Timothy Amos on what inspired him to embark on the complex study of the Burakumins in his book ‘Embodying Difference: The Making of Burakumin in Modern Japan’ and the pitfalls of cultural homogeneity.
What sort of research went behind this book considering the ten and half years that you put into it?
I actually first went to Japan to study in early 1995 intending to focus on the history of the imperial institution and the role of the Meiji Emperor in Japan’s remarkable modern transformation. It wasn’t long after arriving in Japan though, that I began to realise that an equally important historical problem existed in Japanese history: the Burakumins. I was so intrigued to learn that Japan, in older times, had something akin to a caste system (called in Japanese mibunseido or ‘status system’) and that it was possible to study aspects of this in detail through extant historical documents.
I spent the first two years of my stay in Japan reading about the status system in Japanese and trying to learn how to decipher the historical documents that would give me a better understanding of this system in its most pronounced, early modern form. Thanks to the tutelage of some fine Japanese history professors working at universities in north-eastern Japan, as well as the kind assistance of some of my fellow graduate students, I slowly acquired the ability to read for myself about the lives of early modern Japanese outcaste communities using original source materials. With the help of some archival staff and local government officials, I was even able to meet the descendants of one of the communities I was studying in Saitama prefecture (near Tokyo). I spent a day walking around the area where they lived, and speaking to members of the family who had descended from the early modern village head. I think this was probably the time when the small fire in my belly for this research problem began to rage out of control.
I returned to study in Australia (my country of birth) in 2002 after a brief stint of working in Japan and continued to research this problem at The Australian National University under a teacher who encouraged me to try to examine it from new angles and fresh perspectives. She encouraged me to engage with and learn from a range of experts including scholars working on indigenous Australian and caste history. Her encouragement led me to try to think about Buraku history outside of the box, as well as through a comparative lens. With this kind of encouragement, I again embarked on a lengthy fieldwork stint in Japan in 2003. Trying to examine this new material in fresh ways led to my first journal publication which eventually caught the eye of my publisher Anand from Navayana Press who made contact and discussed the possibility with me of doing a book on Burakumin.
By this time I had moved to my current position in the Department of Japanese Studies at the National University of Singapore and I eventually submitted a manuscript that used some of my older research but also new material I collected during two subsequent fieldwork trips to Japan in 2007 and 2009. Probably the most exciting experiences I had during these later trips was meeting members of Buraku liberation organisations as well as researchers and museum curators in both Tokyo and Osaka and hearing firsthand about their research and experiences.
What inspired you to take up the project?
As I mentioned earlier, I went to Japan in the mid-1990s in order to study the emperor system. This was, I think, inspired in no small part by listening to my father talk about ‘the Mikado’ when I was young and growing up in a house which had been a US military hospital during the Second World War. My main interests an undergraduate had been to try to ascertain why so many Japanese people had remained uncritical of the imperial institution in the period of history from the end of the 19th through to the middle of the 20th centuries.
At the same time, however, being born and raised in northeast Queensland and the Darling Downs in Australia, I think I was quite late in realising how vibrant a multicultural society, Australia really was. After moving to Brisbane for my undergraduate studies, I became quite excited by my new ‘discovery,’ and took to the study of Japan and Asia with a vengeance. I actively surrounded myself with people who took great pride in Australia’s diversity and actively chased opportunities to make friends with exchange students from Japan and other Asian countries. But one of the striking ironies that arose out of my attempt to embrace difference was that my Japanese friends consistently portrayed Japan to me as a closed, monocultural, homogenous society where it was basically impossible for an outsider to ‘belong’. This was despite the fact that individually I could see that my friends’ personalities, tastes, desires and dialects all betrayed considerable difference. It wasn’t until I reached Japan that I really began to understand just how diverse Japan really was particularly in relation to language, local customs and food culture. Spending seven years in the north-eastern region of Japan taught me a great deal about how people at all levels in Japanese society actually learnt to suppress discussion of their differences and were encouraged to represent sameness when communicating with outsiders about their everyday lives. Of course, a host of institutions including the various levels of government also play a big part in this.
My discovery of the Buraku problem during my first few months studying in Japan was quite exciting for me because I quickly discovered that telling people what I was interested in usually elicited strong responses. People frequently told me either that the Buraku problem wasn’t a problem in their part of the world (and therefore I should move to Osaka), or that the Buraku problem itself was no longer a serious problem in present day Japan. It seemed to me that open refusal to acknowledge the existence of a problem or outright denial of the relevance of my research were extremely good reasons for sticking to my guns and pursuing my studies (especially given the predilection to discourses of homogeneity and monocultural-ism in Japan). Much of my subsequent work on Burakumin has been about recognising and understanding diversity within Japan, investigating the ways dominant contemporary discourses of cultural homogeneity and social cohesion mask the real divisions which exist in that society.
How have the Burakumins evolved over the years? Are the issues faced by Burakumin now and then, similar? What sort of discrimination is being faced by these communities in the present?
Your readers may or may not know this but the group of people generically referred to as Burakumin are usually said to be descendants of Japan’s pre-modern outcaste communities. They are said to have emerged due to a combination of factors which include state discrimination and sustained discriminatory practices against them based on ignorance and prejudice surrounding their occupations as well as ideological manipulation. The argument that I put forward in the book, however, is that this kind of explanation tends to raise more questions than it answers for the thoughtful historian. As my own study of early modern outcaste communities and the modern Buraku problem continued, I began to realise that the history I was discovering in the records appeared quite different to the above story which pervaded the expansive Japanese language literature and was being uncritically adopted in the sparse English language literature on the topic. Without going into the specifics here (you will find them all in the book), I found ample evidence during the course of my research to suggest that this dominant narrative about Burakumin– that Burakumin were the descendants of former outcaste groups who had engaged in stigmatised occupations – explained the experiences of some people but not everybody and therefore had limited explanatory value. In the book, therefore, I began to develop the idea that the Burakumin had been the focus of an extensive yet strikingly homogenous body of Japanese language research. The master narrative in much of this work typically linked Burakumin to pre-modern occupational groups which engaged in a number of socially polluting tasks like tanning and leatherwork. The master narrative, however, when subjected to close scrutiny, raised more questions than it answered. Plenty of counter evidence existed, showing that the idea of firm historical continuity between pre-modern outcaste and post war Burakumin communities was a bit suspect. The nature of discrimination experienced by historic and contemporary outcaste communities was also quite different. I also saw the ways Burakumin activitists had framed their own experiences in recent decades, moreover, as something that significantly affected mainstream understandings of their plight (although this point was seldom, if ever, acknowledged in the literature). I went on to argue that a fundamental re-conceptualisation of the Buraku problem was required. I argued that by continually drawing a straight line between pre-modern outcaste groups and today’s Burakumin, and equating the types of discrimination suffered by them both, the Japanese government, the general population, scholars and Burakumin activists tended to overlook some of the real changes that had often taken place both in who is identified as members of socially marginalized groups in Japan and how they experience that identification. Clinging to this master narrative, moreover, I argued, served to restrict the ways in which Burakumin could, productively and more inclusively, identify, in the present, a liberated future for themselves in a changing Japan.
I think my book in essence is a historical account of the contingent nature of Buraku identity in Japan. Based on original archival materials, ethnographical research, and critical historiographical work, I try to reveal widespread empirical, conceptual, and ideational problems concealed within the common framework of Buraku history. I argue that it is perhaps more profitable to see ‘Burakumin’ as a kind of 20th century discourse which subsumed many different bodies of people under the same label for a variety of different reasons which need to be analyzed historically. The latter half of the book attempts to show that using a number of examples.
Why is the subject of Burakumin not spoken about much in the mainstream media?
There are doubtless many reasons why the Burakumin are not spoken about all that much in the mainstream media. One commonly stated reason you hear is that the mainstream media is actually quite reluctant to talk about this issue because when they have done so in the past, they have sometimes been criticised (rightly or wrongly) by Buraku liberation organisations for the way they have handled the reportage. Over time, media outlets probably decided to self-censor, reaching a tacit consensus among themselves that it was safer for them to avoid taking up the problem at all than to incur the wrath of activists through accusations that they were handling the problem improperly. This kind of explanation, however, strikes me as really one-sided. The decision not to talk about the Buraku problem in the mainstream media is in many ways a convenient excuse to avoid talking about this important social issue, openly and publicly. I think to some extent it is a justification mobilised to absolve mainstream media agencies from having to address the very real and difficult issues related to Buraku discrimination in everyday life. The fact that there are only relatively few journalists willing to risk opening themselves up to intense scrutiny and criticism in reporting on this issue is a sad reflection of the state of mainstream news reporting in contemporary Japan.
Buraku activists, moreover, rightly talk about a disturbing lack of media interest in their plight – something that a handful of journalists from the more progressive Japanese newspapers have tried to address over time. Things are slowly changing through their efforts though, and I think particularly in the last 5 to 10 years, there has been increasing reportage on the Buraku problem in the mainstream media. Some of this has been extremely positive: in one well-known case in Tokyo, mainstream newspapers assisted (after prompting) in the reporting of a case of discrimination in an attempt to catch the perpetrator who was still at large.
Some of the developments in media reporting have also been quite disturbing, however. Occasions when reporters or television commentators have used their privileged position to engage in ‘Buraku bashing’ have become more conspicuous in my opinion. In one case which my friend alerted me to, a few years back, a quite famous media celebrity in Japan ranted for about six minutes on a morning news programme about a scandal related to a person with a Buraku liberation background without even ever mentioning the word Buraku. It was ‘Buraku bashing’ but very cleverly concealed. After watching a replay of this morning programme, I thought that one really had to have their wits about them when they watched mainstream news in Japan.
Does the way Burakumin frame their experiences, significantly affect mainstream understandings of their plight?
Burakumin have commonly framed their experiences in light of what I call their ‘ideational concerns.’ By this, I simply mean that people have tended to understand the Buraku problem in overly straightforward terms in the past – as a story about a historical form of discrimination directed against particular people linked by familial lineage or geographical location and grounded in ancient stereotypes about particular occupations. Such an understanding of the Buraku problem, however, overlooks the fact that the people usually doing the narrating are people who for one reason or another ‘invested’ in the narrative and predisposed to doing all they can to maintain its integrity and to deliver it untainted to a target audience. Scholars have tended to overlook and downplay this important feature of the Buraku problem and as a result, a relatively uniform understanding of the problem has emerged both in and outside of Japan which has significantly affected the ways people have come to understand the Buraku problem. I think therefore it is vitally important to understand that many of the texts people read on Burakumin have been written by people who are members of particular liberation organisations and who frame the problem in ways which conform to their experiences and understandings of the kind of treatment they face. It is my contention in the book that understanding the ideational concerns of Burakumin (and of course non-Burakumin) gives us other ways to understand the experiences of people who encounter distinctive forms of discrimination and may perhaps even open up the potential for us to conceptualise new ways of conceiving of Buraku history and developing strategies for liberation.
What do you think about the plight of Hiromu Nonaka, whose further advancement in the Japanese cabinet was blocked because he was a descendant of a class of outcasts?
Hiromu Nonaka did once allegedly tell another government official that he came from a Buraku background, although to the best of my knowledge, I cannot find an instance when he openly repeated this statement publicly after he began to really emerge as a force on the national political scene. It is worth remembering, too, that this is certainly not a declaration that is empirically testable in any absolute way and that Nonaka did maintain his distance from the major Buraku liberation organisations during his career. I have not read the book where Nonaka is alleged to have disclosed his background, although I am unaware that ‘the fact’ of his birthplace has been repeated countless times since and has been used to discriminate against him and to break up the momentum of his political activities, even allegedly by senior politicians in the same party. Regardless of the veracity of all of this, what these things tell me, by the very fact that they are raised as points of discussion, is that the terms of the debate about what constitutes a capable leader in Japan have really not shifted all that much over time – something, I think, which is to be expected in Japan’s conservative and highly insular political scene.
Are you aware of the Dalits? If yes, would you be able to draw a comparison between them?
Before working on the book, I think, I really only had a very superficial understanding of the situation Dalits are facing in contemporary India. Of course, I had read bits and pieces in the past, but I think the information I had was out-of-date and quite skewed. One of the absolute pleasures I derived out of working on this book with my editor Anand, was being given the opportunity to correct some of my misconceptions and engage with high quality scholarship and reportage on issues facing Dalit communities. I began to think more seriously about the problem of how one should go about comparing the plight of Burakumin and Dalits. In the introduction to my book, I offer a brief outline of some of the similarities and differences between the two groups and suggest that there are ample reasons for scholars to embark on more sustained comparative scholarship in the future. I argue, for example, that there is clearly meaning in the fact that historical outcaste groups in pre modern Japan were compared to their Indian counterparts by their historical contemporaries, and that there is deep significance in the fact that on occasion, pre modern outcaste groups in Japan linked their own roots through mythical genealogies to the subcontinent. The conclusion to my book also offers more suggestions for fertile areas for comparative scholarship between experts in Japan and South Asia, in particular the role of Marxism and radical thought in the development of the 20th century outcaste liberation movements around Asia, as well as the potential similarities in the methodologies of scholars working on the historical aspects of their respective problems in both countries.
What similarity, in the social and political structure of both the countries (India and Japan), fluxes out this section of untouchable society according to you?
This is a very important but incredibly difficult question to answer. I think my book provides one solid platform for scholars to be able to begin to do work that will enable them to make sensible observations about these issues. In the past, scholars have often been content to superficially note the relative absence of a religion in one context compared to the other, or to offer explanations based on a quite superficial reading of important laws and texts in each context. I hope that the era of this kind of scholarship is now over and that researchers from all backgrounds can begin to work together on the comparative aspects of caste and status systems in Asia and beyond. I think a big part of this process will be bringing together specialists from around the world and securing the funding to make this kind of joint research possible. In order for this to happen, I think we need to secure more recognition that this kind of research is critical because it promises to tell us so much about the historical makeup of both societies. I certainly aim to be a part of this process and it is my desire to foster a scholarly community which can begin to make informed comparisons about this issue that continues to affect so many people.
Can the societies in both the countries learn from each other’s treatment of the issue?
The short answer is both yes and no, although here I am not sure that it is altogether useful to think about this problem strictly in national terms. I do think it is a truism to say that by reading about another situation and comparing it to our own, we often bring the true nature of a problem, action, or attitude into stark relief. And of course, there is an important sense in which these problems are ‘national’ – a point quickly demonstrated when one looks at legal documents penned about these problems in both contexts. I do think reading good research on the Buraku problem in India (and on India in Japan) will doubtless provide many Indians with opportunities to learn something new about their own situation while learning about another group’s struggle. But I also think, a study of the problems in both contexts, reveals that the positive effects of such activities will also depend to a considerable extent on who is doing the reading and for what purpose. After all, isn’t it the case that institutions and individuals often rely on good research to do things that are ultimately detrimental to the people most severely affected by discrimination? Based on my work on Burakumin to date, I am of the opinion that the ability to truly resolve this problem first hinges on a seismic shift in the hearts and minds of people who embrace identities rooted in poorly conceived, grossly misguided, or self-seeking first fundamentals.