Tuesday, January 27, 2009

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

Before we proceed to the conclusion of this series, Let’s take a look at what Norimitsu Onishi the journalist may consider to be the most important point:

It is now time to take up head on the central issues, or at least the justification, for Norimitsu Onishi’s report:

a) Is it easier for a burakumin to be a Japanese Prime Minister than a black man to be the President of the United States?; and
b) Will Japan have a burakumin Prime Minister in the foreseeable future?

My answers are: a) yes; and b) no.

With regard to the first question, note that it is inherently easier to overcome social prejudice in a parliamentary system than a presidential one. In the former, the primary source of approval that you need to reach the top is the jury of your peers, the parliamentarians that you get to know and interact on a daily, you-and-I, often intimate basis. Look at the Prime Ministers who to the layman’s eyes looked then and look now appear to be mediocrities at best. But a presidential aspirant must gain the approval of a much larger, far more diffuse constituency with whom he/she has at best an impersonal, sporadic, relationship generated and sustained by a faithless media. As such, it is essentially a beauty contest, an area—particularly where electoral campaigns are concerned—where the most superficial distinctions such as pedigree, color of skin, and place of birth can hold inordinate sway, where the only thing the electorate “gets” may be what they see, no more, no less.

It is instructive to note that an increasingly large number of African-Americans are being appointed to key administration posts that require Senate confirmation—in sharp contrast to their conspicuous absence in the Senate itself. (There are comparatively more African-American Representatives—a tribute to the powerful effect of gerrymandering.) Collateral proof lies in Hiromu Nonaka’s rise to a insider position of power in the LDP despite the lack of policy-making accomplishments. Where people can be seen as individuals in their own right, they can bridge the gap between “the other” and “us”. There is some truth behind the old joke, “some of my best friends are Jews”.

Let’s now take up the second question, i.e. the Prime Ministerial prospects of the burakumin. I have already shown how the core prejudices against these people have taken a steady drop-off over the years. Why then, am I so pessimistic about a burakumin becoming Prime Minister any time soon? The same reason that it is unlikely that the United States will see a Polish-American President—demographics.

I have not been unable to find the last national survey in 1993, but it is extensively cited in this 1998 report from the head of the pro-Communist (and generally considered the most stand-up) activist group Zenkairen that states that the dowa-related population had dwindled to less than 900,000, or about 0.7% of the total Japanese population at the time of the survey. True, much of this attrition was the result of people moving out of the dowa areas (though it is only fair to note that not all the people in the areas were/are burakumin). So let’s make a very generous assumption (or a cruel one, depending on your point of view) that twice that number of people, or somewhat less than one out of every 60 Japanese, are self-identified as being of burakumin origin. To counterbalance that assumption, let’s give into our hopes and assume that future Japanese Prime Ministers will last an average of three years, or the equivalent of one LDP Presidency term. If you can accept all that, then there is less than a fifty-fifty chance of a burakumin becoming a Prime Minister in this century by reason of pure demographics. That is about as good a chance of a Polish-American, taking 3% of the U.S. population, becoming U.S. President, assuming an average tenure of 6 1/2 years, or one and a half terms per President.

All this conjecture begs an inconvenient question: How many of these “burakumin” will consider themselves/be considered as such, as they intermarry and move in and (mostly (out) of the dowa areas? And will we even know, even if we have such a one? Could the burakumin be morphing from an imagined community to an imaginary one as it loses cultural and geographical roots?

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