Sunday, January 25, 2009

Why Norimitsu Onishi’s Report Japan’s Outcasts Still Wait for Acceptance Is Wrong, and Why It Matters: Second Installment

Norimitsu Onishi claims that “[t]he topic of the buraku remains Japan’s biggest taboo, rarely entering private conversations and virtually ignored by the media.” Really?

True, it’s been almost thirty years since I talked to anyone about the dowa mondai at any length, and that was in the course of my work in the Small and Medium Enterprise Agency days. Also true that media outlets rarely take up the matter these days. Most recently, subsidies to dowa areas did come up during Osaka Governor Hashimoto’s negotiation with the prefectural assembly, where he told the assemblymen that he knew the issue well since he’d grown up there. The rambunctious Governor’s casual coming-out passed without further notice, so you could arguably claim this as an example where the topic was “virtually ignored by the media”. But is the reason for all this, as Onishi appears to intimate, “Japan’s obsession with its past and its inability to overcome it”? Or could there be other, more significant factors at work?

But first, let’s look a brief look at the past.

Question its motives if you will, but it was actually the Meiji government that set the ball rolling, as it went up against longstanding custom and tried to enforce the legal and social emancipation of the burakumin against entrenched, sometimes fierce, resistance. One of the pre-WW II heroes in Japanese history books is the Suiheisha, or the Leveling Society, which fought for burakumin> rights. At least one pre-war novel, Hakai (The Broken Commandment), became a bestseller (and twice made into film after WW II, but that’s another story). I do not know how the post-Meiji Restoration, pre-WW II Japanese media dealt with all this, but I do know that they were a lively bunch, so much so that their reporting looks splendiferously tabloidy to our contemporary eyes. Add the Imperial Household’s sympathies for the burakumin and other disadvantaged groups to the mix, and it is hard to believe that the media at the time would have ignored the issue altogether.

WW II brought an end to this era as everything was subsumed into the war effort. But efforts resumed at the prefectural after the war and as things began to settle down. In 1961, the national government got into the act again, as it set up an advisory council to the Prime Minister to look at the issue and suggest ways to improve the lot of the buraku people. Legislation came much later, in 1969, but three national antidiscrimination organizations—one pro-Communist, one pro-Socialist and one conservative—kept vigilance, resorting often to civil disobedience that could edge over into eventually-ritualized violence. Then and later, the reporting may have been flawed (I hope to speak to this point later), but it was there. It stretches our credulity to insinuate a longstanding social taboo and media silence.

But why the current lack of attention? I’ll come to that later. And on that note, I am going to call it a day.

In passing, I note that the post-war years saw yet another buraku cultural phenomenon, Hashi no Nai Kawa (River without a Bridge), a seven-volume series of novels that has sold to date a total of 8 million copies—there are seven volumes—and made into film twice. Do we have a culture of remakes? Seriously…

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