Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Japan's untouchables still fighting discrimination from Taipei Times 8/1/2004

Sunday, Aug 01, 2004, Page 5

Nobuyuki Hishigaki need utter only a few words before his dialect betrays his Osakan roots. Like many of his peers, Hishigaki, a boyish-looking 39, joined his current employer straight after university. Marriage and children followed.

But there is an extraordinary side to his life. Since childhood, he has had to deal with name-calling, harassment and discrimination from people to whom he is ethnically identical.

Being treated as a second-class citizen is a fact of life for Hishigaki and tens of thousands of other buraku, members of a Japanese underclass labelled "untouchables" since the 17th century.

Considered vastly inferior to warriors, artisans, farmers and merchants, the buraku of feudal Japan were called eta (filth) or hinin (non-human). They were hired to slaughter animals, dig graves and work leather, thereby becoming tainted by their association with the impurities of death.

Many were forced to live in designated villages and abide by a special dress code. Their confinement meant they were easy targets for abuse. And the survival of many of those neighborhoods means the abuse has yet to end.

One of the better-known buraku communities is the Kuboyoshi district of southern Osaka, where Hishigaki works as a secretary at the local branch of the Buraku Liberation League.

The neighborhood was one of more than 4,000 buraku districts nationwide, with a total population of 892,000, according to the last government survey, conducted in 1993. League officials say that the number is closer to three million when buraku who have left their communities are included.

The Meiji rulers outlawed discrimination against the buraku in 1871, but mistrust and hostility continue. Private detectives sell lists of buraku to companies wishing to inquire into the backgrounds of job applicants. Hate mail is common, as are job applications summarily dismissed by employers.

The result is frustration, anger and countless blighted relationships. More than half of all marriages involving a buraku man or woman face opposition from the non-buraku partner's parents.

At university in Osaka, Hishigaki encountered graffiti warning other students of a buraku in their midst. A girlfriend who knew his ancestry suddenly split up with him. He was never given a reason, but knows that her parents were not pleased with her choice of boyfriend.

But the postwar period has also brought improvements to the lives of the buraku. Under a government plan launched in the late 1960s, slums were cleared and improvements made to education and welfare services. Buraku began to find work outside of their communities, and their children started to attend ordinary state schools. Marrying "outsiders" has gained wider acceptance.

Crucially, public figures, including the influential Liberal Democratic party politician Hiromu Nonaka, have acknowledged their buraku roots.

With anti-discrimination laws in place, Hishigaki believes the key to ridding Japan of lingering prejudice lies in a dialogue between buraku and their neighbors. "We have to work towards a day when a child can say he's buraku, and his friends will answer, 'So what?"' he says.

Faced with centuries of ignorance, that day may be some way off. In the meantime, Hishigaki says he will soon have some honest talking of his own to do with his two young children.

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