4th Quarterly, 2005 No.138

Lost (and Added) in Translation: U.S. Perspectives on Race, Rights, and the Buraku Issue

John H. Davis, Jr.
Assistant Professor of Anthropology, Michigan State University

There has been an explosion of English language publications exploring the multi-cultural dimensions of Japanese society cloaked beneath a veil of homogeneity. The past decade has seen in-depth research on Zainichi Koreans, Japanese Brazilian Migrants, Ainu, and the people of Okinawa. All of these groups are presented as evidence to challenge popular categorizations of the Japanese as a tan'itsu minzoku. More often than not, Buraku residents also are presented as an empirical case of diversity in Japan. But the precise manner in which Buraku residents are believed to be different is rarely given. Rather, there is a general assumption that discrimination is the product of some sort of natural difference between Buraku residents and other Japanese akin to racial differences in the United States. Although the Buraku issue is not thought of in Japan in terms of race, Americans inevitably see it as a racial phenomenon. In the short essay that follows I explain how I push audiences to rethink the relationship between race and the Buraku issue by challenging common assumptions about the naturalness of race and drawing attention to the significance of place in understanding the Buraku issue.

Since completing two years of research on the Buraku Issue in Osaka from 1997- 1999, I have made presentations to many groups at U.S. colleges and universities as well as at academic conferences and meetings. In some cases the audience was composed of people who knew relatively little about Japan but had an interest in learning about discrimination and human rights issues in another part of the world. In other cases, I presented insights from my work to researchers specializing in Japanese studies who were interested in learning about the current status of the Buraku issue. Regardless of the composition of the audience, my presentation consistently elicited the same question: "What is different about Burakumin?" I would answer, "Nothing," but this never proved to be sufficient to terminate this line of interrogation. The audience would continue to ask, "Well, do they look any different?" Those linguistically oriented inquire "whether they speak a different dialect." Other queries include whether you can identify them by their last name. Even after I answer such questions with a firm "No," members of the audience are reluctant to abandon the idea that there is some defining characteristic which applies to all residents of Buraku areas. On occasion the atmosphere turns a bit hostile when someone declares to me with a hint of frustration that "there MUST be something." I reply with the simple question, "must there?"

Although my intention is to pose this question as a rhetorical one, an answer can be found in the premise of questions from audience members. To many people in the U.S. the social categories used to define and distinguish groups of people are accepted as objective designations based on some sort of empirical basis. "Race" is of course the example with which most Americans are familiar, so there is a tendency to think of the Buraku issue (and most other forms of discrimination too) in terms of "race." However, this is a mistake. The mistake is obvious to most Japanese who reject "race" as a useful concept for understanding the Buraku issue. However, beyond the specific case of the Buraku issue, one needs to be precise in how "race" is used to understand social prejudice and discrimination.

Simply put, "race" is not an objective, self-evident fact which exists naturally. Instead, it is a soical construction. In order to appreciate this observation, it is crucial that one not confound "race" with "skin color". Observable differences in skin color between individuals certainly do exist. However, "race" is a concept which attaches significance to these differences. In other words, skin color is just one of many kinds of phenotypic (physical) differences which distinguish individuals from one another. [Hair color, height, weight, and foot size would be other examples of phenotypic differences.] "Race" is a concept based on an ideology that there is something fundamentally important about differences in skin color. Within racially stratified societies, some racial groups are associated with positive traits and others are associated with negative ones. If one rejects the notion that race is something which exists naturally, it becomes possible to examine the specific social history of a society to see how certain populations came to be "racialized" or defined to have certain traits or qualities believed to be linked to the specific trait thought to define the group (i.e. skin color in the U.S.). It is imperative to remember that in the present-day United States racialization?the act of creating a taxonomy of human groups believed to be fundamentally different?is a social process through which significance or meaning is attached to skin color.

We can carry our analysis one step further and begin to appreciate that processes of racialization need not revolve around skin color. For the sake of brevity, let us consider a couple of the relatively well-known cases of genocide that have occurred in recent history. If one adopts the common-sense definition of race as skin color, the 1994 genocide in Rwanda becomes difficult to understand. It seems to be a case of one group of people attempting to eradicate another group of people who share the same skin color. The case of "ethnic cleansing" in the former Yugoslavia provides another instance where the conventional definition of race does not help us understand what fueled the mass killing. Both of these conflicts revolved around ethnic or religious differences, so "race" is not a particularly useful concept. However, the concept of racialization or the social processes by which groups of people are distinguished from one another illuminates our understanding not only of these conflicts but also helps us refine our understanding of the concept of race. In both Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia, one can identify well developed ideologies which posited fundamental differences between peoples based, at least in part, on imagined physical differences. So while cultural or religious factors were certainly the major factors, one can discern a disturbing process whereby cultural and religious differences became the basis for ideologies which attributed racial differences to segments of the population, effectively "racializing" those marked for elimination. Of particular importance here is that we have examples of how traits other than skin color can fuel processes of "racialization." So while groups such as Rwandan Tusti, Muslims in the former Yugoslavia, and African-Americans in the U.S. might seem to have little in common, one can discern a similarity in how they have been racialized in their respective societies.

If we think in terms of social processes and how societies define different categories of people (note here that I am using "defined" both in the sense of create and in the sense of associate with certain characteristics), it becomes possible to recognize some similarities in terms of how groups like African-Americans have been defined in the United States and how Buraku residents have been defined in Japan. Both have been marked as different and sometimes dangerous in their respective societies. In the case of African-Americans, their imagined difference has been defined in terms of their skin color; in the case of the Buraku issue, difference has been defined today based primarily on where people live.

I have coined the term "residential profiling" to communicate to American audiences that "race" is not the best way to think about the Buraku issue. This is a variation of the term "racial profiling", a term very familiar in the United States which refers to a tendency to scrutinize members of a minority community more closely than others, often using race as the sole basis for harsher treatment. Police in large cities have long used racial profiling to search members of minority communities more closely. For example, African Americans who ride in nice looking cars are often stopped by police and investigated for no apparent reason other than being Black. Racial profiling became very controversial after the 9-11 terrorist attacks in the United States. Airport security screeners would indiscriminately search Arab-looking people more closely than other groups of people because of the mistaken idea that terrorists were most likely to be Arab. [It is worth noting that no association was drawn between terrorism and whiteness after the Oklahoma City Bombing terrorist attack in the United States carried out by homegrown American terrorists who were white. Nor was there any attempt to link terrorism and whiteness after the infamous Unabomber was apprehended and discovered to be Caucasian. Typically, crime perpetrated by Caucasians are represented in the media and largely understood as heinous acts by particular individuals. However, crimes committed by members of minority groups are often taken as evidence of the criminal nature or propensity to engage in criminal activity of the entire group.] It was argued that the most effective way to prevent another terrorist attack was to thoroughly search all Arab-looking people. Over time it became clear that people of color in general were being targeted for special screening. Eventually this system of special screening was stopped because a group of Arabs filed a lawsuit arguing that their rights were being violated. Now the U.S. employs a random system which is supposed to be fairer because it does not discriminate between groups.

Although racial profiling refers to treating people differently based on their social categorization, "residential profiling" refers to treating groups differently based on where they live. The relationship between place and discrimination is clear when one uses the Japanese terms Buraku issue or Buraku discrimination. The importance of place is much less clear to American audiences when the English term Burakumin is used. Much like names for racial and ethnic groups, this term invites audience members to imagine Buraku residents as a distinctive group possessing unique characteristics which make them different from others in society. The phrase "residential profiling" helps audiences understand the importance of "place." It also helps them make sense of the different means that have been used to facilitate Buraku discrimination, many of which seem unusual to overseas audiences: background checks where companies hire investigators to travel and explore the neighborhood of a job applicant, illegal use of koseki, Buraku lists, the use of private investigators by private citizens to research background of a potential spouse for a son/daughter, etc.

Place is one of the central concepts I am using to organize a book I am currently writing about the Buraku Issue. In fact, my working title for the book is "The Power of Place." Focusing on the significance of place allows me to organize the incredibly complex history of the Buraku Issue in a way which makes sense to people in the United States. For example, I try to explain how, at different historical moments, social status, occupation, social prejudice, and economic disparities all helped isolate and create Buraku areas today by segregating certain segments of the population from the rest of society. I also plan to give a few specific examples to illustrate the different factors which led to the creation of Buraku communities in different areas. I believe it is important to illustrate the diversity of hisabetsumin from the past because this helps avoid a totalizing history which would unnecessarily reduce the complexity of the Buraku issue and support the fiction that Buraku residents are a homogeneous group. In my work I want to be able to provide people with just enough historical detail to help them appreciate the social and political dynamics responsible for creating the Buraku issue. Also, I hope that my presentation of the history of the Buraku issue illustrates how the problem has evolved over time, transitioning from a caste-based status hierarchy to an ill-defined system of stratification based largely (although not exclusively) on place of residence. [Note that this is not a surefire way to identify those historically associated with Buraku areas because of the increasing number of newcomers moving in; nonetheless...]

It is worth pointing out that I see place as being of tremendous importance in understanding other social problems besides the Buraku issue. I think it can be a valuable way of thinking about issues of race and class in the United States too. I don't have time to elaborate on this in my short essay, but if we just think back to the troubling images from the devastation of Hurricane Katrina a few months ago when so many African-Americans and indigent residents of New Orleans were left trapped in the poorest parts of the city which suffered the most flooding, it was made clear to people all over the world that residential segregation resulting from class disparities continues to be a problem in the United States. Even though official segregation was outlawed decades ago, minorities continue to be concentrated in areas that have high rates of poverty and crime, and they frequently lack access to the different kinds of resources (like quality public education, basic health care, effective political representation) which might allow them to improve the quality of their lives. While it is possible to think of this situation purely in terms of American racism, thinking of it also as a type of social isolation resulting from residential segregation makes it possible to recognize the need for specific types of social programs targeting specific communities, something likely to have a much more dramatic impact than generic affirmative action programs that may benefit particular individuals but often fail those minority communities most in need of help.

I believe that there is much that the Untied States can learn from the Buraku Liberation

Movement (BLM) and the pursuit of comprehensive local programs aimed at improving entire communities. In my opinion one aspect of the BLM which has bolstered its success and merits emulation in other parts of the world is its balanced approach toward human rights. Based on the tremendous success of the BLM in the location where I did my research, it seems that the movement is getting closer and closer to developing an approach to human rights which strikes a healthy balance between the "soft" approach to human rights adopted by the state in Japan and the "hard" approach to human rights which seems to dominate within the United States.

That which I characterize as a "soft" approach contains the following elements:

  • an emphasis on education which communicates the general spirit of human rights in the form of public awareness campaigns utilizing posters, signs, and placards in public areas
  • a deliberate attempt to target youth within society by framing human rights in accessible terms they can comprehend. This includes, for example, the use of human rights manga and the use of human rights mascots such as Jinken Mamoru-kun and Jinken Ayumi-chan, two human rights image characters created for the state by famed manga artist Yanase Takashi (creator of Anpanman).
  • the public is invited to help articulate human rights themes through annual events culminating during human rights week such as human rights photo exhibitions, essay-writing contests, and poster drawing competitions
  • rehabilitation and prevention figure more prominently than punishment
  • urging of individual citizens to assume responsibility for preventing human rights infractions by focusing on members of the general public as the potential transgressors of human rights
  • a focus on domestic issues

While it may seem to be a beneficial thing to have the state and local government active in the area of human rights promotion, one curious aspect of the way that human rights is defined and pursued within Japan is that it obscures the fact that human rights were created to limit the ability of states to infringe upon the liberties of those residing within their borders. A recurrent motif within human rights discourse promulgated by the state in Japan is that the state is depicted exclusively as a facilitator of human rights by promoting civil relations between individuals within society. Also, by urging for compliance with human rights by appealing not to law but to an individual's sense of compassion for others, human rights is recast as a product of human benevolence rather than a right or an entitlement. Finally, saturating the public discourse around human rights with routine everyday matters such as a yielding one's seat on a bus or train to a senior citizen can leave little room to consider more serious human rights concerns.

Contrary to a "soft" approach, the "hard" approach adopted by the United States can be characterized as follows:

  • human rights perceived primarily as a legal concern
  • relatively less public discourse concerning domestic human rights issues
  • relatively few attempts to generate youth-friendly formulations of human rights or design activities to elicit the participation of the general public
  • a heavy emphasis on punishment when violations found
  • relatively less emphasis on remedial and pre-emptive measures such as education
  • relatively little interest in promoting self-reflection among the American public. In fact, the violations which tend to attract the attention of the U.S. are those which transpire in other countries.

While a hard approach has the advantage of employing legal codes to address human rights abuses, it shares a similar flaw with the soft approach of Japan. Namely, the role of the state as a potential transgressor of human rights is ignored. Rather, attention is focused almost exclusively overseas to what are believed to be the most egregious infringements on individual freedoms. There is little evidence of widespread public debate over human rights concerns; the general population seems happy to entrust such matters to elected officials. There is little concern with domestic human rights issues because whatever problems exist, an unshakable faith in vague "American values" dismisses them as aberrations rather than systemic problems. Finally, one can discern what might be called hyper-legality or a belief that a problem has been solved if there is a legal code to address it. Such a narrow approach works well in some cases,

particularly those with civil or political rights at stake, but this can also prove to be insufficient for addressing more complicated matters such as social or economic rights, rights often ignored in the U.S. The Buraku Liberation Movement has begun to map out a way to strike a balance between the "soft" and "hard" approaches outlined above and also find equilibrium between civil, political, social and economic rights. Within Japan, various forms of protest and ad hoc processes have been adopted to expand accountability beyond the level of individual perpetrators and try to hold various levels of the government accountable for instituting measures to halt routine human rights violations. For example, an examination of denunciation sessions such as the one to condemn the employment discrimination practiced by an Osaka company in 1999 reveals a close coordination between protesters and the local government which attended the denunciation proceedings and, based on information disclosed, sanctioned the company for violating local ordinances.

Moreover, the BLM has managed to pursue a political agenda which has helped stimulate the responsiveness of local government officials for protecting social and economic rights. One of the things which impressed me most during my research within Osaka was how successfully the local chapter of the BLL harnessed its political power to achieve concrete gains for local residents. In the truest spirit of human rights, local does not refer exclusively to the residents of the Buraku area. Rather, increasingly the resources of the community are made available to all who have a genuine need. In addition to hammering out a political agenda which balances social and economic rights with civil and political ones, the BLM has already begun the challenge of transforming society with an eye toward establishing policies for the benefit of all. As this process continues, it is something else which I believe can be a beacon of hope to social movements across the globe which struggle with achieving long-term change and having a lasting impact

by radically changing society for the better.

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