Osaka Human Rights Museum - Liberty Museum

Liberty Osaka (Osaka Human Rights Museum) - 大阪人権博物館

Alan Wiren

Japan's first human rights museum is in a place that was once, informally, called Kawamachi. Kawa means "leather" in Japanese. Since prehistoric times Shinto (the native religion of Japan) has held anything related to death, including working with animal hides, unclean and repugnant.

Paradoxically, there was no taboo against wearing leather footwear or playing drums with leather heads, and drums produced in Kasamachi were used for ceremonies in the temple, Shitennoji, and Osaka Castle during the 18th century.

Thus while there was a demand for leather goods in Japanese history, the crafts people who created them were relegated to the lowest rank of a rigidly-classed society. They were segregated and denied opportunities that others took for granted. Many of them lived and worked in Kawamachi.

The Liberty Museum, Naniwa-ku, Osaka, Japan
The Liberty Museum, Naniwa-ku, Osaka
The Liberty Museum, Naniwa-ku, Osaka, Japan
The Liberty Museum, Naniwa-ku, Osaka

As you approach the Liberty Museum you will pass by a number of statues of people playing drums, and when you enter, you will find stories of the Burakumin: the class which included executioners, undertakers, and slaughterhouse workers as well as leather workers. And there is much more.

The Liberty Museum was first established in 1985 as Liberty Osaka with the mission of documenting the burgeoning human rights movement in Osaka, which was encouraged by an appeal by Yo Kobota, a Japanese United Nations officer.

For the first ten years of its existence, the museum focused on the Burakumin. In 1995 it was rededicated as the Osaka Human Rights Museum to reflect its expanded mission of promoting awareness of human rights throughout Japan and the world.

It is a place for all ages and some of the things you see or hear may seem trivial - but that can be a good thing, can't it? Early on in my tour, my audio guide explained an exhibit pointing out that some people are attracted to people of the opposite sex, others to the same sex, some to both sexes, and some aren't motivated by sex at all. Other exhibits can be enlightening and moving. Many a visitor to Japan has wondered why the trains and subways have cars reserved for women only. One wall in the museum displays the following explanation.

While riding Osaka's Midosuji Subway Line, a woman scolded two men for touching other women indecently (an infamous crime on these islands). The men grabbed and held her until the train came to its final stop. Then they raped her. The other passengers did nothing to help her.

These two exhibits are part of the first of the museum's three zones called, 'Shining Light'. The others are 'Living Together/Creating Society' and 'Dreams/The Future'. The first two show the diversity of the people, both native and foreign, who live in Japan (with a particular focus on those in the Osaka area) and the discrimination that some have experienced because of their differences from others. The tour ends on a brighter note encouraging us to use the lessons learned to make a better future.

It would be good to set aside an afternoon when you visit. To appreciate the museum's entirety, you need to be literate in Japanese or bring along someone who is. The free audio guide, in English and other languages, gives only a general overview of the themes.

But there are plenty of educational opportunities for the linguistically challenged. The collections are extensive, including examples of various peoples' traditional costumes and crafts, and with video monitors scattered throughout where you can see and hear people tell stories about their cultures, how they sometimes lived with unfair treatment in Japan, and sometimes triumphed over it. The videos in the exhibits are all subtitled in several languages, and there is a separate library of 31 taped interviews that are subtitled in English.

I watched an elderly Ainu woman tell the legend of how the gods let her people survive the winter by turning willow leaves into salmon, Okinawans telling how their traditional musical was suppressed during their lives in Osaka, the tears of a Korean man recalling his son's finger being blackened for compulsory fingerprinting, and the jubilation that followed Korea's release from Japanese colonial rule.

Among the more lighthearted exhibits is a collection of cutout portraits representing different professions in 'Dreams/The Future'. You flip them up to read how to join the profession. Having a fascination with storytelling, I turned up the portrait of a rakugo player. "Find a professional rakugo player," It advised me, "and become an apprentice." Maybe someday it will be just that simple.

Access - how to get to Liberty Museum

Liberty Museum
556-0026 Naniwanishi
Osaka City

Access: JR Loop Line, Ashiharabashi or Imamiya Stations
Open: Tue-Fri, 10am-4pm; Sat 1pm-5pm; Closed on Monday (except holidays) Tuesday after holidays, and New Year Holidays
Admission: ¥250 (special exhibitions ¥500) concessions
Tel: 06 6561 5891 Fax: 06 6561 5995.

Books on Osaka

Recommended books on Osaka include the Offbeat Guide to Osaka and Exploring Osaka: Japan's Second City by David M. Dunfield.

Books on Japan

Goods From Japan to your home or business.