Best not to mention

In Michael Crichton's Rising Sun
a mention of the "unmentionable"
became unmentionable

By William Wetherall

A version of this article appeared in
Mainichi Daily News, 8 November 1992, page 17 (Waiwai Waido)

Minor cosmetic surgery has been applied to the Japanese translation of Rising Sun, Michael Crichton's controversial crime thriller. One result of this cutting and stitching is a less explicit face on the subject of social discrimination in Japan.

The English version has two paragraphs in which Theresa Asakuma, a Japanese graduate student at an American university, tells narrator Peter Smith, a police officer, that in her childhood she was treated "lower than burakumin" because she had a deformed arm and a black father (p. 261). Asakuma had already explained "what the burakumin are" by describing how some people "check the family history (of a would-be bride or groom) to be sure there are no burakumin in the past."

Asakuma is not surprised that Smith has never heard of burakumin, for as she tells him, "In Japan, where everyone is supposedly equal, no one speaks of burakumin."

As though to vindicate this myth that "no one speaks of burakumin" (see last week's Wai Wai Waido), the Japanese version replaces the two original paragraphs by lines that avoid all mention of them: "In that country where everyone is supposed to be equal, there are various kinds of groundless discrimination. [Japan] gives birth to [kinds of] discrimination about which the lack of understanding is incredible."

Crichton's translator, and the president of Hayakawa Shobo, the publishing company, visited Crichton in the United States to obtain his permission to make cuts and changes in the above and other passages. They apparently explained to Crichton that a faithful translation would invite undesirable reaction in Japan. Crichton apparently agreed to the proposed revisions on the grounds that the original passages were not crucial to the main story.

Hayakawa refused to comment on the above (and other) doctored passages. But the translation editor said that Hayakawa had acted on its own, without any contact from the Buraku Liberation League (BLL).

For the past 70 years, BLL (or its precursor) has actively protested how some publications have portrayed burakumin ("community people"), a term that refers to people who regard themselves as descendants of Japanese whose outcaste status was legally abolished in 1871. Over one century later, some residents of former outcaste communities continue to experience discrimination in schools, marriage and employment.

Komori Tatsukuni, a member of the House of Representatives, and BLL's Secretary-General, was less reluctant than Hayakawa to comment on its handling of Rising Sun. Komori is opposed to "self-censorship" if defined as cuts and changes made by a publisher without the permission of the writer and translator. The permission Hayakawa obtained from Crichton, however, seems to have failed Komori's condition that mutual conviction in the need for revision be based on sufficient discussion.

It seems that Hayakawa failed to inform Crichton about its 1990-1991 confrontation with BLL over the publisher's translation of Karel van Wolferen's Enigma of Japanese Power. BLL's protest caused Hayakawa to worry that it might lose a lot of money on sales of van Wolferen's book. The dispute was resolved by agreement to a cosmetic change in future editions. At a public debate with van Wolferen, and in three Asahi Television debates, Komori has made it clear that BLL is not in principle opposed to freedom of expression and criticism, and does not encourage censorial editing based on fear of BLL confrontation.

Taken at face value, these and other comments by Komori suggest that BLL would not have objected to an unexpurgated Japanese translation of Rising Sun. If so, then Hayakawa's censoring of Rising Sun tellingly supports van Wolferen's thesis about how publishers in Japan are apt to respond to real or imagined threats from pressure groups like BLL.

Among other well-known books in English, the Japanese editions of Edwin Reischauer's The Japanese, James Clavell's novel Shogun, and Alec Dubro's and David Kaplan's investigative classic Yakaza, have all been expurgated. And in 1991, at considerable expense, a just-printed issue of JAL's fight magazine Winds was scrapped and reprinted without a story, on private investigation agencies, that mentioned burakumin.

Yet one can find books on buraku discrimination at most larger bookstores in Japan. And hundreds of back-list titles are available from BLL, other burakumin organizations, and publishing houses that specialize in social issues. So why all the censorial fuss?

Next time (two weeks from now): True or false?