On the eve of inaugurating a new and different president of the U.S., the New York Times engages in a bit of national oneupmanship by way of dusting off a profile from eight years ago of a Japanese politician who never made it to the top post because of his status as a member of an outcast minority.
For Japan, the crowning of Hiromu Nonaka as its top leader would have been as significant as America’s election of its first black president.
Despite being the descendant of a feudal class of outcasts, who are known as buraku and still face social discrimination, Mr. Nonaka had dexterously occupied top posts in Japan’s governing party and served as the government’s No. 2 official. The next logical step, by 2001, was to become prime minister….
The topic of the buraku remains Japan’s biggest taboo, rarely entering private conversations and virtually ignored by the media.
The buraku — ethnically indistinguishable from other Japanese — are descendants of Japanese who, according to Buddhist beliefs, performed tasks considered unclean. Slaughterers, undertakers, executioners and town guards, they were called eta, which means defiled mass, or hinin, nonhuman. Forced to wear telltale clothing, they were segregated into their own neighborhoods.
The oldest buraku neighborhoods are believed to be here in Kyoto, the ancient capital, and date back a millennium. That those neighborhoods survive to this day and that the outcasts’ descendants are still subject to prejudice speak to Japan’s obsession with its past and its inability to overcome it.
Yet nearly identical groups of outcasts remain in a few other places in Asia, like Tibet and Nepal, with the same Buddhist background; they have disappeared only in South Korea, not because prejudice vanished, but because decades of colonialism, war and division made it impossible to identify the outcasts there.
In Japan, every person has a family register that is kept in local town halls and that, with some extrapolation, reveals ancestral birthplaces. Families and companies widely checked birthplaces to ferret out buraku among potential hires or marriage partners until a generation ago. The practice has greatly declined, though, especially among the young.
The buraku were officially liberated in 1871, just a few years after the 13th Amendment abolished slavery in the United States. But as the buraku’s living standards and education levels remained far below national averages, the Japanese government, under pressure from buraku liberation groups, passed a special law to improve conditions for the buraku in 1969. By the time the law expired in 2002, Japan had reportedly spent about $175 billion on affirmative action programs for the buraku.
My father’s first missionary posting after two years (1950-52) of language school in Tokyo was to serve as chaplain at Seinan Jo Gakuin, a Southern Baptist girl’s school in Kokura, Japan, a grimy industrial city that was the original target of the atomic bomb that was redirected to Nagasaki because of too much cloud cover over Kokura that fateful day. My brother and I attended the new kindergarten (founded in 1952) that served mostly school employees. It was not until decades later that my father happened to mention the second preschool, a bit closer to our home, that served children from the burakumin housing complex just up the road from our house on what was then a rather barren hillside. Kokura was one of Japan’s principal coal-mining regions and many of the mineworkers were burakumin and Koreans, along with POWs during the war years. The current Japanese premier is a direct descendant of the owners of the Aso Mining Co., which at one time controlled a large number of coal mines in Kyushu.
Our house was a metal prefab that wonderfully amplified the noise of rain, but was hard to heat during the winter. There was a coal bin underneath to feed the furnace, and at one point we discovered that a homeless urchin had been sleeping there. We two oldest boys spent a lot of time with our maid, a country girl who spoke no English and would threaten to give us to the rag picker (very likely burakumin) if we didn’t behave. Our mother bore two more sons while we were there, the first of them born at home with the help of a midwife. It was mom’s easiest delivery, she later told us.
When we began going to kindergarten, down one hill and up the next, mom would watch us from the sun porch, waiting for us to reappear on the far side of a hidden part of the road. My father tells me that at kindergarten I often served as translator for my more gregarious younger brother.