Buraku Liberation News May 1999 No.108

The Burakumin : The Complicity of Japanese Buddhism in Oppression and an Opportunity for Liberation

(second part)

Leslie D. Alldritt,
Associate Professor
Northland College, U.S.A.

Some Efforts Toward Religious Reform in Japan Today


In May 1998, the author had the opportunity to visit and speak with Takashi Ikenishi, the leader of the Niwadani temple of Tenrikyo in Sakai City, Osaka. Mr. Ikenishi, besides being a Tenrikyo official for many years, had also previously been in a position of leadership in the Osaka Conference for the Dowa Issue (known as the Doshuren).

In response to a question regarding the Tenrikyo position on discrimination, Ikenishi replied that. "All people on the earth are brothers and sisters. As siblings, we are all the same regardless of social status. We are all children of Oyasama"

Mr. Ikenishi went on to argue that while Buddhism also has this view of equality, in the past, Buddhism has discriminated against the buraku people through such devices as discriminatory kaimyo and improper use of ancestor registries. He continued that one of the reasons that buraku people are attracted to 'newer' religions in Japan is that they do not have the history of such practices.

As to the Buddhist idea of karma and its use to support discrimination, i.e., that unequal treatment of certain people is appropriate due to karmic impurities, Ikenishi stated that as Tenrikyo does not have kaimyo, it does not also accept the idea of karma. Instead the religion has the concept of innen, which means that all souls go back to the present. As new clothes are put on, a new life is begun with no effect on the next life. One strives in Tenrikyo, according to Ikenishi, to be a better person by taking personal responsibility for one's improvement. It is not other people, but oneself that one needs to improve. Consequently, Tenrikyo does not adhere to the concept of akunin (inherently bad people) - rather, everyone is on the same line.

In reply to the question about burakumin in his church, Mr. Ikenishi replied that no unequal treatment happens in their worship. All members, consistent with their theology, are treated equally.

A persistent problem, Ikenishi noted, was the idea of kiyome or kegare (pollution). Toward initiating change in the idea of pollution, he has argued in several fora against the continuation of using salt as an agent of purification after funerals. If death were seen as non-polluting of others, then some of the medieval stigma against those who dealt with dead bodies, both human and animal, would be removed. There is resistance to removing salt from such usage, particularly from Shinto sources who historically have emphasized salt in this way, however Ikenishi feels very strongly that this would be a positive step.

The author accompanied Mr. Ikenishi to the apartment of a member of his congregation. It was a matsuri day for the family and, accordingly, he visited the home to participate in certain rituals. This family had an apartment in a dowa area and had become Tenrikyo members following several family problems, most notably a son who had developed mental problems. Mr. Ikenishi, the parents, and intermittently the son, performed a ritual before the Tenrikyo altar, chanting and utilizing accompanying mudras (hand positions) and turnings of the body. Ikenishi additionally, at the conclusion of this ritual, laid hands on the boy and lightly pounded his shoulders while speaking very softly to him. It seemed clear that Tenrikyo, through the good offices of Mr. Ikenishi, had brought a profound sense of meaning in this burakumin family.

Shin Buddhism

Mr. Uemoto is of the Shinshu Ohtani sect in Osaka City. His temple is a post-war structure placed in the heart of a business district in downtown Osaka.

Uemoto had started teaching Buddhism at age nineteen at the sect headquarters. At that time, he discovered that he too had discriminatory thinking. He met an old woman from the Buraku who told him that she had been discriminated against and never had been supported by Buddhist priests or monks. At this encounter, Uemoto didn't quite understand her position, but also realized that he couldn't deny her charge. Although a young priest who initially couldn't believe priests would do discriminatory practices, in time, he learned that priests had done such practices.

At age thirty-three, he became director of Human Rights for the temple and committed himself to being honest and to talking with people about this issue. Uemoto feels very strongly about sharing one's real self with the people that he talks to and, when asked to speak, depends about 80% of his prepared remarks and 20% on his heart. Initially, he feared being misunderstood or criticized, but has continued to opt for an open approach.

In the past, Shin Buddhism had been one of the major offenders of burakumin human rights and has compounded their discriminatory policies and actions with more recent discriminatory public remarks. According to Mr. Uemoto, the structure of discrimination has still not changed sufficiently. When asked what sort of actions the Shin sect were taking to change this structure, he replied that education of members was a central concern. Twice a month the temple sponsors a workshop to educate members, and four times a year there are public fora to educate the larger public. The temple is well-placed, Uemoto noted, to reach the public due to its central location and everyone is invited to attend these informational meetings. There are approximately 650 temples in the Osaka kyoku and 200-300 households in this temple, so many people can be reached through this educational effort.

In regard to questions on Buddhism and its discriminatory practices, Uemoto stated that not only Buddhism should be focused on, but all religious bodies. In Osaka prefecture, 6,200 religious organizations are registered as official. To try and unite these disparate groups to fight discrimination, fifteen years ago the Doshuren was established. The Doshuren, he explained, is an organization, representing 680 of these groups, dedicated to concerted dialogue and action to fight discrimination. This group was established in part due to the impetus of the initial Machida remarks.

Certainly though Buddhism has been involved in discrimination, noted Uemoto. Kaimyo was a problem and its extent is still being discovered. As to the doctrine of karma, Uemoto believes that this doctrine has been misused by people. It has been used to gain believers and extend teachings by some priests, but that is not its actual meaning. Some Buddhist priests became arrogant and distorted the idea of karma for the sake of reputation and appearance. Such arrogance, though often unintended, can easily beset anyone, he argued, so we must learn from the Buraku Liberation movement and be able to say, "Yes, I have discriminatory feelings."

Uemoto has found that if he speaks, writes, and teaches at a level that people can easily understand, then people will come to believe without having to delude them through complicated language or misrepresentation of Buddhist ideas. Even the seemingly insignificant use of furigana with kanji on letters or signs is important in order to reach all people.

Shinshu's model for this, Uemoto noted, is Shinran, the sect's founder. Shinran too talked in plain language to small groups of people rather than large groups. We need to return, Uemoto averred, to such a procedure of imparting simple teachings to ensure better understanding. As Secretary of Doshuren, Uemoto worked to make these changes as well as open the meetings to the public. Since the meetings have become public, Uemoto believes the meetings have been more dynamic and the exchange has been more cooperative. Also the dialogue has extended beyond the religious representatives to included people from various corporations. Although representing their respective groups, Uemoto suggested that people need to look at the Buraku mondai (Buraku problem) from the viewpoint of an individual person who can personally connect with the pain of discrimination, then stand, as a representative, within the larger dialogue.

By including the corporations into the dialogue, as corporations are where discriminatory practices have manifested, has truly been beneficial. Such exchanges have helped Doshuren become more visible to the outside community and cast the organization as open to scrutiny and criticism. Doshuren, he stated, is not an organization of elites, but one of the people.

As Shinran had been mentioned, the author asked Uemoto how perhaps having a strong religious faith may help one bear and fight discrimination. In response to this question, Uemoto suggested that it is easy to discriminate. Religion though helps us to see what one is, really. Not to discriminate against others toward understanding who I am is important. Faith will support us, help us. Religion has much to do, Uemoto agreed, with the buraku mondai. It is very important, he added, as Shinran advocated to continue educating people. Buddhism has changed a lot from an academic, elite tradition. Uemoto believes that it is time to come back to the people and create an education movement that will address the buraku mondai. Some people are already campaigning or involved in such a movement.

Uemoto discussed what he saw as the future of the fight against buraku discrimination. He stated that the twenty-first century will be the century of human rights. In future, we should look beyond our particular interests; human rights means being more transparent, learning from one another. All liberation movements are united around the goal of living harmoniously, he noted. In addition, working with the Buraku Liberation League to address the present discrimination was important.

(to be continued)

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