Tuesday, April 18, 2006

The Untoucheables

***First of all, a disclaimer. Yes it is a long read, but an interesting one (I hope) and an important one. This is not Japan bashing, I know that there is discrimination everywhere in the world including Canada (natives, immigrants, the French minority, women) but one difference here seems to be the reluctance of anyone to talk about it. To anyone who thinks the Burakumin problem is an issue which shouldn't be talked about, you can shove it. It is by talking about these types of issues that we come to a better understanding of their root causes, and thus to a resolution. This issue has been (almost) ignored and considered very taboo for 400 years, it's about time it got a little air time.***

Yesterday was quite an enlightening day. So much so that I thought it best to ruminate on what we learned and witnessed yesterday for some time to let it all sink in. Yesterday morning, the boys had plans to meet at Tully's at 9 for a coffee before hooking up with Aiichirou for our day of touring. Unfortunately, Tully's doesn't open until 9:30 (how stupid is that for a coffee shop?) and so we headed to Starbucks. Upon seating ourselves, we couldn't help but giggle over this feller here who must have had one heck of a weekend.

After picking up some gifts to thank our guide for the day, we headed off and hopped into Aiichirou's little car with his wife Fumi and headed to Oyama and the Tochigi branch of the Buraku Liberation League. We were met there by someone from the staff and given a quick historical background of the Buraku class and how it came into being.

Historical Background
When the Edo period started in Japan in the early 1600s, a new class system was introduced. At the top of the hierarchy were the samurai warrior caste, followed by peasants, artisans and merchants. This was a relatively simple and yet quite strict separation of the population into different groups based on their occupations. However, this segmentation left out a portion of the population who worked in jobs considered "filthy" and "impure". A certain ostracizing of these people, such as butchers, grave diggers and executioners had always been present, but this new class system now officially put these groups on the margins of society. While they continued to provide a necessary service to society, they were forced to live in bad conditions and in lesser locations and were treated as untouchables by the remaining 4 classes. These people were called "eta", which translates from Japanese into "extreme filth" and is considered to be the most vulgar word of the Japanese language. Another word used to describe this class was "buraku" which means community, since they lived in segregated villages. The word "min" signifies people and so we know them today as the Burakumin. This class system ruled until 1867 when the Edo government fell and the Japanese Emperor was restored in what is known as the Meiji Restoration. So far as many people in Japan know (or care to know) that was the end of it and all's well that ends well. HOWEVER, after 300 years of segregation, it is quite foolish to believe that the discrimination which these people faced suddenly disappeared. In reality it is still very present even to this day. With the relatively recent addition of anti-discrimination legislation, the hatred for this group has only been driven underground, but is still quite present.

Makoto Toda, the BLL representative who would be guiding us for the day, gave us a few examples of the hatred which still simmers below the surface of legislation and attempts at "integration" by the Japanese government. The most striking thing he showed us was a letter which was left in front of two Burakumin households with some of the most hateful speech you can imagine, calling the Burakumin everything from filth to cannibals and saying that they will die and the world will be a better place thereafter. The letter was written in Katakana, which is more difficult to trace back to an author than Kanji, and left on the street. I think it is safe to assume that since the coward didn't even bother to put it in the letter box, other letters may have been lost or other victims of this coward may not have come forward. But we saw the original letter, and it was dripping with so much hate that I could feel it jumping off the paper at me. Since the letter did not mention anyone by name, the police refused to take any action against the perpetrator, saying it was simply stating an opinion and not targeting anyone for harm.

Employment and Marriage Discrimination
The Japanese "Koseki", essentially a family register, ensures that it is relatively easy to find out where a person was born with a few subtle questions placed in the right places. While the document is kept relatively secret due to its sensitive nature (records of births, criminal convictions, marriage, divorce, etc.) it is still very common for discreet investigations to take place to ensure that the person you are about to hire, or god forbid the man who is about to marry your daughter, is not one of the "filthy" class. There have been hundreds of documented cases of blatant discrimination based solely on Buraku status. This has become one of the most damaging forms of discrimination for the Burakumin since it essentially ensures a continuation of the cycle of poverty and segregation that these families have had to deal with since the 1600s. This is the main reason the level of education and standard of living is much lower in Buraku villages than that of average Japan. In 1975, a book was published naming Burakumin villages as well as the prevalent occupation in each area. It is alleged that over 200 major Japanese firms, including large automakers and electronics manufacturers bought these books for use in their Human Resources Departments as screening tools. While use of this book was outlawed in 1985, hundreds of copies of this 330 page handwritten book were disseminated and one can only assume has since found it's way onto the Internet. As recently as 1997, an Osaka private investigation firm was charged with using the book.

The Graveyard
Our first stop of the day was an old graveyard in Ashikaga city in which some Buraku people had their family graves. It seems that even in death, the Buraku people are ostracized. The attention to detail paid during the construction of this graveyard to make sure the Buraku people knew they were lesser is simply shocking. The first thing which jumps out is this gate, which leads to the "normal" part of the cemetary. As you can see, each side is flanked with large stone markers.

This photo shows the entrance into the Buraku section of the graveyard, much smaller than the other, no stone markers... almost like an entrance to an alleyway.

Once you step inside the graveyard, you encounter an even more degrading design aspect. The entire Buraku section of the graveyard sits a good 8-12 inches lower than the "normal" section of the graveyard.

Here's where the attention to detail really comes in though. This is a picture I took of the outer wall of the graveyard where the Buraku section starts. You can see that not only is the "normal" graveyard wall separate, but the masonry with which it was built is different. The Buraku graveyard wall is built very weak with blocks stacked one on top of the other while the "normal" graveyard wall is built using the much stronger staggered design.

Can you imagine? Someone actually sat down and made these decisions on how to segregate the lower class remains from the four "normal" classes. And say what you will about moving on and this being a new world, but this graveyard still exists in it's original discriminatory form, with no moves made by anyone to change it.

The Mountain Burakumin Village
Our second stop of the day was at a tiny Burakumin hamlet wedged into a tight area at the base of the mountains.

This village is separated from the rest of the flat lands in the area by the Tohoku Expressway and the only way to access it is through a few of these tiny tunnels which run underneath, still very segregated to this day.

As you exit the tunnel, you are greeted by plentiful rice fields and the little village tucked away at the base of the hills. Once you enter the village, you can really feel the cramped conditions even though the roads were widened here by the government about 20 years ago. Before then, no emergency vehicles would be able to enter the village since the roads were too narrow.

We stopped at a small community center and Toda-san gave us a bit of background on some of the stories from this area including some incidents of children throwing rocks at Buraku kids who were walking to school many years back. These families were originally forced to eek out an existence by growing vegetables in the mountains or in the lumber industry, but have now found employment in the construction booms sweeping Japan. As we were exiting the tunnel, Toda-san was quick to point out some grafiti on the inside which warned anyone entering that they were going into "filth" country. Charmingu.

The Riverside Community
We then headed out to visit a riverside Buraku Community which is considered to be the poorest in all of Tochigi. For the record, the two large houses you see here are not Buraku, but were owned by a rich family who ran a boating company back in the Edo Period and who employed many Buraku as menial labour.

The first thing which jumped out at me was the presence of these huge High Tension Power Lines running through the middle of this pocket of houses, but that is fairly common and is a horror even non-Buraku communities must deal with in Japan. What was interesting, but is difficult to discern in this picture due to the beautiful built up berms of the river, is that these homes are sitting in a lowlying pocket of land. During Typhoon season, the river would often crest on this side, with the other side being higher, thus flooding out these Buraku houses on a regular basis. The rich families could afford to built structures on stilts in which to store their goods, but of the 30 Buraku families who lived here, only 2 had such structures.

Another interesting tidbit was that most of these Buraku now make their living in the scrap business, and this scrap yard absolutely mortified us. Of the 50-100 vehicles left here to rot in this field, only a handful of them had any kind of substantial damage. Most of them just had minor front end collision damage, and yet here they are in a dump.... and new cars too! Ridiculous how the car industry here propagates such a culture of waste, using vehicles as cheap disposable items.

The Disappointing Community Resources Center
After leaving the river area, we headed to the Community Ressource Center for Ohira town to get some information on some of the work they are doing there to help the Human Rights cause. This center is funded by the government and staffed by 8 people whose job it is to promote Human Rights in the area, not only for Buraku people but everyone in general. What was disappointing is how quickly we found this place to be a total and utter waste of resources, a simple government attempt at throwing money at a problem with essentially no vision. The first disappointment we had was the shock on the face of the 20 something worker who was asked to sit with us and explain some of the work they do. She was mortified of sitting down with three foreigners, which is quite disappointing for someone who is supposed to be promoting diversity and open-mindedness. The next disappointment was with the substance that this shell of a center lacks. Their entire purpose for being is to organize and promote Human Rights Week, an event which happens in this town every December. They have admittedly had little success in drawing attention to their plight and for this year have chosen a concert venue to try and attract people, after which point they will no doubt lock the doors and pump their minds full of goodness. A staff of 8 people, working a full year to organize one measly event for a town of a few thousand people... waste. In the few minutes we were there, we totally blew the staff away with the questions we were asking, and the only answer we really got was that elementary students got 2 hours per year of Human Rights lessons, a new victory for this center..... jeez. I guess it's good to have something. Wish them luck as thei fight what is obviously an uphill battle.

Between a river and a river
The next area we visited was a small chunk of homes which was once again crammed between a rock and a hard place... in this case what used to be two raging rivers, but are not much more now than creeks. This Buraku community once only had 1 bridge for access and all of the streets were originally like this one below, impassable by vehicles of any kind until 20 years ago.

It was obvious throughout the day that the standard of living in these communities was lower than most other places. While many places did look quite nice, others were less than pretty.

The major occupation here is in the growing and selling of herbs and spices, which we could definitely smell in some areas.

Here is a typical Buraku shrine, very simple, no frills.

After a long day of travelling, we headed back to the BLL and said goodbye to our host for the day. Here's the group after a job well done.

It certainly was an eye opening experience, and I am quite happy to have been able to take it all in. It's days like these that make living in Japan worthwhile, seeing the nitty gritty of everyday life, the modern day people still being affected by centuries old laws and regulations, it is quite fascinating.

After a rather heavy day of learning about the downtrodden, we headed back to Aiichirou's for some drinks and some grub. As usual, the feast was fantastic and Fumi took out her violin. To our surprise, our young Matt turned out to be quite the virtuoso and spit out a varied amount of tunes from classical to the Beatles to the Canadian National Anthem!

Needless to say, after such a day we needed to wind down, and after plenty to drink slowly made our way home on foot, hootin and hollerin in revenge for the times we get woken up by drunken Japanese people running around our neighbourhoods... I guess we were lucky not to be arrested, but we couldn't have cared much less. The real amusing part was how the more we walked the drunker Scott got... our young Aussie will be missed when he departs this island of ours just a little over a month from now.

And thus ended the day of the Buraku. I can't help but feel that my intensity dwindled as I got to the end of this essay\article\blog post\diary entry but I am working on a total of about 3 hours of sleep, having continuously woken up throughout the night and having to be up in the 6:30 range to deal with something this morning. I am now turning in to bed for a well deserved rest. Otsukare sama.

Labels: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,


Blogger the angry vegan said...

I found my way over here via Matt's blog... quite an impressive (and well-organized, the English major in me wishes to point out) post. It's a lot to take in, but my initial impresion is that it's interesting that the cross-cultural parallels that can be drawn (I think your comparison to the native peoples in Canada was apt) might say more about human nature than it initially seems - it's easy enough to dismiss Canadian native peoples as victims of circumstance, but the Burakumin seem to have been more arbitrarily marginalized...

Anyway, what I'm trying to say is: very throught-provoking post! Kudos.

8:11 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home