Inspiration from Buraku Issue Research:
my fieldwork in Osaka City

Shih Yuan Chang

Graduate Institute of Japanese Studies
Tamkang University
Taipei, Taiwan

The first time I heard about "Burakumin" was from a very close Japanese friend of mine who came to Taiwan to study Chinese. After he told me his understanding of the whole story, he warned me not to mention even a word about it in front of any Japanese, because it is still an absolute "taboo" in Japanese society. I was too shocked to believe what I had just heard. At the time I had been working in a Japanese firm for several years with a BA degree in Japanese Language and Literature. I traveled to Japan every year both for business and pleasure. I knew dozens of Japanese; my collage professors, supervisors, colleagues, clients and friends, but none of them had ever said a word to me about it.

To me, the most incredible part of the "Buraku" issue is the nature of the discrimination. There are no differences between non-Buraku people and Buraku people in race, religion, language, culture, customs, surname, appearance, educational background etc. This issue is, apparently, by no means as simple as my friend described.

Without hesitation, I rushed to the national library very next day and tried to find some information on the issue. Astonishingly, there wasn't any information regarding "Buraku" on the bookshelves. In my mind there was no doubt about it. The "Buraku" issue must be a major taboo in Japan.

Last year I decided to research the issue in an academic way, so I applied the Graduate Institute of Japanese Studies at the Tamkang University in Taiwan. When I submitted my research plan, "The Buraku Issue in Japan", I expressed how I planned to draw an outline of the issue so I could find out why this ancient matter has lasted for over one thousand years and still remains unresolved. Luckily, I passed the admission exam and became a graduate student.

During the first academic year, one of the courses I took was named "Japanese culture and society". The professor's special fields of study were Shinto and Buddhism. I learned from him how these two important religions influenced Japanese ideology. This inspired me to leap to a preliminary conclusion regarding the issue, i.e. the Japanese kegare (defilement) concept caused the prejudice. There was no proof, however, to support my point of view.

Stepping onto the campus, I thought there must be many resources that I could make use of. In actual fact, besides the regular materials, I had great difficulty locating any relevant academic reports or research papers in Chinese. I therefore realized that the "Buraku" issue is not only a taboo in Japan, but has also been given the cold shoulder by Taiwan's academic circles. Maybe Taiwan's researchers have no will to criticize the taboo. I believe that Taiwan's academic circles overlook "Buraku" issue for two main reasons: Japan's society hardly discusses the issue in public, making it difficult for foreigners to understand the issue; moreover, Japan's mass media also bare responsibility for it as they are seen to treat the issue as an invisible one.

As the saying goes, beard the lion in his den. The urgent thing I needed was fieldwork, so I started to research for organizations, institutes, communities and people that I should visit in Japan. Thanks to the Internet, I found BLHRRI and came into contact with Ms. Yumiko Konishi, as well as two professors from the Research Center for Human Rights of Osaka City University, Mr. Michihiko Noguchi and Mr. Yoshiro Nabeshima. They were kind enough to allow me to conduct interviews with them during my visit in Osaka this summer. With the help of Ms. Konishi, valuable interviews were arranged for me with the head of the research section of BLHRRI, Mr. Seiji Nakamura, and the staff officer of Osaka City Government Human Rights Division, Mr. Hotta, who helped me understand the positions of NGOs and the local authorities. From Mr. Nabeshima I learned many precious academic opinions regarding the origin of the "Burakumin". He also introduced me to Mr. Masakazu Kimura, the Vice Director of Asaka District branch of the Osaka Prefecture Buraku Liberation League, who gave me a tour of the Asaka community. The community is a place that used to suffer from terrible living conditions, but which has now benefited from the enactment of the Special Measures for Dowa. As a result, the living conditions of the neighborhood have improvement significantly from their status a number of decades ago. Lastly I met Mr. Noguchi, a respected scholar on the "Buraku" issue. During an interview with him, he clarified for me that the prejudice wasn't solely caused by the kegare concept, but that misunderstandings from seken (social relations in community) also have a strong influence. Above all, the greatest reward of my visit was that the Buraku people showed me their courage and insistence in fighting against seken. Compared with them, my difficulties are really not worth mentioning at all.

Because the Buraku issue is such a unique and serious one for a gaijin like me, I could only draw very shallow conclusions from my fieldwork. That is, to solve the issue in the short term, the authorities should play a much more active role in legislating and enforcing laws against all kinds of discriminatory behavior. In the long term, education will probably bring a lasting settlement to the issue. After all, most of the origin of discrimination comes from seken, and the best way to change it is with wide-open hearts of understanding and mercy, and that is the ultimate achievement of education.

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