Becoming Burakumin

Toward the end of the 1960s, some way outside of the Kitayama Buraku, O city, there was an old air-raid shelter. It was no more than a ditch at the foot of a mountain. A woman lived inside it, with her children. Still in those days, some people who had lost their homes in WWII were living informally, on river banks, and so on. Most of Japanese society had recovered, and took no notice of those who hadn’t been so fortunate. Nobody knew the circumstances of the air-raid shelter woman—not even the number of her children. Neither did she tell, even when questioned. Her birth and her life were mysterious. Only later on was her name revealed to be Otaka-san.

One day, Mr. Ishitani, secretary general of a BLL branch, visited Otaka-san. He proposed to move her into public housing. “This is a terrible environment for your children,” he told her. “I will do my best for you and your children. Please. You may ask me anything.” Mr. Ishitani was well-reputed locally as a leader of the human rights movement.

Otaka-san did not take his offer well. She screamed at her would-be benefactor. “Why should I take help from Eta!?”

Back at his office, Mr. Ishitani and his coworkers marvelled. “That’s how bad Buraku discrimination is. Even in her poor situation, she still finds herself able to despise us.”

A little later, Otaka-san accepted an invitation from the city to move into an apartment. This apartment was constructed as part of an affirmative action program in the Kitayama Buraku. Otaka-san did not know it, but Mr. Ishitani was the one who prompted the city to invite her. His commitment to help her and her children was sincere.

Otaka-san moved in with her two children, a boy and a girl. Her behavior was reckless and erratic. In summer, she used to go out in her underwear. Her apartment was always filled with garbage. Kindly neighbours tried to help, but they were repaid with abusive language. “Hey, fuck you! Kitayama’s Eta! What are you doing? Shove it!” I myself have witnessed such scenes. The neighbours endured it patiently for the sake of the poor children.

Those children grew up. From their teachers, neighbors in the Buraku, and the local BLL leader, they learned empathy. That girl, now a woman, married and moved away. Her brother, also married, still lives in the Buraku. He works with the BLL, delivering the Liberation Paper. His neighbors consider him a brother and an honorary Burakumin.

Otaka-san remarried and moved to a different neighbourhood. She seemed to be happy. She never understood her children’s affinity for the Buraku. Especially a mystery was her son’s support for the BLL, and his willingness to take the mantle of Burakumin. More than 50 years have passed since this family came to the Kitayama Buraku. It has been a good case study. We have seen how a man can become Burakumin, who was once non-Burakumin.

I have previously written about Masae-san from Kagoshima. She also became Burakumin from non-Burakumin. Her children are thankful for her decisions. Certainly, in both cases, discrimination from the general public was significant. But it was not enough to break these individuals. And they are hardly alone. Historically, many people have become Burakumin, finding value and meaning in Buraku life.

At the same time, not everyone can just “become” Burakumin. It is not quite as simple as that.

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