Social OutcastsBy TIM LARIMER and TOKO SEKIGUCHI Wednesday, Mar. 28, 2001They are Japan's untouchables. A minority group discriminated against while living on the fringes of society.
They are burakumin, or "village people." They may look like other Japanese, speak the same language, eat the same foods and wear the same clothes, but prejudice is always close. And the absence of any information -- and fear of discussion -- about this invisible group serves to perpetuate the prejudice, leaving people to spout untruths and rumors: that burakumin are physically deformed, for example.
The burakumin existed, informally, as a social class as far back as the 6th century, but they were shunted to the bottom of a five-tier caste system during the Tokugawa period (1600-1867), also known as the Edo period. Considered social outcasts, they were typically butchers, tanners and waste-handlers. Japan's Meiji transformation in the late 19th century opened up the country to the outside world, yet the burakumin still exist -- as does the discrimination they suffer.
In Japan, few people are willing to talk about the burakumin. The mainstream media go to great lengths to avoid any discussion of the group, and code words are more the norm. An article about someone thought to be a burakumin, for example, might describe him as someone who likes to attend the dog races. Why the queasiness? The burakumin scare many people.
Justified or not, some burakumin have a reputation for responding to public discussion about them, whether it's on television or in a magazine, with behavior that borders on harassment. "When I talked about burakumin on a TV show," says one reporter, who, predictably, doesn't want his name used, "the station was flooded with calls, day and night, from people wanting my home phone number."
There is one place, however, where talk about the burakumin is freewheeling and unfettered. That place is the Internet. Here, of course, people don't worry about a backlash because they can be anonymous. Channel 2 is a website that hosts many discussion groups -- with topics ranging from food recipes to erotica -- including one on the burakumin. Messages posted on the site include "Tell me the names of burakumin in the entertainment industry" and "Buraku can't intimidate me." There has also been a lengthy discussion about political heavyweight Hiromu Nonaka's burakumin ties.
Says Shigeshi Tabata, who runs an independent, on-line watchdog group called Network Against Discrimination and for Research on Human Rights: "The reason people want this information is to discriminate against people. Policing what is said on the Internet is of course difficult -- and controversial. Tabata has contacted Channel 2's Webmaster about the burakumin postings that he believes to be inflammatory. "I believe he is aware of the problem," Tabata says. "But that was in 1999, and the burakumin names are still posted. Because people can post their comments anonymously, they aren't accountable. Monitoring bulletin boards is an eternal cat-and-mouse chase."
(In the 1960s and '70s, pamphlets were published that listed the addresses and neighborhoods known to be inhabited by burakumin. Family names were also printed. These pamphlets were used by companies, including some of Japan's blue-chip businesses, to weed out burakumin when hiring employees, and by families to investigate the background of potential husbands and wives for their children. In 1975, Japan banned those publications, but the lists are now are popping up on the Channel 2 bulletin boards.)
Hiroyuki Nishimura, a 24-year-old computer consultant, is Channel 2's Webmaster. The site, which launched in May 1999, gets some 15 million hits a day, he says. Hiroyuki is defensive about the material on the site, and says it is impossible for him to police every message that is posted. "Right now, very few things on the Internet are regulated by Japanese law," he says. "For instance, it's not illegal for high school girls to post their cell phone numbers on-line for 'enjo kosai' (teenage prostitution). We actively delete these. But for other things, we don't have the manpower to be actively looking for offensive or unethical and immoral postings." Besides, he says, he is uncomfortable with the notion of censorship. "If you regulate what is said on places like Channel 2, that's fascism. I just provide people a place to discuss issues."
On the one hand, discussion about the burakumin is a good thing. Nowhere in Japan are people allowed to confront stereotypes or even ask questions about a group of people that rights groups say number as many as 3 million. On the other hand, unfortunately much of the discussion is nothing more than hate-mongering.
Japan's government has passed laws to end discrimination against the group, and has set up special programs to improve burakumin neighborhoods, and improve their children's education. The prejudice, though, persists. "Around me, day to day, it doesn't seem anyone discriminates against me," says Hiroshi Kanto, a burakumin in Kyoto. "But then one day my daughter came home from elementary school and said some other kids' parents told them not to play with her because she is burakumin."
The question now is whether the Internet revolution will help, or hurt the group. Channel 2's Nishimura is optimistic. "One of the discussion threads was a survey about discrimination people experienced, or from the other side, that they imposed," he says. "You can't do that anywhere else but on an anonymous bulletin board. It's the only place for these two opposing voices to communicate."