Monkey business and caste

By William Wetherall

A review of
Emiko Ohnuki-Tierney
The Monkey As Mirror:
Symbolic Transformations in Japanese History and Ritual

Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1987
xiv, 269 pages, hardcover

A version of this article appeared in
Asahi Evening News, 23 September 1988, page 9

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

Ask a bona fide anthropologist to explain the causes of prejudice against Japan's underclass. Hopefully you'll get a book that provokes more thought than most on this ideologically much-abused subject, but stops short of the reductionism that flaws the otherwise entertaining The Monkey As Mirror, which overrates the role of the monkey "in the Japanese deliberation upon the crucial distinction between humans and non-human animals" and all but blames monkeys for Japan's xenophobia.

Ohnuki-Tierney, a Professor of Anthropology at the University of Wisconsin (Illness and Healing among the Sakhalin Ainu: A Symbolic Interpretation, and Illness and Culture in Contemporary Japan: An Anthropological View, Cambridge, 1981 and 1984), tries to rescue the quasi-science of anthropology from extinction by combining it with the quasi-science of history. She advocates the application of historical anthropology to so-called "complex" societies, which she thinks have been mislabeled because, in her opinion, a simple or primitive culture has never existed. And she believes that Japan is ideal for such an approach because its oldest documents date to the 8th century.

The author argues that no culture has ever been homogeneous, and that a culture can be represented in a number of ways. She dubs her book "an anthropology of Japan, a post-industrial society with a high degree of intra-cultural variation, contrary to the stereotypical image of 'homogeneity.'"

The books faults are redeemed in lines like these: "To talk about 'the Japanese' or 'Japanese culture' is to commit the anthropological sin of lumping the whole population under one umbrella." The author adds that "A major focus of this book is indeed intra-cultural variation and its effect upon the perception of ritual."

Ohnuki-Tierney defines two specific groups: "dominant Japanese" and "special status people". The former refers to the agrarian population she claims first occupied southwestern Japan but later became the majority group throughout the country. The author writes that most historical sources focus on this group, but she wishes to emphasize "the folk, not the intellectual elite"--by which she means the ordinary member of what former prime minister Nakasone Yasuhiro would have just called Nippon minzoku ("the Japanese race").

The "special status people" get a full 25 pages in Chapter 4, between "The Monkey in Japanese Culture" and "The Monkey Performance". This placement serves the author's contention that monkeys and their trainers (who belong to the group she calls "special status people") have been "mediators, scapegoats, and clowns" for Japanese.

Elsewhere in Chapter 4, Japan's "special status people" are referred to by the many words used with changing meanings throughout history to label Japan's underclass or outcaste citizens-from early terms like senmin ("base people"), eta ("excessive impurity"), and hinin ("non-human"), to modern burakumin ("settlement people").

The author maintains that they have not been "a monolithic group cloistered from the rest of the Japanese throughout history" and hence no single label for them is appropriate or available in any language.

So Ohnuki-Tierney has called them "special status" because such a "neutral" expression can be "both positive and negative, just as the values assigned to these people have been positive and or negative at different historical times." She prefers "people" to "group" she says "primarily to avoid the inference that these people constitute a well-delineated social group that has existed throughout history." Yet she presumes to trace the existence of one or another of the many kinds of "special status people" from day one of Japanese history.

Ohnuki-Tierney's overview of the origins of Japan's "outcastes" (now called "former outcastes") is comprehensive and objective. But she errs in claiming that the "official-legal designation" for these people is now hisabetsu burakumin ("the people of settlements who are subjected to discrimination"), and that the people themselves prefer the term burakumin.

In fact, for many years the most widely used term in government and media has been dowa ("integration"), followed by words like mondai ("problem"), chiiku ("area"), kyoiku ("education"), and taisaku ("measures"). The people who are the focus of the problem are known in statistics as dowa kankei sha ("dowa related people").

Government reports avoid terms like buraku and hisabetsu buraku. Buraku liberation organizations routinely use these expressions, but rarely the word burakumin (even now, in their English publications).

Ohnuki-Tierney's scholarship is reflected in her frequent citation notes, and in her true-believer's effort to find connected symbolic meanings in everything under the anthropologized Japanese sun. But nineteen pages of references suggest that she has read very little on the modern "special status people" problem.

While the book is mainly about monkeys and monkey performances, concepts of the sacred and secular, pure and impure, and all the old theories about "insiders" and "outsiders" recast in the author's own jargon, one wonders why she went to such trouble to connect monkeys with discrimination as though this were peculiar to Japan.

Has Ohnuki-Tierney never heard the phrase "little yellow monkey" as used in English to disparage Orientals? Has she never seen those anti-Japanese Buck Rogers comic strips, like the 1943 story called "The Monkeymen of Planet X"? Would she propose a theory of "symbolic transformation" to explain such monkey business in the United States? And what about pigs, snakes, rats, Martians, and other marginals?

Incredibly, the author concludes that foreigners are treated well (her assessment) only if they remain foreigners, that "once foreigners attempt to become bona fide members of Japanese society, they encounter enormous personal and even legal difficulties."

Ohnuki-Tierney fails to define "bona fide members" or describe the alleged "personal" and "legal" difficulties. If she means "Japanese citizens" then her conclusion is wrong. If she means anything else, then her conclusion merely perpetuates a common stereotype, for the great majority of Japan's nearly 900,000 bona fide foreigners are, unlike the segregated monkeys in Ueno Zoo, fully integrated into their residential and occupational communities.