Looking at homogeneity

A flawed heart in the right place

By William Wetherall

A review of
G. G. Weeramantry
Human Rights in Japan
Melbourne: Lantana Books, circa 1984 (nlt 1979)
[Printed at the State Printing Corporation, Sri Lanka]
3, 123 pages, softcover

A version of this article appeared as
"Looking at homogeneity" in
Far Eastern Economic Review, 136(19), 7 May 1987, page 52

Christopher Gregory Weeramantry was a Judge of the Supreme Court of Sri Lanka from 1967 to 1972. He became a professor of law at Monash University, Melbourne, in 1972 and wrote this book in 1979 after a period of stay in Japan while a research fellow at the Law Faculty of the University of Tokyo.

There are thousands of books in Japanese, and dozens in English, about human rights in Japan. Most of them discuss rights in the context of social discrimination or political censorship.

This book's 120 pages cover 64 subjects in 11 chapters: (1) general observations, (2) civil liberties commissioners, (3) disadvantaged groups, (4) position of women, (5) science, technology and human rights, (6) bench and bar, (7) education for human rights, (8) politics and human rights, (9) social aspects, (10), specific human rights questions, and (11) international orientation of human rights.

Although this is the most comprehensive book of its kind in English, its author, a professor of law and former judge, is not sufficiently expert in the non-legal subjects to write reliable encyclopaedic summaries, and so the reader must proceed with caution. C. G. Weeramantry states in his preface that he wrote the "brief study" in 1979 after a period of research in Japan, and that "this report was not initially intended to be published, but it is now [circa 1984] published in response to the growing international interest in this subject."

The chapter on "disadvantaged groups" is a case in point. It covers the buraku problem, the Koreans, foreigners, "Occupation babies," illegal immigrants, long-term residents, and the hibakusha (atom bomb victims). His summary of the buraku problem is tolerable until he quotes, from James Clavell's novel Shogun, one of the many passages which were expurgated from the 1980 Japanese translation because some groups claimed they were inaccurate or discriminatory.

His section on Koreans is more seriously defective. he writes that the 650,000 Koreans residing in Japan in 1979 were not there "through their own action or volition, but for reasons completely beyond their control." This is true only in the sense that most of these Koreans were born in Japan but did not have a say in their births. Their parents or grandparents, though, probably came to Japan voluntarily between 1910 and 1945, as colonial subjects with Japanese citizenship and permits to settle in Japan. Most of the Koreans who were "brought to Japan to provide labour" were repatriated after the war.

He does not mention Japan's Chinese residents in the section on foreigners, in which he observes that "the Japanese are the largest homogeneous community on earth, and have had no in-migration for over a thousand years" (page 29). Ainu and Okinawans will object to the Nakasonian "homogeneity" claim, and descendants of Korean and other immigrants, especially at the end of the 16th and beginning of the 17th century, will refute the closed-border stereotype.

At least two important subjects are conspicuously overlooked: the plight of the mentally and physically handicapped, and censorship of sexual expression in art and other media. But Weeramantry's heart is in the right place, and his little book deserves wider reading.