Buraku issues

By William Wetherall

Preface to:
Alastair McLauchlan
Prejudice and Discrimination in Japan: The Buraku Issue
Lewiston (NY): The Edwin Mellen Press, 2003
Japanese Studies Volume 20
Pages v-viii

Japan is a large, complex, politically forged country. Its tumultuous history has been an ever changing stage for normal human pathologies, including prejudice and discrimination and their social and psychological consequences. Dr. McLauchlan's study of such consequences in Buraku-X, which until 1871 was a settlement of outcastes, suggests the kinds of problems that remain today, and will probably not vanish anytime soon.

Since 1871, when the caste system was abolished (today only the Imperial Family is legally defined as a caste within the general population of nationals), there have been no outcastes in Japan. Numerous academic and journalistic claims to the contrary, including some made by this reviewer in his earliest reports, are simply misinformed and misleading.

What exists today are:

(1) lingering prejudice and discrimination on the part of some people against the residents and former residents of neighborhoods still associated with pre-1871 outcaste settlements, and ambivalence as to whether such associations should be kept alive through identity politics.

(2) vestiges of social problems, slowly resolving but still endemic to some of these neighborhoods, the accumulated effects of many generations of degrading experiences, poverty, and hopelessness;

(3) conflict between advocacy organizations, some of which have used heavy-handed tactics and demanded radical measures to eliminate prejudice and discrimination, thus ideologically dividing the affected communities and alienating the general public;

(4) envy and jealousy on the part of neighborhoods that have not benefited from the sort of improvements made possible by the special funding sometimes granted communities like Buraku-X;

(5) a national government that, in the absence of a clear political mandate from the elected representatives of prefectural and municipal polities, regards the affairs of Buraku-X and its cousins as primarily the responsibility of local governments, and wishes to avoid legislation that would risk the formation of a permanent class of victims within the national population; and

(6) academics, journalists, and publishers who -- perhaps reflecting the attitudes of a general population that is largely uninformed and apathetic about problems of prejudice and discrimination that seem historically or geographically remote -- are apt to remain silent rather than risk the ire of pressure organizations that have earned a reputation for intolerance of criticism and free speech.

Most important, though, are the people who happen to have been born in, or moved into, or even moved out of, a neighborhood with historical ties to a distant past when its denizens were legally defined and treated as an inferior caste. It is their voices that need to be heard. And this is the overarching contribution of Dr. McLauchlan's field report.

What Dr. McLauchlan writes about the history and politics of prejudice and discrimination in Japan, past and present, constitute only one of several possible understandings. As in the parable about the three blind men and the elephant, Dr. McLauchlan sees what he feels -- and what he feels depends on his point of departure, which is clearly one of sympathy for his informants. This is not an unexpected or necessarily blinding bias, though, as practically all social scientists are, to a large degree, motivated by hope that their research will improve the conditions of the people they are privileged to study.

In another sense, social scientists like Dr. McLauchlan face the same problems as physicists. To paraphrase Heisenberg, "What we observe is not society itself, but society exposed to our method of questioning." An observer is part of society, and while the observer is observing society, society is observing the observer and affecting the observer's observation. Dr. McLauchlan was as much under observation as his informants, since he would not have been introduced to them, much less been allowed to interview them, had the Buraku Liberation League (BLL), the advocacy organization that dominates Buraku-X politics, not first cleared his intentions and then facilitated his research.

Dr. McLauchlan had no illusions that he was not somewhat of an elephant himself in Buraku-X. He was physically and linguistically conspicuous. And his questions made it plain he was not a tourist. Even had he been able to pass as a local, had he not been declared bona fide by BLL, he would have been met with suspicion more than curiosity, simply because of the kinds of questions he asked.

The conditions under which Dr. McLauchlan carried out his interviews, though of only twenty-one people selected by his BLL facilitators, make his report all the more remarkable. Not only does he let us hear their voices as clearly and uncensored as possible, but he refuses to let his indebtedness to BLL stop him from biting a couple of its fingers.

The days are gone in which a social scientist can just walk into a community and start talking to people. One has to be practically ordained in the local religion before the mouths of believers will open. In this sense, Dr. McLauchlan may have gotten as close as anyone, outsider or insider, is likely to get to a small but diverse sample of Buraku-X residents willing to talk about their circumstances and feelings.

William Wetherall
Abiko, Japan
June 2003