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Tuesday, June 29, 1999

A century after emancipation, buraku issue still haunts Japan

AN INTRODUCTION TO THE BURAKU ISSUE: Questions and Answers, by Suehiro Kitaguchi. Translation and introduction by Alastair McLauchlan. Richmond, Surrey: Japan Library, 1999, pp. 211, 35 British pounds (cloth).

This is the translation of a number of important articles by Suehiro Kitaguchi in which he deals with the problem of discrimination against Japan's historic "unclean" underclass, the "burakumin." The translator, Alastair McLauchlan, has done an excellent job in editing these papers and adding a highly informative introduction. Together with Kitaguchi's text, the introduction provides a succinct and instructive overview of Japanese anti-buraku prejudice and its social consequences. The book also includes an index and an appendix with reference materials such as government ordinances, commission reports, etc.

Structured in a question-and-answer format, the book offers a wealth of information about the burakumin, the former outcasts whose subclass status was formally abolished by the 1871 Meiji Emancipation Edict, but who continued to suffer from various forms of discrimination well into the present. While concentrating on the plight of people of bu-raku descent, author and translator are not oblivious to the many antidiscrimination measures the government and private organizations have undertaken.

Their conclusion is clear: Much has been accomplished, but remnants of prejudice remain and awareness of discrimination is still low. There is no reason, therefore, to consider the problem solved.

While all hard statistics indicate that the gap between burakumin and mainstream society is diminishing, differences in levels of health care, education, housing, employment and income remain.

To some extent improvements will continue as members of the older generation, who have received little or no formal education, die. However, the problem of discriminatory attitudes has yet to be completely eradicated.

For example, private investigators are still employed to research prospective marriage partners' and employees' private backgrounds, although this practice has long been illegal. Marriages between buraku and non-buraku partners often break up under social pressure. A buraku background is still a stigma in this society, bringing about hardship and disadvantage.

As long as this is the case, as long as a tacit willingness to turn a blind eye to incidents of discrimination remains common, the defenders of buraku rights have a case to make.

Kitaguchi writes about the buraku issue not as a detached observer, but as a concerned citizen who raises his voice in order to ameliorate the situation, and a powerful voice it is. However, combining investigative accuracy with social commitment is not always easy.

Although Kitaguchi's attempt to put the buraku issue into the global context of racial and social discrimination is to be appreciated, the parallels he draws are not always convincing. For example, he refers to the rise of the Nazi party in Germany from 1928 to 1933 when it came to power and with it institutionalized anti-Semitism. Mentioning the genocide of European Jews in the same context with the plight of the burakumin bears the risk of serious misunderstanding. Does the author want to deny that there are very significant differences between various forms of discrimination, some readers may be led to wonder.

While I don't think so, it seems to me that Kitaguchi undercuts the strength of his call for higher discrimination awareness in Japan by what many will consider overblown comparisons.

Despite this critical note, this book is highly recommended reading for all who maintain an interest in what remains a sensitive issue in contemporary Japanese society.

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