Reflection on a Research Trip to Japan 
- Buraku Liberation Movement at the Turning Point

Ian Laidlaw

Postgraduate Research Student

Department of Japanese, University of Otago

New Zealand

In July and August 200, thanks to the efforts and time of many people at BLHRRI in Osaka, I was fortunate to have the opportunity to travel to Japan and spend three weeks in Osaka and Tokyo researching the Buraku issue for my MA thesis. I have been asked to write about my thoughts and impressions as an outside observer on the current situation of Buraku liberation. I will begin by saying that I am by no means an expert on the Buraku issue, and these are just my perceptions of some of the more interesting aspects of the problem.

Buraku liberation itself seems to be in a period of change. Many of the gaps (such as ones in employment and education) between Buraku and mainstream were narrowed significantly during the 70s and 80s, but seem to have leveled out in the 90s, which suggests that some of the methods that have been traditionally followed in reducing these differences are no longer working as effectively as they once were. With the last of the Special Measures for Dowa Projects laws set to end in 2002, many of the methods that were used to improve the physical and social situations within Dowa districts will have undoubtedly be forced to change regardless of their effectiveness to date.

Within the Buraku Liberation League (BLL) itself there appears to be division over the direction that they should take. Many of the BLL leaders I interviewed had very different perceptions of what are the most important problems that the liberation movement presently faces, and what kinds of problems they will have to face in the future. For instance, some still see the long-existing problems of marriage and employment as the primary concern of the BLL, while others see the problem of the Buraku districts that were not identified as Dowa areas as the most urgent issue. Some people see education as the primary concern for the future of the movement, whereas others would rather the focus be on the establishment of effective legislation.

There also seem to be a number of perception problems coming from organisations and groups outside the BLL. When I conducted an interview with IMADR, for instance, we talked about the kyudan (denunciation sessions) that are run by the BLL. It was said that “As a method it may not be the most effective way because if people feel threatened then they will try to defend themselves, and that would not lead to true dialogue and I do not personally think that the kyudan is a kind of dialogue, it’s not two-way”.

After talking to a number of people about kyudan, however, it seemed that they were being well run, but because of the negative perception that people outside of the BLL hold (perhaps due to some of the unfortunate incidents in the 1970s), the sessions may actually end up feeding discrimination in the future instead of helping to eliminate it. We are experiencing similar problems in New Zealand with our ‘closing the gaps’ policies for reducing the statistical differences between the indigenous Maori people and the Pakeha (New Zealand Europeans) in areas such as health, education and employment. In a television interview recently, Helen Clark (the Prime Minister of New Zealand) said, “I don’t think that it’s the policy [that is making people agitated]…I think it’s the perception that people are never satisfied, and somehow the good work that’s being done at the community level on these very, very real problems gets muddled up with people demanding 100% of this and 50% of that”.

In other words, the media often focuses on the negative aspects of human rights related organisations, and the public perception is, in turn, influenced by these negative images. Public opinion is shaped by the mistakes that it makes and the policies that people perceive to be threatening. It is public opinion that shapes discrimination and keeps the gaps open. Also, since government policy is shaped by public opinion, politics will never be free of discriminatory consciousness until it disappears in society.

This discriminatory consciousness was echoed in much of my contact with governmental departments and political groups during my three weeks in Japan. Only one political group responded to my request for an interview, while none of the other groups or departments would respond to my inquiries. This seems to demonstrate the reluctance of the Government to aid people in looking into the Buraku issue and into the measures that the government is taking to deal with it. Perhaps this also suggests that they are reluctant to implement effective measures. Another possibility is that their current line of policy is insufficient and that interviews would be politically risky as a result. This in itself is a good argument for retaining the BLL as it will be necessary to have a ‘watch-dog’ activist group to make sure that governmental measures are being effectively implemented, as well as to monitor corporate practices and other such things.

At the same time, however, activist groups such as the BLL and Maori rights groups in New Zealand are now in a position where they are beginning to have to reshape their own policies and practices as a result of increased public scrutiny into them. The alternative is to do more harm than good to their cause.

This is not to say that the BLL is not currently making progress. When I visited Mukaino-Buraku I saw how much progress is being made in changing the mistaken perceptions of young people about Buraku by organising study trips for school children to the Buraku and the Meat Centre within it. When I visited Sumiyoshi-Buraku I saw how the wonderful facilities that the local BLL have created are attracting people from surrounding districts, which is also helping to change public perception about Buraku. These kinds of practices are no doubt doing a huge amount of good for the movement and it may be that education of this kind is the key to the elimination of anti-Buraku discrimination.

There is still a great need, however, for the establishment of legislation so that discrimination can be fought more effectively. Thus, the Fundamental Law for Buraku Liberation, or something very similar, is obviously urgently needed. With the progress in the Japanese Government’s ratification of the UN International Conventions relating to discrimination, it is hoped that it will not be long before such legislation is implemented.

All in all, I got the impression that many people in the BLL are looking towards the future and are not dwelling in the past or holding on too tightly to outdated methods of action. The increase in the number of people of non-Buraku origin working for the BLL also appears to be a very positive step. They will no doubt bring a very different perspective of the current situation and be a great help in shaping the future of the movement.

With New Zealand’s progress in the development of biculturalism having been so slow in recent times, I was amazed to see how much progress the BLL had made in similar areas over just the last few decades. I think that there is a lot that we can learn from each other. I am sure that the current period of change and uncertainty will result in a new movement that will see unprecedented progress in the elimination of Buraku discrimination in Japan in the near future.

I would like to extend my best wishes to all the wonderful people of the BLL, and I hope that one day I will be fortunate enough to work in a similar organisation and help achieve the same kinds of results that the BLL has achieved over the last 30 years.