The facts about buraku

Recent media coverage

By William Wetherall

A version of this article appeared in
Mainichi Daily News, 1 November 1992, page 9 (Waiwai Waido)

Journalists who cover Japan's ethnic and social minorities have to be careful about "politically correct" cliches. Each so-called "group" is pursued by at least one "positive" stereotype that seems to make perfect sense--until inconvenient facts show it to be a distortion of truth in the sentimental service of an organized victimhood cause.

Ainu Japanese are often called "Japan's aboriginal race"--when-in fact none of Japan's several ethnic groups (Ainu, Okinawan, Yamato and others) can claim to be the most indigenous. Calling Shinto "Japan's native religion" is another example of a specious "first here" claim.

The Korean-born descendants of Japan-born Koreans and some Japanese of Korean descent are typically described as having been "brought" or otherwise "forced to come" to Japan as laborers during the decades that Korea was a colony of Japan. In fact, most Koreans in Japan and Korean Japanese are the descendants of the roughly one million Koreans who freely migrated to Japan during the years before the Pacific War. Most of the nearly one million Koreans who were put in labor camps during the war repatriated because they had not settled in Japan.

Burakumin--not an ethnic minority but people who regard themselves as the descendants of Japanese who were legally emancipated from their outcaste status in 1871--are routinely reported to suffer a lack of name recognition, which is commonly blamed on a poverty of publicity. One British journalist recently explained the "ignorance" of two college-educated Japanese who allegedly had never heard of burakumin as follows: "the main reason so few Japanese are aware of the plight of the burakumin is that the subject is rarely discussed in the media."

In fact, burakumin--literally "community people"--get quite a bit of attention in print media and even on television. If some readers of national newspapers and weekly magazines do not know anything about the government-recognized one million (burakumin organizations claim three million) descendant-residents of former outcaste communities, it is for the same reason that American readers who are not interested in Japan are apt to pass right over Japan-related articles in their local papers.

This very minute, Josei Jishin (10.20, 10.27, 11.3, 11.24) is serializing the testimony of a woman whose plans to marry a high school sweetheart were destroyed by would-be in-laws who failed to appreciate her burakumin ancestry. A month after her fiance's father told her that it was his "duty to protect this family" into which he himself had been adopted through marriage, she swallowed sleeping pills and got in a hot bath. Discrimination in marriage is a perennial issue in Josei Jishin, which two years ago ran a similar series of articles.

For publishing a fictionalized version of a true crime story that contained "discriminatory" language, Shukan Josei last year (1991.9.3) was denounced by the Buraku Liberation League (BLL), the largest organization in a faction-divided movement that is aiming to draft and enact a national law that would proscribe all forms of discrimination against people from former outcaste communities. The outcome of this protracted showdown--between the defenders of "freedom of expression" and advocates of "freedom from discrimination"--was a five-page feature in a recent issue of Shukan Josei (1992.5.5), which stated BLL's grievances, gave a Q&A rundown of "facts" about buraku discrimination, an issue-by-issue account of discrimination cases (marriage, employment, bullying), and finally an apology from the magazine (a few of whose staff had received some BLL sensitivity training, including a tour of a former outcaste community).

TV Asahi has broadcast three very intense hour debates on buraku discrimination in its Asa Made Nama Terebi series. The first two of these all-night marathons ran in July and November 1989, the third in May this year. NHK's education channel is also a regular producer of features on buraku discrimination.

Two years ago, many weekly magazines carried a full-page Ministry of justice promotion which called for a "rugby scrum" against intimidation scams that exploit popular fear of the residents of former outcaste communities. This government plug for human rights claimed at such crimes were "greatly impeding the dissolution of buraku discrimination."

Next week: How the publishing company Hara Shobo, after facing a BLL protest about its Japanese translation of Karel van Wolferen's Enigma of Japanese Power, got Michael Crichton to permit the suppression of a description of buraku discrimination in the Japanese edition of Rising Sun.