Japan's Outcastes

Japan's Underclass: Dowa

Two of the great taboos in Japanese society are the Imperial system and the country's underclass, now euphemistically known as dowa shushin (literally "from the dowa area," which refer to the areas in Japanese cities and rural areas where this underclass was forced to live.

For the Imperial family and anything connected with it, newspapers use only the most polite verb forms and honorifics when writing about, for example, Princess Masako.

If they did not, the fascist right would at the very least stir itself into a frenzy, park its massive black sound tracks in front of the paper's Tokyo offices, blare martial music and pro-Emperor rants at ear-splitting levels, and demonstrate for days on end--with only mild police interference. Violence and mayhem would also like occur; an Asahi Shinbun newspaper reporter was murdered by suspected rightists in the paper's Kobe office fifteen years ago, and the crime has yet to be solved.

Sayama Incident Sign, Kyoto.
Sayama Incident sign in Kyoto.
Dowa van Nagoya.
Jiyu Dowa-kai van in Nagoya.

The second taboo concerns the dowa. These are the descendants of those who did work in the past perceived of as unclean--work with corpses, tanning, leather, etc.--and were outside of Japan's class system of samurai, farmers, and merchants.

They were referred to as "non-human" for centuries--and treated accordingly, confined to live for example in set aside areas, primarily in the low-lying, flood prone plains. The dowa are neither linguistically nor physically different from other Japanese. Their names are normal Japanese names. The only thing that distinguishes them is their address.

Following the beginning of a liberation movement after World War Two, a group was formed to lobby for the end of discrimination and come to their defense: the Buraku Liberaton League (BLL). (The dowa came to be referred to as burakumin--people from the "village"--in the Meiji Period.)

While the Japanese government, in 1993, officially recognized 4,442 such communities with 298,385 households and a population of 892,751, the BLL argues that another 1,000 dowa exist, and that would make the population more than two million, or roughly 2% of the population of Japan.

The main reason for the difference is that the government only counts areas in which it has initiated projects called dowa taisaku--sewers, school programs, affirmative action, public housing--to improve the lot of the burakumin.

In spite of the above affirmative action programs, the rate of poverty is higher than for non-dowa and discrimination today is still strongly felt, mainly in Kansai in Kyushu. It occurs primarily in employment and marriage. Unofficial lists identifying burakumin have been found to exist and are circulated.

Companies are said to buy them to weed out possible job applicants; private eyes are hired to check into the background of potential spouses who may be trying to pass as "normal." In 2004, a Japanese friend in Nara contacted me with a request.

Her daughter had become engaged to a man from south Kyoto. The area just south of Kyoto Station is a large traditional dowa area. Since the friend is from Nara, which is close to Kyoto and also has many such areas, she knew south Kyoto was "you know, a bit dodgy, a bit dirty"; unlike someone from Kyoto, though, she did not know the exact area, street by street. Thus, she contacted me to have "someone in Kyoto" confirm for her. When shown the address, an older neighbor I have known for many years replied, "Yes, it is a dowa area, but don't tell the mother--and tell the couple not to live there."

Though their lot has improved--in Kyoto for example certain jobs (city bus drivers, employees in ward offices, and the water department) give preferential hiring to burakumin, and day care centers provide special services to dowa children--many avenues to success are still closed.

Not surprisingly, then, membership in Japanese organized crime draws heavily from these and Korean neighborhoods. (There is a horrible irony in the fact that most nationalistic groups in Japanese society--the yakuza and the pro-Emperor thugs--are often outcastes from mainstream society.)

In Kyoto, the major department stores--Takashimaya, Daimaru, Isetan--all hire retired high-ranking cops to work as the number two man, just below the store manager. Their work consists primarily of cost-control, which means fraud prevention. Much of this originates in organized crime, and some from the outcaste community.

In Osaka, in another example, the leader of the Asuka-kai--a Buraku Liberation League support group--scammed the city over the course of thirty years out of millions of dollars thanks to the special treatment afforded his construction and parking lot business.

City officials up to and including the mayor and the large banks involved all knew, and, until the man's arrest in May, 2006, never said a word because this was part of a "de facto buraku preferential policy," according to one former city councilman.

The way the scam worked was that the city would bypass normal bidding procedures on building and road projects through "discretionary contracts" to nongovernmental human rights organizations: i.e., dowa-owned construction firms. According to the Yomiuri Shinbun newspaper, these contracts had totaled 830 million yen ($7.5 million) since March 2002, when the original affirmative action law designed to help dowa was repealed by Osaka as being no longer necessary. A second reason no one ended the payments was because the 72-year-old leader was considered "scary."

And indeed he probably was. This was because of his known underworld ties. Many of these "projects" involved work with Yamaguchi-gumi, the largest yakuza group in Japan, and its subsidiaries. A former boss of the crime syndicate once surmised that "half of us are from the buraku, another 30% are Korean." And thus the payments from the city continued.

The BLL, which in the past could be intimidating--centuries of oppression will do that--has as of late May, 2006, yet to officially react. Unlike the predictable caravan of black sound trucks filled with mindless young men with buzz cuts bellowing slogans out of loudspeakers whenever the Emperor is "insulted," however, the BLL recently has tended to be more subtle.

What Osaka and its police are doing though is enforcing the law as it is written, which was in itself a taboo until now. How the BLL will react will signal the future of relations between the state and the outcaste community.

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