebuffed its demand to remove it. The publisher agreed, though, to add an appendix in which it defended its refusal to censor, and BLL argued why it disliked the letter.

The NGO card

Another card was that BLL's attempt to "denounce" Hayakawa Shobo vindicated van Wolferen's thesis that such vigilante tactics contributed to the climate of fear which provoked many editors to voluntarily censor anything that they thought might arouse the organization's ire.

But the trump card was the discovery of BLL's Achilles' heel.

BLL had put itself in the position of having to publicly play down its kangaroo court image. In the eyes of the United Nations, at least, it had to appear to be a peaceful organization that supported the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human rights, especially the right to freedom of opinion and expression without interference.

In 1988, BLL set up an organization called International Movement Against All Forms of Discrimination and Racism. IMADR applied to the Non-Governmental Organizations Committee for consultive status with the United Nations Economic and Social Council. But the following year its request was denied, ostensibly because it was too new to have proven itself internationally. Another plausible reason, though, was IMADR's umbilical links with BLL. If BLL didn't improve its image, IMADR might never get NGO recognition. And then BLL's bid to join the movement to globalize minority politics would be for naught.

Hayakawa Shobo retained attorney Igarashi Futaba, who was active in representing human rights issues in Japan before the United Nations, and BLL was aware of her pull with the UN. It was the first time for BLL to negotiate with a publisher's attorney. It was also its first time to contend with a journalist with clout who was resolved not to surrender his ground. BLL had bit off more than it could chew.

The three parties reached a "political solution" that allowed van Wolferen's book to remain virtually uncensored. Van Wolferen set up an "Open Debate" before The Foreign Correspondents' Club of Japan, between himself and BLL Secretary General cum Lower House member Komori Tatsukuni. Komori is also an IMADR director, and is a member of the delegation that has been lobbying the NGO committee.

Van Wolferen agreed not to disclose the negative aspects of BLL's denunciation against Hayakawa Shobo. He also assented to ask a question that would give Komori an opportunity to deny that BLL forces editors to "correct" articles to its liking, and to affirm that the press has been free to publish articles about burakumin issues, even when the articles have been critical of BLL. So the "debate" was partly rigged to let BLL give the world the impression that, contrary to fact, it is tolerant.

Special community

The Japanese version of The Enigma of Japanese Power remains in print. A summary of the debate is being put into the book looseleaf. Van Wolferen made only one concession in wording, which had nothing to do with his critical analysis of how BLL and other such organizations commensurate with the system they purport to be against.

Van Wolferen had used the expression "special community" in his book. His translator had rendered this tokushu buraku, and BLL wanted this replaced with one of its "politically correct" expressions. Well, how about adding the adjective marker na between tokushu and buraku? Softer, yes, but not enough. Then how about also changing buraku to komyuniti, the katakana version of English "community"? Now there was an idea. And there were ample precedents.

A Victorian translation of Kojiki, Japan's bible of national myth, used Latin to hide the nasty parts from the horny herds who could read only English. Kichigai (crazy) is taboo in mass media, but katakana kureeji is okay. Comics for kids avoid native words for sexual organs or acts, but what internationally-minded PTAer would object to katakana versions of creative English expressions like "Apollo's tower" and "Apollo's gate" engaged in (Oh, my!) "docking"?

So tokushu na komyuniti is now a BLL-certified way of saying that yes, after all, there is something different and even special about those places where descendants of yesteryear's outcastes are supposed to be living and battling discrimination. One difference, of course, is that some forms of discrimination do, indeed, exist and should be eliminated. But another is that the agendas of burakumin organizations are usually concerned with more that just ending discrimination.

Fraternal struggle

In January this year, IMADR's reapplication for NGO recognition was deferred to 1993, again because of insufficient achievement and lack of internationality. But this time, BLL's arch rival -- the National Federation of Buraku Liberation Movements (Zenkoku Buraku Kaiho Undo Rengokai, abbreviated "Zenkairen"), the result of a split in BLL ranks in the 1960s and 1970s -- sent a delegation to the UN to lobby against NGO recognition for IMADR, charging that it was a BLL front, and that BLL is a violence group that engages in fascist acts.

IMADR calls Zenkairen's efforts to sabotage its bid for NGO status "malicious obstruction activities" (akushitsu na bogai katsudo). But sans their ideological tones, Zenkairen's alarms ring true.

Both IMADR and its "Japan Committee", IMADR-JC, are clearly BLL subsidiaries. And while BLL elites dissociate themselves from the rank-and-file "loose missiles" that have sometimes lost their cool in the heat of protest -- and while BLL takes refuge in a court ruling that has recognized the legality of non-violent "denunciations" -- BLL has done little to assure publishers that they no longer have to worry about BLL interference in their dissemination of opinion.

Continuing censorship

Do the Komichi Shobo and van Wolferen cases mean that the days of laissez-faire censorship on BLL demand are over? Perhaps. But with or without BLL interference, many publishers seem willing to voluntarily censor facts and opinions related to burakumin and other minorities.

In 1989, between these two landmark cases, a senior editor at Kodansha International asked this writer to outline a book on minorities for a series of volumes he was proposing on social issues in Japan. The editor liked my outline, but KI's executive vice president cum director, and its editorial vice president, said no. Why? Because my list of minorities was too long. And because it included burakumin.

Few such censors lost their jobs even after the van Wolferen case, judging from the Japanese translation of Alec Dubro and David Kaplan's Yakuza, published this spring by Daisan Shokan. Though the translation tolerated historical mentions of eta and hinin outcastes, it yielded to taboos about connecting burakumin with crime.

A one page description of outcastes up to 1871, when outcaste classifications were abolished by law, was faithfully rendered, except for the final sentence. The original concludes, "the abuse and victimization of these people remains to this day, and continues to drive substantial numbers of burakumin into the hands of the yakuza." But the translation has only "forcing sacrifices on these people, and abusing them, continues even today," followed by this editorial comment in parentheses: "Hence the struggle with buraku discrimination is today becoming an ever more important national task [kokuminteki kadai]."

The translation preserves the ahistorical flaw in the authors' account of outcaste involvement in gambling and rackets, which was to use burakumin interchangeably with eta and hinin, thus encouraging the reader to believe that burakumin existed before modern times. But it also suppresses the authors' main point that, a century after eta and hinin outcastes were emancipated, a disproportionately large percentage of their descendants are thought to be involved in criminal gangs.

Victimized criminals

But the editorial note does the greatest damage to the book's investigative objectivity by telling a proletarian lie. Only someone who views the world from the bottom of the "liberation movement" well could believe that the "struggle" against burakumin discrimination is becoming, or has become, a concern of the people of Japan.

At least the censoring of Yakuza has been consistent. Practically an entire paragraph, containing several sentences that give estimates of the number of Koreans in Japan and burakumin, and guesstimates of their representation in yakuza gangs, has been cut. Gone is that infamous unofficial claim, which the authors attributed to unnamed police, that "burakumin comprise some 70 percent of the membership, and Koreans 20 percent." Some of the next paragraph was cut, most notably its first sentence: "Similarly, although to a lesser extent, many of the small numbers of resident Chinese are also driven into the yakuza."

Such appraisals of the involvement of specific minorities in criminal gangs were reduced to a single remark of an ideologically different stripe: "In yakuza organizations there are many people who become yakuza for the reason that they receive severe discrimination in today's Japan." From here, the translation becomes generally faithful, except where "these minorities" become "these people".

Domestic misunderstandings

Translator Matsui Michio writes in his epilogue that, with the authors' consent, he had cut "only a few parts that, although necessary from the standpoint of academic explanation, run the risk [osore no aru] of engendering misunderstandings in Japan's society [Nihon no shakai]."

What kind of "academic explanation" is necessary in English but might confuse people who read only Japanese? Given this editorial impulse to protect people in Japan from the right to misunderstand considered opinion originating in English, no wonder so many Japanese are shocked by foreigners who raise questions about Japan's "invisible race" -- a metaphor that seems to have gone straight over the heads of BLL's Marxist intellectuals.

Burakumin are not the only minorities in Japan who are being misrepresented by some of their own organizations. Ethnic minorities like Ainu and Koreans also suffer from counterproductive ideologies, including racialism, in their own ranks. BLL, while representing a social rather than ethnic minority, fosters a "united front" with Ainu Japanese and Korean organizations. Like many other minority organizations, it endorses a racialist rather than civil view of Japan. But how minorities discriminate against each other, and even themselves, is another story.

William Wetherall is an Asia scholar who specializes in minorities.