Buraku & “Multicultural Japan”


A review of Working through Skin: Making Leather, Making a Multicultural Japan. By JOSEPH DOYLE HANKINS.

Joseph Hankins explores contemporary Buraku efforts to achieve a new status under international human rights mandates as subjects of occupation- and descent-based discrimination, and therein to push for uptake of the notion that Japan now constitutes a “multicultural state.” Buraku refers to a community whose historical and contemporary bases of association cannot be adequately circumscribed by pre-existing rubrics of race, ethnicity, class, culture, or caste. Instead Buraku belonging – stemming from Japan’s feudal era caste system and earlier social stratification – is culled from a complex of interrelated factors including spatial location (i.e., place of residence or origins), genealogy, and labor in meat and leather production.

Drawing from 24-months of ethnographic fieldwork in a leather tannery, a non-governmental organization, and global solidarity work with Buraku activists internationally, Hankins argues that Buraku is not an a priori category. Rather, to produce Buraku requires labor. The material practices and symbols signifying Buraku in Japanese society, Hankins argues, must be read in concert to understand how this social category has shifted throughout Japanese and movement history.

The first section compares the work performed by the NGO International Movement Against All Forms of Discrimination and Racism (IMADR) that presents Buraku as a Japanese minority group with the bodily labor of tannery workers who come to signify Buraku to visiting UN delegations. Next, Hankins outlines Buraku liberation movement history toward assessing how feudal era Buraku identity has evolved from an ascribed category marked by clothing, occupation, and location of residence to an invisible stigma. Painful experiences of discrimination have driven many Buraku to relocate or switch occupations in an effort to pass as majority Japanese. The Buraku Liberation League (BLL) maintains that rejecting one’s Buraku identity merely perpetuates this discriminatory system. They seek to transcend the social stratification embedded in Japanese society and aim for “complete liberation” (p. 84). The focus on stigma enables Hankins to expand on Erving Goffman’s typology of stigma and inquire how the structure of stigma responds when indices of stigma become illegible both to the stigmatized and the discriminating majority.

Chapter three analyzes the various public audiences to whom Buraku human rights and anti-discrimination messaging is addressed. The Buraku liberation movement has historically confronted organizations and individuals who exhibited prejudice with denunciation sessions (kyūdankai) intended to inculcate sensitivity. Companies found as perpetrators of systematic discrimination against Buraku in hiring or otherwise have been compelled to mandate employee attendance at human rights forums. Yet, coercing salarymen to attend human rights symposia is no guarantee that the message reaches its intended public, and Hankins observes that most of these attendees slept soundly through these forums. Despite its initial success, denunciation came to be perceived as overly confrontational and led to an image of Buraku people as “frightening” (p. 184). Denunciation tactics are now complimented by “social education” as a strategy “to inoculate people against such a discriminatory consciousness, providing them with the knowledge to prevent discrimination from happening in the first place” (p. 182). BLL leaders envision these approaches as more effective in cultivating a more sympathetic public.

Chapter four, one of the seminal chapters in the dissertation, addresses the evolution of Buraku legislative strategy and tracks the shift of lobbying efforts to a conscious re-positioning as human rights issues focused on the international legal arena. In 2002, together with South Asian Dalit counterparts, Buraku groups successfully lobbied the United Nations sub-committee on Human Rights to introduce “Discrimination based on Work and Descent” as a new category to be monitored by UN instruments. In this effort Buraku organizations also sought the mandate of UN agencies to pressure the Japanese government into introducing anti-discrimination legislation. Fellow Japanese minorities, like the Indigenous Ainu, have similarly applied the sanction of UN norms in pushing the Japanese government to recognize them as “Indigenous peoples.” But these achievements also require compromise. Here Hankins describes Buraku organizations’ response to a UN questionnaire on occupation- and descent-based discrimination and evaluates how experiences of discrimination must be flattened or repackaged to make this category speak to commonalities shared by Buraku and communities beyond.

In his fifth chapter, Hankins continues his analysis of Buraku solidarity-building efforts, travelling together with a group of Buraku to Chennai, India, to visit Dalit “outcaste” communities. The journey to India provided an opportunity for Buraku to articulate their own identities, but also to build solidarity with Dalit and, as Hankins argues, to re-fashion Japan as a multicultural nation. This chapter illuminates this “moment of self-constitution” (p. 232) together with challenges to narrating a shared identity as stigmatized peoples. The Buraku group makes sense of the extreme poverty of contemporary Dalit life by situating this as a remnant from “our grandparents’ time” (273). Placing the Dalit present in a narrative of “linear progression” enabled Buraku to render it commensurate with their experiences. But this solidarity work is not seamless; cases of intra-caste violence confound linguistic translation and efforts to emphasize commonalities. Responding to theorists of horizontal activism and minor transnationalism, including Arjun Appadurai, Françoise Lionnet and Shu-mei Shih, Hankins calls for critical analysis of the actual labor requisite to constructing ties rooted in grassroots solidarity work.

In this eloquently woven dissertation that deftly culls arguments from a wealth of ethnographic moments, Hankins invites readers to consider labor as a viable site of multicultural identity in Japan. Buraku liberation organizations, as he describes, have appropriated global human rights discourse and forged personas rooted in labor-based discrimination to align themselves with outcaste communities elsewhere. They have also collapsed distinctions such as spatial, occupational, and hereditary markers that shape the contours of Buraku belonging in Japanese society. Literature on Japanese multiculturalism has tended to reify Japan as inherently multiethnic to vilify the postwar “myth of Japanese homogeneity.” In this contribution, the significance of Hankins’ insight lies in his cautionary premise that to achieve validity and widespread recognition as a multicultural subject demands work and that even pre-existing categories such as race, ethnicity, caste, and culture are not axiomatic, but must be examined and contextualized as historical objects.

ann-elise lewallen
Assistant Professor
Department of East Asian Languages and Cultural Studies
University of California, Santa Barbara

Primary Sources

Fieldwork: Apprenticeship in a leather tannery and an internship with an international NGO; interviews; teaching English classes, attendance at UN conferences on “Discrimination based on Work and Descent” and the World Social Forum in Nairobi, and participation in study tours with Buraku in India.

Dissertation Information

University of Chicago, 2009. 308 pp. Primary Advisors: Susan Gal, Elizabeth Povinelli, Norma Field.

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